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April 10, 2005

CBS News, Case Western Reserve University, and the Future of Converged Media

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The evening news on television is beyond 'tired' and, truth be told, the 50 year old format is near 'expired' as a medium for receiving, framing, and informing the public of developments here and around the world.

Don't believe me? Just ask Al Primo, godfather of the modern newscast developed in the late 50s and early 60s. In this week's New York Times Week in Review Primo is quoted as saying, "I've seen enough research in the kind of work I do to be absolutely 100 percent sure that the evening network newscasts have no relevance to people's lives."

Primo's instincts are to look to converged media as the future. I think he's right but he goes nowhere near far enough to really outline a strategy that will help reinvent broadcast journalism and save what my mother calls the "idiot box." At Case Western Reserve University, together with television industry pioneers and higher education collaborators we are taking the very first steps to a whole new digital world. The results of these early technical efforts may well prove to be the most important prerequisites to a future for broadcast network news.

CBS Chairman, Leslie Moonves, is in a tough spot. Being third out of three among the big broadcast houses can't be fun. While there is a near 100 percent certainty that CBS will try to take on NBC and ABC using the existing rule set, there is an outside chance that CBS might look to innovate and create "new rules" informed by work underway at Case Western Reserve University (and elsewhere) in providing a authentic, trusted, and personalizable presentation of news and opinion using converged media.

The most important principle in the Case Converged Media Over IP initiative is a growing reality facing university faculty all over the world. In the context of the internet-age where news, analysis, and expert opinion are transacted in split seconds with a click of the mouse from from nearly anywhere in the world, we live with new realities in our class rooms. Against the "noise" of the numbing fire hydrant of 24-hour a day "news" channels, the role of the professoriate is changing. Not unlike the post-war news anchor, the 20th century professoriate was viewed by many as a sacred position in our mass psyche serving as the "sage on the stage" (or on the television screen). Trusted and largely uncontested authority in an earlier era of limited news and opinion, both the university and the broadcast industry are under significant pressure to abandon the 20th century. In the era of reality shows like American Idol and the Apprentice, broadcast news and the university professoriate are both being challenged by market forces to "get relevant".

As we learn to dance with the devil called the Internet society in higher education, the 'sage on the stage' is giving way to a new and arguably more important role as 'guide on the side'. And while the university world navigates the meaning of this new role and opportunity, the implications for broadcast news is fascinating and compelling. Abandoning the 'sage on the stage' challenges all kinds of received wisdom including the question of the very business and underlying economics of the broadcast news world.

Following the 19th century newspaper business model, modern television news followed the notion that the business they were in was dispatching talent to the newsworthy stories of the day in an era of relative scarcity of information and knowledge. The 30 minute daily production represented a convergence of the newspaper and the "talkies" from the silver screen. The typical viewer developed a trusted relationship with the news anchor who assured the nightly audience that while they were hard at work, the news team were gathering and developing a digest capturing the zeitgeist of the day. Notwithstanding those who would prefer to try and "recapture" those heady days, the truth is those days are long gone.

Fast forward. Today, the television news room can choose to compete with the abundance of news sources in creating news packages in the context of the information smog enabled by the internet. In my view that model is not economically sustainable for more than two or three networks like CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC. The alternative is to go where no newsroom has gone before. At Case, we think we are at the very beginning of charting the future with our efforts to deliver digitized television content over the campus IntraNet. While definitely cool to see high definition quality video streaming effortlessly across the huge campus network, the real long term value is in what it protends for the future of broadcast news and televised education and public affairs content.

Consider that any given moment in time, we can capture the "pulse" of millions of individuals around the world segmented into key markets through tools like the Google's Zeitgeist engine which captures interesting trends and patterns in googler behaviors. Out of the hundreds of millions of daily searches, google provides the broadcast producer and newsroom executives with some interesting insights on stories to be gathered and contextualized.

For example, a week ago while the broadcast media was "locked in" on the Pope's impending death, Google's #1 story in the U.S. was not the Pope but rather the death of another icon, Mitch Hedberg, whose name and story was largely ignored by the television news anchors. The disconnect could not have been more compelling and dramatic. More compelling still is that this kind of mining tool can be broken out by locality here in the United States or to just about any city or country in the world by simple and automatic tools of search engines like Google.

One reaction to the power of this new technology would be to monitor and dispatch videographers and reporters to carry stories that are hot to the online generations. The "add and mix" answer will provide some producers with a short term fix to the dilemma of the evening news.

In the long run however, while the add and mix formula may extend the value of the old organizational behavior and underlying economics, it will not change the ineluctable trajectory. In order to poised for the future, the news executives must do much more than simply converge radio and television with their web sites. The future is in working to digitize the newsroom and transform the television news industry. Most importantly we need network executives to direct the legal support teams to approve digital rights management tools so that news stories can become digital objects and viewed like the NYTimes, Le Monde, and Guardian newspapers. This is the achilles heal of the entire enterprise and the future of the television news room itself.

The economics and workflow of the industry has made all the local news esentially a harmonized national feed. This is a logical economic reaction to the CNN-effect on all news gathering and reporting. The lack of diversity in programing and news reporting has created an alienating and largely undifferentiated product offering. The results are exactly what we are witnessing. The commodification of news reporting ends up creating a largely indistinct product offering which ends up driving out profit out of a once lucrative product offering (CBS news today is still worth a $100m in advertising). News on television is essentially irrelevant because with a handful of exceptions it does not touch us where we live. Equally confounding is that while digital technology makes possible an unlimited number of stories to be gathered, edited, and made available for local (or even personal) distribution, the national broadcasters are all telling the same 6 or 7 stories a night.

There is value to gathering news stories around the world and from every locality. This will almost assuredly become a specialized, free lance vocation in the digital world. Independent journalist will become digital stringers and as Reuters is now experimenting, these stories can be edited (or re-edited) and uploaded to internet-based production servers at a fraction of the cost of the traditional story gathering methods of the news rooms. In a networked world, there is much less of a compelling reason to connect the gathering of news stories with the distribution and consumption of those stories. Indeed, arguably just the opposite is true.

CBS and other traditional networks need to decide if they are prepared to make a break with the orthodoxy that has shackled them these past 15 years. Now is the time to choose to focus and help create a new generation of value through a transformation into a digital general distribution agency, including broadcast, narrow cast, data, voice, video, and more.

If I am a student from Los Angeles working on my PhD in Cleveland at Case, I should be able to create a digital playlist combining news items of interest from LA and Cleveland, only LA, or only Cleveland or some third location as the basis of my just-in-time news and current events programming. If I am traveling to New York on business I should be able to watch a combination of international news from France and Australia, along with a couple of national stories, and three local stories from here in Cleveland, and indeed, right from my own City of Beachwood, Ohio. Once I authenticate myself in my hotel room on my notebook, my portal or web page should present me with a video stream that I can watch on my notebook or link to my television in my room. If I want to watch "news" stories of interest to persons with like profiles or interest, I can watch my Amazon-Friends news broadcast. If I want to watch stories assembled and endorsed and recommended by my University, my Temple, my AAA, my trade union, or my interest group, I should be able to point and click.

In this new and digital world of story telling, the anchor can and should play a key role in helping provide me with an editorial view and context. Indeed, I could have three or four favorite anchors and ask them to give me their version of the lead-in to the packaged story.

Turning news into digital objects is the analog to our debate within higher education to transforming some of our teaching and learning environments from the standard delivery environment to one that invites deeper reflection, debate, and dialogue. In broadcast news, if we use this formulation we can create a highly personalized "News Hour", if we want to, with guests reacting to a packaged piece. If we prefer the no dialogue version we can simply string together the packages, or just the exchanges.

The first step in this effort must be the digitization of newsroom content and public affairs programming. By Fall 2005, we should have the very first part of this puzzle available to faculty and students. It remains to be seen if this leads us to a brand new world. For the traditional broadcasters, there is no better time to take a great leap forward. It's time to be bold and help re-invent. Universities are an excellent place to experiment.

Posted by lsg8 at April 10, 2005 02:02 PM and tagged Bytes 

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