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Sign Off: Multimedia, Multitasking and Mediocre Everything

Apr 19, 2010  •  Post A Comment

By Tom Petner

There’s good news and bad news to report in the homogenization of local TV news.

The good news is who’s getting hired these days in the reporting ranks. And the bad news — well, it’s who’s getting hired these days in the reporting ranks.

Now that many local broadcast news operations are “feeding the beast” 24/7 on three screens — broadcast, Internet and mobile media — the reporters in demand are the generalists and multimedia journalists who can walk, talk, chew gum and shoot, all at the same time.

Where does that leave the era of the specialist? Pretty much dead.

“I can’t remember the last time a client requested a specialty reporter … a medical reporter or a business reporter,” said Barbara Frye, VP of talent placement services at Frank Magid Associates.

“The one specialty I do get requests for is an investigative-type reporter,” said Frye. “That one hasn’t completely died away. They’re looking for someone who does only investigative, so they’re not using them as a hybrid reporter. They want them to devote their full attention to investigations.”

That’s the good news. It’s a no-brainer to see the value of hiring an investigative type to dig for details, ferret out buried records, and chase down the bad guys.

So what about the bad news?

With the demise of specialty reporting, we may be in danger of turning local TV news into “mediocre everything,” a phrase that’s stuck with me after hearing Gil Thelen, the former publisher and president of the Tampa Tribune, used it several years ago to describe the potential danger and downside of media convergence “if we do it badly.”

As specialty reporters fade into oblivion and the generalists take over, are viewers getting an informed and accurate picture of complicated issues from local TV news?

The health care debate stories coming out of broadcast newsrooms are the best example.

Viewers are still confused about the legislation.

While you certainly can’t lay responsibility for that entirely at the doorstep of TV reporters, I suspect few reporters charged with interpreting and reporting on the legislation ever read it, or even skimmed the details.

To hear members of Congress tell it, they had trouble consuming all the information. So do you think local TV reporters understand the bill? I doubt it.

To be fair, who can blame them? What local reporter (or producer) has the time?

“News directors are in an impossible situation. More and more is being demanded of them and their staffs to feed more and more platforms,” said Bob Papper, the journalism chair at Hofstra and the guy who leads RTDNA research. “Newsroom staffs are being cut and resources spread thin … the fewer reporters you have, the less ability you have to make them specialists.”

What’s more troublesome in this new age of the generalist is something a colleague recently observed about TV reporters and the health care issue: “They all say, ‘here is what it means to you,’ but I’m not so sure.”

“I have the same concerns as you to the media content culture changing, and short-changing audiences,” said Michael Sullivan, news director for WJCL-TV and sister station WTGS-TV in Savannah, Ga. “All the reporters are generalists and required to do that along with their specialties. I only hire reporter specialists of two years with a passion for the category I am filling.”

Many stations are dealing with today’s reality by having reporters and anchors handle dual roles. One top 20 news director, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me, “The era of the specialist is partly behind us. I tell reporter candidates the more you can do, the more valuable you are to me,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have beats. We want people with special expertise, but it does mean you might be rushing off to cover a grass fire.”

According to Matthew Hilk, news director at WSMV-TV in Nashville, Tenn., “It’s a tough balance: On the one hand, we all have limited resources and large market areas. On the other hand, expertise is one of the few things that separates us from our viewers. Given the vast — and growing — amount of source material now available to the general public, we need to carry enough expertise to provide viewers context and give them some value above and beyond what they can find from searching press releases on Google.”

In an effort to deal to that “tough balance” and drill down into the content, WSMV has two full-time investigative reporters, one of whom specializes in looking for government waste, and a state capitol reporter who specializes in state government and politics. Additionally, WSMV supports the station’s “Working 4 You” brand with a morning anchor who reports on dayside stories several times each week, focusing on consumer and money pieces. And, in what’s standard operating procedure in many local TV stations, WSMV’s specialists are not immune from covering the day’s hard news.

“Every single one of those specialists is also ready, willing and able to jump into breaking news, severe weather, or whatever else needs to be done, on a moment’s notice,” said Hilk.

While that’s an admirable sentiment, I’m not so sure it’s good for the audience. It could portend the era of mediocre everything in local news.

Tom Petner is an award-winning journalist and media executive. He can be reached at tpetner@gmail.com.

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