Who was Fred Friendly?

“The greatest innovator and producer in the history of television journalism.” That’s how Ralph Engelman of Long Island University sums up the late CBS News great Fred Friendly, even as he wonders whether students today have ever heard of him.

Engelman’s new book “Friendlyvision” describes the man who was Edward R. Murrow’s producer on “See it Now” and later president of CBS News as both a pioneer and a wizard. The book makes a convincing case that much of what is good about broadcast news today can be traced directly back to Friendly.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of new technology. During World War II, he embraced the newly-developed wire recorder that could capture sound in the field. Later, he pioneered the use of satellite transmission.

Friendly introduced the concept of cross-cutting in TV news, juxtaposing different points of view in a story by butting interview segments together. And he understood, instinctively, the power of television.

What television does superbly is hold a mirror up to the individual. There is a great difference between what a man says and what he is. Exploring that difference–that’s what television is all about.

You can see Friendly’s influence in programs like 60 Minutes, with its emphasis on interviews. Engelman quotes Bill Moyers as saying that Friendly believed there was “no greater production value than the power of the human face.” And he notes that Murrow and Friendly worked tirelessly to integrate image and text through multiple re-edits.

‘Tighten it up’ became Friendly’s refrain as he aimed to eliminate the extraneous and to heighten the pace and ultimate effect.

Engelman portrays Friendly as a showman whose emphasis on production sometimes concerned his colleagues, who worried about his journalistic ethics. He pioneered the use of hidden cameras in TV news, for example–not an unalloyed innovation.

But Friendly’s enthusiasm and attitude infected all around him. In his later years, he taught at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism and groomed a new generation of influential TV journalists from Tom Bettag to ABC Nightline anchor Cynthia McFadden.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that Friendly will be forgotten. As Moyers puts it, “there are no legacies in television.” But Friendly deserves to be remembered for the impact he had on TV news through the people he touched and the production values he espoused. Engelman’s book paints a portrait of Friendly, warts and all, that should help keep his memory alive.

TV news producing tips

What does it take to be a successful newscast producer? More than you might think. There’s a lot more to producing than just stacking a show. The decisions a producer makes about what stories to run and in what order are important, of course, but only a small part of the job.

Holly Edgell, executive producer at KOMU-TV, says a producer must be a journalist first, but also a coach, timekeeper, ethics watchdog and shoulder to cry on, among other things.

The newscast producer must be meticulous to a fault; a micro-manager to a degree; patient; cool under pressure AND a quick, confident decision maker.  It’s a pretty tall order, and no producer gets everything right all the time.

Edgell oversees producers at the NBC affiliate owned by the University of Missouri. On her News You Can Use blog, she says one of the hardest things for many producers to learn is how to take responsibility for the entire newscast, “even those parts that are not directly your job.”

Basically, that means a producer must connect with everyone on staff who has anything to do with the newscast, from the live truck operators to the meteorologists. But connecting doesn’t mean nagging or giving orders.  Here’s Edgell’s advice for dealing with reporters:

Keep in touch (even if they don’t call you, you call them); provide encouragement; ask if a story angle has changed; remind them of deadlines; ask if they need graphics.  The more your reporters know you are part of their team, the more they’ll be on yours.

In today’s newsrooms, producers have to be leaders. Good leaders know that if you model what you want from others, you just might get it. And if you ask, “How can I help you?” you just might get some help in return.

Is future of news hyperlocal?

The folks behind voiceofsandiego.org, an online news source run as a nonprofit, firmly believe that they way they’ll succeed is by staying focused entirely on San Diego. Could their site and other “hyperlocal” Internet outlets fill the void caused by failing news organizations?

This CNN story does a decent job of reviewing the state of play.

Generally, the people who run hyperlocal Web sites say they are optimistic about the future of the news business. They say they won’t be able to replace all that’s being lost as large news companies crumble but say they are excited about the fact that they’re able to offer something new — at least for the moment.

The long-term economic viability of any of these sites remains an open question. And some critics, like Robert McChesney and John Nichols, say nonprofit news sites are not a solution to the economic problems of news organizations. Writing in The Nation, they call the fixes being tried so far “triage strategies.”

They are not cures; in fact, if there is a risk in them, it is that they might briefly discourage the needed reshaping of ownership models that are destined to fail.

Spot.us founder Dave Cohn, whom we’ve written about before, tells CNN that what journalism needs is “10,000 startups.” And that could easily happen if many of the journalists now out of work decide to try their hand at an Internet news site. According to Paper Cuts, a blog that tracks newspaper layoffs, almost 25,000 print journalists have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2008, not counting job losses on the broadcast side. Sobering, isn’t it?

Doing more with less

Almost every broadcast newsroom in the country is facing the same challenge. How can they continue to produce quality journalism on more screens with fewer people?

“It’s a struggle but we’re doing it as a team,” said Dan Salamone, news director at WOIO-TV, Cleveland, Ohio, at an RTNDA panel I moderated on Tuesday. His newsroom has shrunk from110 people two years ago to 70 people today, but digital technology has helped to fill some of the gap. The station uses Skype for live shots and shares video with a competing station, WKYC-TV, to save on costs.

Staffers who used to do just one job at WOIO now do several. Newscast directors, for example, help out on the assignment desk after completing their duties in the control room. As Salamone put it: “Versatile is valuable.”

At WFIE-TV in Evansville, Indiana, general manager Debbie Bush no longer has a news director; instead, a content manager is responsible for all news and production. The station reviewed all positions and eliminated some in order to put more journalists in the field. They hired some VJs and cross-trained other staffers to make them more productive. Now, news people may run studio cameras while production staffers may shoot news. It’s not only more efficient, “it breaks down walls,” Bush said.

Veteran anchors at WFIE have new duties as well. They’ve been assigned to mentor individual reporters and to approve their scripts. Everyone on the staff is expected to be on Facebook and Twitter, to push news out on multiple platforms. And everyone contributes content, Bush said, even the sales department. That sounds like an ethical quagmire, but the example Bush gave was of a sales person taking pictures of a breaking news story and sending them to the station to post on the Web, just as a citizen might.

One consequence of layoffs and budget cuts is that “the top performers are the ones that are left,” said Steve Jones, vice president and general manager of ABC News Radio, New York. The downside is that many of them are working in fear that they might be the next ones laid off. So managers need to make an even bigger effort to communicate openly with the staff, Jones said, being candid about what the future might bring and offering regular, positive feedback.

Newscast repetition higher than thought?

The Kovsky Miller Media Research firm just released data on the amount of story and topic repetition in newscasts. It may or may not be a surprise to you just how much of the content is rehash.

For the years 2004-2008, the fim looked at more than “2,500 half hours of news and 21,000 stories. Stories were designated as repeat if they were judged as containing no new or additional information in relation to what was reported the first time.”

Looking at newscasts as a whole 47% of local stories get repeated.  Here’s a look at the info broken down by the most important dayparts:

Morning news                    56.7%
Early evening                    30.7%
Prime/late news               46.9%

The researchers also provided some interesting data on the most common types of local stories in the news.  (Another factor contributing to the feel of repetition is similarity of subject matter.)

Crime

51.7%

Education

51.7%

Accident

49.8%

Business/economy

48.2%

Fire coverage

44.2%

Transportation

43.8%

It’s doubtful that the high percentage of crime stories is a shock to many,  but what about the amount of education, business and transportation coverage?  Those percentages are a bit heartening, though the amount of repetition on local news is clearly an issue.  The researchers suggest the repetition may be a particular problem for late newscasts – a time slot that’s vulnerable to people just wanting to go to bed!

In another recent post, we noted a potential trend for stations to drop syndicated programming, filling the time period with newscasts instead.  The amount of repetition is likely to get much worse if there’s no increase in staff to produce content for those shows.

More TV news jobs or just more TV news?

Bloomberg is reporting on what could be a significant trend for local TV stations – they’re dropping syndicated programming and adding more local news.

TV station owners, facing a record drop in advertising, are pushing their news crews to fill expanded schedules, allowing programmers to eliminate more costly syndicated programs such as “Dr. Phil.” In Los Angeles and San Francisco, stations are adding as much as 12 hours of news a week to schedules.

The article also describes a similar move in Detroit, where Fox affiliate WJBK reports ratings are up 65% in the 11 p.m. time slot after the station  replaced “Seinfeld” with news.

…public interest in news is high. This season, the three broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts have increased their audiences 5.9 percent from a year earlier, drawing an average of 24.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

This is all good, right? What we don’t know; however, is whether this additional programming is borne on the backs of an already reduced staff at these stations or will this mean job opportunities? Maybe both? Let us know what you know.

Paying for news stories – is it ever ethical?

There’s no doubt about it; the journalism industry has to reinvent itself to remain viable in a world where the old model of advertising-supported content is unlikely to work. But where should news organizations draw the line?

In Oklahoma, stations KOTV and KWTV are both running stories within their newscasts about a state-sponsored insurance program and getting paid by the state to do it.  According to the Tulsa Word, the stations’ parent company, Griffin Communications, will be paid $3.1 million for marketing “Insure Oklahoma.” 

Griffin’s CEO says the company is not “selling the news,”  and Ron Harig, KOTV news director, says that when the stories are aired, “a disclaimer is read following the segment to inform people that Griffin is the sponsor.”

But take a look at some of the actual stories.   Do you think they are doing enough to inform viewers that this is paid content?  For example, check out the anchor intro for one piece:

Oklahoma small business owners love what they’re hearing about Insure Oklahoma when it comes to providing health insurance.  Spokesperson Angela Buckelew tells us this morning two dreams will now come true.

That hardly sounds like objective news reporting – and what exactly is Angela Buckelew a spokesperson for?  The stories themselves air without any visual disclaimer on any of the video, supers, etc., which seems to go against RTNDA guidelines for what is essentially a video news release.  In addition, the reporter on the stories used to work for one of the stations airing the segments, so she most likely looks like part of the news team for many viewers.

But, is there a way these stories could air within the newscast without raising ethical concerns?  What if the content was aired between commercial breaks, with no on-air introduction by the news anchors?  Are there other options?

It’s clear that news organizations have to find other ways to make money – and that’s going to mean that journalists will need to have more discussions than ever before about what constitutes the ethical dissemination of information.  I just don’t think this qualifies.