The Elephant In The Room By Mike Sechrist

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Anyone doubting the negative effects of the internet and the nation’s economic meltdown on our local media needs to look no further than Nashville’s Tennessean. The once hefty and satisfyingly readable metropolitan newspaper is now a mere shadow of itself, its size and bulk no more than that of a neighborhood throwaway. Not as visible on your TV screen but just as vulnerable are the local broadcasters who responding to the same forces spent most of last year focused not on growing their revenues but cutting expenses in a mostly futile attempt to keep pace with record cancellations from national and local advertisers.

This has resulted in an unprecedented level of layoffs and buyouts in both print and broadcast newsrooms and left an extraordinary amount of seasoned and qualified journalists scrambling for freelance jobs, exploring other career choices or leaving the market all together. I don’t think it is a stretch to say there are more talented journalists out of work in Nashville than working right now and that sad fact can be said of media markets all over the country and it is only going to get worse in the coming year.

So what’s in store for our local media as we begin to wrap up the first decade of the new millennium? I’ll venture a few guesses. First at least one station, possibly all of them, will begin cutting back the amount of locally produced newscasts. Channel 2 started this last year when because of budgetary cuts they cancelled their early morning weekend newscasts. Early morning weekday newscasts might be another place stations scale back. Can advertising really sustain more than 10 hours of morning news between channels 2, 4, 5 and 17?

I think you will see stations employing fewer fulltime journalists relying on a core group of anchors and key reporters and filling out their newscasts with market freelancers. The goal for station management in these times is to get head count (or FTE’s, fulltime employees, as the bookkeepers call them) down to the bare minimum.

Reporters and photographers both print and broadcast who are still employed or recently laid off would do well to invest in a digital camera and laptop with a good editing program and develop or refine their skills in shooting and editing. A skilled freelance video journalist will find themselves in demand in the coming years.

The elephant in the room that local broadcasters across the country constantly tip toe around is just what their role will be in the years ahead. They are no longer the exclusive rights holder to network programming in their markets having lost that fight to the internet years ago. Missed “Lost” last week on Channel 2, no problem, you can watch it on ABC.com in High Def with fewer commercials. Audience levels continue to erode as a generation that makes no distinction between local stations and cable networks and can’t imagine life without a TiVo or DVR moves into the prime demographic group advertisers are craving.

Look for big changes this year and next from broadcast and print. I would not be surprised if the Tennessean cuts back on home delivery as a number of papers have already. I would not be surprised if one or two local TV stations cut back to one or two newscasts a day. And it would not surprise me at all if the FCC takes another look at ‘convergence’ letting one company own a newspaper and possibly multiple TV stations in one market.

One thing will not change. There will still be an enormous appetite for good local journalism created by competent reporters and editors.

Mike Sechrist is the former long-running general manager of WKRN and regional vice president with Young Broadcasting Inc. Sechrist was also vice president for news at KDFW-TV in Dallas, as well as news director at WPLG-TV in Miami, WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh and WTNH-TV in New Haven, Conn. He was the driving force behind the highly popular Nashville is Talking. He is currently the president of Bottom Up Media. You can reach Mike Sechrist at mike@mikesechrist.com

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7 Comments

  1. Dave Barnes said January 11, 2009 | Permalink

    Actually, FTE = Full Time Equivalent

  2. mike said January 11, 2009 | Permalink

    You’re right Dave. I plead Newsheimers.

  3. Squirrel Queen said January 11, 2009 | Permalink

    Diversifying one’s knowledge and skills is always an excellent way to try to stay ahead of the curve.

  4. Sharon Cobb said January 12, 2009 | Permalink

    Hi Mike!
    Good to see you. Call me–we need to catch up.

    You said, “There will still be an enormous appetite for good local journalism created by competent reporters and editors.” I agree completely, which is why so many blogs are not being taken seriously because there is no accountability, and some bloggers just print or say whatever they want without one care about truth.

    Bloggers have had their 15 minutes. People are dying…literally in some places, for old fashion journalism where people fact check and source and then double source and don’t just print unsubstantiated gossip and then call themselves citizen journalists. Readers are sick of it and want real journalists, citizen or traditional, who research, fact check, source, attend events and quit being gossip queens and kings.

    Other than that, call me. A lot going on over here. Where’s our lunch???????????

  5. Paul Chenoweth said January 12, 2009 | Permalink

    Mike,

    Would you please repeat/scream this mantra “Reporters and photographers both print and broadcast…would do well to invest in a digital camera and laptop with a good editing program and develop or refine their skills in shooting and editing.” My experience this summer, training a number of seasoned journalists, supports this. Adding new tools (images, video, multimedia, social media) to one’s storytelling skill set is not an option.

    I do not diminish the need for trained journalists (what I believe to be what Sharon calls “old fashion journalism”). The issue today is that becoming a “trained” journalist means that “training” is an ongoing, relentless process of learning, sorting, adapting, and adopting an array of ever evolving tools.

  6. Sharon Cobb said January 13, 2009 | Permalink

    Paul,
    All of your points are well taken. However, in the 4 years I blogged (past tense) all I ever heard was how I had to change. When I merely suggested bloggers do some changing of their own, I was vilified and crucified.

    I agree with everything you wrote. But bloggers have to start fact checking and sourcing when writing about someone else. It’s one thing if they have a mommy blog and write about their personal lives, it’s another when they want to call themselves political bloggers and don’t know a things about politics and want to be considered a player.

    It’s a two way street, but the majority of bloggers, at least in Nashville, made it a one way street where it was their way or a stake through your heart.

    Old time journalism isn’t a bad thing. It needs to incorporate new media. Conversely, new media, however, needs to incorporate some of the foundations of old journalism, like doing one’s best to be accurate.

    I have found many bloggers (in Nashville) to be resistant to the idea of going out and covering stories, talking to the people they are writing and talking about, etc. That’s not good.

    From personal experience, I can tell you I’ve never had more lies and rumors told about me than through bloggers who never bothered to call me or email me for a comment or verify a story.

    That’s not journalism. That’s slander and libel.

  7. Christian said January 13, 2009 | Permalink

    My goodness, Sharon. You made me completely forget what I was going to say about Mike’s awesome post with your own dramatic account of being the target of lies, rumors, slander and libel by local bloggers. Wow.

One Tweetback/Trackback

  1. […] Mike Sechrist wrote an editorial for us and I’m just beaming. He’s moved on from the first incarnation of NiT, (here’s a video clip from Rex Hammock of Sechrist from 2006 if you want to take a time machine) but he took some time to pontificate about his opinions on the future of the news business. […]

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