By Alison Sotomayor
More than half the journalists at national news outlets and about as many in local news media believe that journalism is going in the wrong direction.
Why? Because, the respondents say, increased bottom line pressure – for higher ratings and higher profits – seriously hurts the quality of news coverage.
Yet, in our promos and public relations, we continue to sell ourselves as fair and balanced which most journalists are when it comes to individual story coverage. News consumers are shortchanged, though, because the bottom line pressure reduces how many stories can be covered, and how extensively.
I believe there is a desperate need for more in-depth news analysis in television news today. Serious journalism has been increasingly an afterthought as money ultimately determines the face of TV news. In my opinion, this is a threat to American democracy and the public’s interest.
However, there is a will, and some means, to fund innovative programs to ensure that news consumers can still be informed and engaged: WETA TV 26 and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Together, they have developed the WETA News Academy, an intensive, week-long residential course uniting fifteen public television and independent producers from across the nation to sharpen their news and public affairs production skills. "By training the next generation of news producers, we are investing in tomorrow," said Patricia de Stacy Harrison, President & CEO of CPB, "and ensuring that public television will remain the gold standard for in-depth news coverage and stimulating public affairs programming for many years to come."
With an unparalleled opportunity to meet some of the greatest thinkers in this profession, on screen and off, the Academy included interactive classes, field trips to Congress and the White House, to the National Press Club, the Newseum and C-SPAN, and to the sets of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.
"I feel like I have a more well-rounded understanding of how the PBS system operates," said Jaime George of WPBT in Florida. "This more complete understanding will undoubtedly allow me to become a more successful PBS producer and manager." From exploring funding possibilities of newsworthy programs, to considering the legal issues and challenges in news operations, to assessing the future of news in a rapidly technologically changing world, we exercised our brain matter, challenged who we are, how we choose to report, and how we get it right.
At a time when the public is increasingly skeptical about the press, viewing it as less professional, reliable, ethical and accurate... at a time when there is a desperate need for more credible, thoughtful reporting in the face of a tsunami of reality TV, the Academy reminded us that our independence and diversity of perspectives are needed now more than ever. "It only makes sense that CPB and PBS would find a way to enhance local affairs," said Dominic Dezzutti of KBDI in Colorado, "because that is the one thing that will always be lacking in our 500-channel universe."
Led by our eloquent Project Director Chris Haws, his hard-working assistant Tanya Ellis, and the knowledgeable John Potthast of WETA, the Academy cemented our commitment to the idea that public news matters, particularly to the underserved and diverse communities we aim to reach.
It reminded us of our obligation to produce tough, complex stories that the public may not want to hear about but needs to in order to take an informed role as citizens and voters, and to do so responsibly and courageously.
Most importantly, it renewed that fighting spirit to continue to deliver programs that reach beyond the screen to engage our communities through incisive, thoughtful discourse.
It is my hope that as you read some of our shared experiences, you too will become inspired enough to take back some of this knowledge and put it to good use in your own local public television market, as we did in ours. "I returned to work with all kinds of ideas and suggestions," said Kim Piela of New Hampshire Public Television, "and I was eager to share what I learned with my colleagues. It was an invigorating and inspiring experience."
In one session, WETA's funding and budgeting gurus provided critical insight when writing a proposal. Some questions they posed to us: Does your project have strong talent and a strong story line? Does your distribution plan make sense? What is your unique selling proposition? Why are you the sole person in the world who should produce this? Who are the target audiences and how many people will be watching?
Another question asked: what makes a great pitch? According to Andrew Walworth, President of New River Media, the philosophy is to think of it not as a pitch, but as a catch. Believe you're there not to pitch a project, but to solve a problem. Think the executives across the table have your money and their jobs are in jeopardy, so you're going to make them “heroes” by producing this project.
And yet another key point: rarely submit a proposal in the first meeting. It's better to listen and then, upon understanding the needs of what executives are looking for, you can restructure your proposal and resubmit with a stronger shot of selling it. One thing to keep in mind: many funders are great believers in "strands" or multiple-part series. Strands are greater "value buys" and usually have a higher degree of success.
Don't write that proposal without thinking of a partnership. Some funders may not even consider a proposal without it as part of the presentation. Washington Week with Gwen Ifill, for example, has partnered with National Journal, a weekly magazine on politics and government, sharing resources and ultimately increasing their presence on the national landscape. This partnership has not only helped WW obtain a wealth of new resources and valuable content, but has reached out to underwriters as well.
For the 2008 elections, start thinking now of potential partnerships. Although they may not provide money, they may trigger it. "It's hard to take risks, but the payoff is great if you think of the ramifications," expressed Dalton Delan, Executive Vice President and Chief Programming Officer at WETA.
So, what are potential partnerships looking for? The biggest concern, says Elizabeth Baker Keffer, Executive Vice President of National Journal, is how they are going to sell your project. You must make potential partners feel as if there is a reason for that partnership. Consider using the magazine's reporters on your show. Promote the magazine and the partnership on air or organize an event featuring the magazine and show host. Most importantly, however, be mindful of potential sponsors influencing editorial content.
Another session tackled how PBS affiliates can reach a bigger audience, increase accessibility and loyalty of members and viewers. Terry Bryant, Vice President of Media Strategies at the CPB, discussed the analysis of CPB's recent and most comprehensive audience research project ever conducted. Its goal: to include viewers' beliefs, feelings and behaviors when important decisions are being made about public television's future. The concept of trust, Bryant asserted, is the foundation principle for viewer loyalty. (And it seems like PBS has that trust. For a third year in a row, Americans have named PBS as the nation's most trusted organization in the entire country, over courts of law, commercial networks, newspapers, the federal government and Congress.)
If you are involved in programming, branding, fundraising, underwriting or promotion at your station, then CPB's research may be useful in your everyday work. Paper-based materials and DVD's can be ordered online to assist pledge producers, for example, in crafting pledge scripts. For many decision-makers, development directors and program managers, this research has already had an impact on programming and production. (To order materials, visit www.cpb.org/stations/npsresearch/materials.html)
One of the most animated and energetic sessions was with Dr. John Splaine, a nationally recognized media literacy authority and longtime C-SPAN consultant. Through video and group interaction, Splaine discussed objectivity and balance in journalism. He challenged us to recognize how our own biases can unintentionally emerge in reporting the news by using techniques such as camera angle, camera position/direction, distance, lighting, shot emphasis/repetition, and montages. For example, shooting a camera up denotes a powerful/superior person while shooting down exhibits an inferior one. The producer may not intend this but it is how viewers may interpret it.
Bias can emerge in the simplest framing of the news, Splaine contended. Is Iraq a war? Or a conflict? How do we interpret the notion of the "War on Terror"? There is bias through language – language that helps one side more than others, such as political terminology, adjectives, labels, and verbs. How would you interpret the headline "Clinton's Reform Package?" The word "reform" denotes a positive spin, Splaine asserted. What about the term "illegal alien?" Both words criminalize the person and cast them as outsiders with questionable motivations.
If tele-visuals create biases, what can we do as journalists to avoid them? Splaine suggested we use medium static shots almost all the time and report on stories we know about so that we are not narrow in scope. These are just some of the ways we "can earn the viewer's skeptical trust," said Splaine (For more information on media criticism, visit www.mrc.org).
Another session focused on new platforms: the web, broadband, and podcasting. Currently, PBS is rebuilding its website, working closely with local stations and independent producers for increased transparency. The first big change will be a redesigned homepage by year's end. With it, will come new opportunities for local stations to promote local content on pbs.org, hence, driving traffic to their local site as well as providing ways for stations to feature national content. The resource PBS aggregates all of their tools, services and information for stations is Station Remote Control URL at http://remotecontrol.pbs.org, currently being updated. For more information on how to promote local content on pbs.org, contact PBS Station Services at email@example.com.
Another way to promote local content for PBS and NPR stations: the NewsHour website. NewsHour online staff is looking for local features to include in the new Around the Nation section of the site. If you have a story, one that highlights the special qualities of your state or city or one that shows how a national story is playing out on a local level, you can pitch it to Anna Shoup, NewsHour online editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org. The NewsHour is currently exploring the possibility of these submissions as a source for its broadcast programming. The Around the Nation web site can be found at: www.pbs.org.newshour.local.
Beyond question, one of the most awe-inspiring and memorable days was spent with the staff at the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Considered among the most respected television news programs in the nation, the NewsHour has been part of our psyche, part of our everyday lives, usually broadcasting just before or after the local programs we produce. How extraordinarily fortunate to have received such an in-depth, top-to-bottom look at how a successful and unique news model, on a national level, operates.
A captivating look into the parameters of producing the NewsHour was given by Linda Winslow, Executive Producer, Kathleen McCleery, Deputy Executive Producer, along with the show's four producers. Senior correspondent Margaret Warner gave us tips on, among other things, what makes an engaging and provocative story, while senior correspondent Ray Suarez discussed how journalists should handle classified information. How do you guard the nation's national security secrets and still report reliably?
We observed the production and live transmission of the NewsHour, and discussed with Director Steve Howard, what went right and what went wrong. We toured the set, editing rooms and production offices. (Jim Lehrer's office was like a mini bus museum - adorned from ceiling to floor with the most eye-catching, bus artifacts and memorabilia you've ever seen: wood and neon signs, photographs, posters and antique toy buses. Lehrer, whose father was a bus driver, is a bus enthusiast. He himself worked as a Continental Trailways ticket agent while he was in college.)
But it was the intimate and compelling conversation with Jim Lehrer that confirmed our dedication to news and public affairs programming, a mission to pursue the truth, to seek out all perspectives, and to tell the most accurate, provocative and richly detailed stories we can. Lehrer, who comes across as a hands-on, engaged boss, discussed the state of news and public affairs programming and advised us on ways to hone our news judgment.
He challenged us to ask ourselves hard questions about the selection of our stories. For example, how important is this story to people and how many will be affected? And not how many people are interested in this story. Lehrer also talked about the challenge of tackling legitimate news and still holding an audience. "It takes courage to be boring," said Lehrer.
Lehrer's secret to a great interview, he said, is being civil. "You can ask a tough question ... in a nice way," he explained. Lehrer, who has been nicknamed "the dean of moderators" by former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, stated that it's the content of the question that matters, not the manner in which it was spoken.
Lehrer often asks himself critical questions following the show: Did the whole thing work? Did it all come together? What can we do better? "I always feel like we gave it the best shot," he said.
Our conversation with Lehrer led him to talk about a few of the guidelines he uses in journalism. They are powerful and insightful and, as journalists, we should heed them. They are: You should do nothing you cannot defend and should write each story with the care you would give if it were about you. You should look for at least one other side to each story. You should assume viewers and those on whom journalists report are as smart, caring and good as you are. You should keep personal lives private until it's essential to do otherwise. You should separate opinion from straight news. And you should use anonymous sources in only extreme circumstances.
Our session with Judy Woodruff, veteran news anchor and journalist, focused on the PBS project Generation Next: Speak Up. Be Heard. Woodruff is traveling the country this summer interviewing young people, ages 16 to 25, about America's role in the world, their beliefs about religion, immigration, race, politics, and their own future. The project will culminate in a series of documentary reports on PBS, the NewsHour, and online. This project is meant to provide lawmakers with a better understanding of the views of youth and the potential impact of policies regarding them.
So how could we as local producers assist in promoting such an ambitious project? Academy member Amy Burkett of WLVT in Pennsylvania offered the idea of producing PBS affiliate-produced companion pieces to Generation Next. Academy participants supported Burkett's idea, seeing a need for a stronger local/national partnership within the PBS system.
However, such collaboration could not be developed and funded immediately upon the Academy's conclusion. But the group remains hopeful future local/national partnerships of this nature can be created. Nonetheless, several Academy members are planning on producing stories or dedicating a program complementing the national production slated for broadcast in early 2007. (For more information on Generation Next, visit www.generation-next.tv).
Dynamic and down-to-earth, Gwen Ifill is a strong and likeable journalist. She is senior correspondent for the NewsHour and the moderator and managing editor of Washington Week, the longest-running news and public affairs program on PBS. Before we observed Washington Week's live transmission, Ifill offered us advice on how to book the best panelists for a show, how to turn a dry story into a compelling one, and what kind of approaches add texture to an interview.
She also discussed how carefully crafted questions can spark debate and affect a nation. An example of this is shown when Ifill moderated the vice presidential debate in 2004 between Dick Cheney and John Edwards. She asked both Cheney and Edwards what the government’s role should be in addressing the growing AIDS epidemic, especially among African-American women. Neither candidate addressed her question – Cheney said he hadn’t heard the numbers and Edwards spoke about Africa. Both men were sharply criticized in the press for not answering the question and not being aware of the problem. Ifill said she received more viewer response from this than from any other question she has ever asked.
The goal at Washington Week, said Ifill, is to strive for a conversation with guests that is engaging and illuminating, one that puts events in context and explains why they happen. She cautioned us to be careful which stories we decide to cover and advised us to ask ourselves critical questions before we make the selection, such as "What does this story really mean and why should somebody in Idaho [for example] care about this?"
Personality matters. That's the message from Washington Week's senior producer Chris Guarino, who, in another session, provided us with a well-rounded sense of WW's strategies in branding Ifill and building a franchise around her. An important element in Ifill's connection to her viewers is her sense of humor and the way in which she handles serious news at WW. "It's a lot more free-flowing than the traditional public affairs show," said Guarino.
Through handouts and videos, Guirano showed us how WW producers are expanding Ifill's profile outside the program. One example was producing a six-minute, quick turn-around segment following the taping of the program with experts answering viewer mail. These "website extras" are streamed on the show’s web site about one hour after the broadcast, adding value to the show and continuing the conversation viewers have just watched.
Guirano also provided us with tips on how to seek out panelists who are diverse and good storytellers, and feedback on how to direct their conversation on stage. Moreover, we were encouraged to think of new ways to produce station promos. One WW spot, for example, includes a sneak peek into the producer's show meeting. There are snappy sound bites from producers and Ifill, and similarly clever phrases like "It takes more than 30 minutes to have the smartest television in a week."
Ensuring political pressures do not distract us from delivering on our mission was the admonition message from Jacoby Atlas, former co-chief programmer in the now-defunct West Coast PBS office. "The left dislikes us. The right dislikes us," said Atlas, "so we must be doing the right thing."
Atlas, in another session, described the triumphs and struggles of public television programming – the line that often exists between funders vs. programming content, issues of conflict of interest, fairness and balance, and the vague FCC guidelines regarding what is considered indecent and their impact on programming. She also remarked on the challenges of corporate underwriting. “Frontline has never had a corporate underwriter,” said Atlas of PBS’ flagship public affairs series. “So, without the support from [PBS] viewers, a lot of programming would not be on the air.”
In the post-Jayson Blair era, when news organizations are recognizing a greater need for transparency, the Center for Public Integrity is doing its part in making institutional power more accountable. Our visit there posed the questions: Do you know who owns your local radio and television stations? What about your local newspapers? How much are those owners spending to lobby Congress and how much are they contributing to political coverage? The Center, a nonpartisan, non-advocacy organization, digs deep behind the events of the moment through investigative reporting; its stories impacting and setting the stage for potential change. Recent reports range from how private travel sponsors gain special access to Congress to how one of the world's richest industries influences government and policy.
What's remarkable about the Center is its comprehensive website. Its "In Your State" resource page assists journalists to keep track of what's going in any state capitol. You can search by topic from financial disclosures of legislators to ethics oversight to prosecutorial misconduct. There's a "Media Tracker," a searchable database, consisting of every newspaper, radio, television and cable system in the U.S, tracking how private interests influence public policy. The "Influence Tracker" is a one-stop search engine revealing the intersection of the communications industry and its government regulators. How much are media firms spending to lobby the government and legislators? (For more information, visit www.publicintegrity.org and for additional government trends in your state, visit www.stateline.org).
Our visit to the White House was not only a first for most of us, but a timely one - one day before Tony Snow became President Bush's press secretary. We met White House Deputy Press Secretary Ken Lisaius who described how the White House communications office operates on an average day. He also talked about the President having a "healthy respect for the press" because it is “important to the democratic process.”
Our guide there was renowned political scientist and Professor Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University. She discussed the social relations between reporters and the White House staff, how party styles of governance shape White House Communications operations, and how partisan administrations shape the role of their press secretaries. (Be sure to watch out for Kumar's forthcoming book on the White House and the media entitled Wired for Sound and Pictures: Communicating from the White House to be published within a year's time.)
We also met with Mike McCurry, President Clinton’s press secretary, at his communications consulting firm. He tackled such questions as: How do you manage to inform the press in times of crisis? How do you make news and news gathering more attractive to young people? And who is more electable as President - a woman or a minority candidate? He discussed why the White House press briefings should be canceled because, in his opinion, “there is too much posturing going on” and less useful exchange of information for the press. Significant afterthoughts to our discussion include the questions: Are journalists getting their job done and doing it right? And how do we reinvent new and creative stories to compel the public?
So what made this Academy unique? The rare and precious opportunity to speak with fellow producers nationwide who struggle with the same production challenges on a daily basis, no matter location or size of market.
During a session with Jennifer Lawson, CEO of WHUT and former Executive Vice President of Programming at PBS, Academy participants bounced ideas off one another, asked for advice, and talked about the challenges we, as journalists, confront every day in our respective local markets. Funding, to no surprise, was a major issue, as was the cost of maintaining and upgrading station equipment; the latter, in some cases, significantly affecting the ability to produce more programming.
Participants discussed how to strengthen relationships with members and viewers, the advantages of creating partnerships with radio news stations, newspapers and other public television programs, and how to use the Internet to create great content. Some suggested a live, interactive web chat/Q&A after a show, programs focusing on the blog phenomenon, and streaming programs via the Internet.
An innovative and successful approach to raising funds came from Ann Strahle, Academy member from WTIU in Indiana: an awareness campaign where yard signs asking for station support are placed on lawns throughout the community, the way campaign yards signs are now.
Strahle's station targeted various sites to distribute the signs: churches, grocery stores, and neighborhood associations. Ads about the campaign ran in local newspapers, nonprofit newsletters and in station promos. Volunteers and the station's community advisory board helped spread the word, distributing signs to friends and neighbors. One thousand signs at a cost of only $2,000 was a great investment whose end result was a successful, profitable campaign.
There are many more interesting moments and fulfilling discussions we shared at the Academy, however, not all can be adequately described here. But it is worth mentioning a few other inspiring conversations we had with the following key speakers: Frank Sesno, CNN Special Correspondent, Linda Scott, NewsHour Producer on Capitol Hill, Brian Lamb, President and CEO of C-SPAN, Les Crystal, President, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, Sharon Rockefeller, CEO, WETA, Jeff Bieber, VP News and Public Affairs of WETA, Jim Corbley, VP of National Programming, WETA, Sandy Heberer, Senior Director of Primetime Programming, PBS, John Prizer, VP of Television Program Development, CPB, Angie Palmer, Director of TV Program Development and Producer Relations, CPB.
I applaud WETA and CPB for their courage and commitment to fund and execute such an ambitious and innovative News Academy. Only through such vital discussions and real-world experience can we improve ourselves as journalists and become more credible, thoughtful storytellers. "I hope we are considered the first of several successful classes from the Academy," said Dominic Dezzutti.
Since returning from the Academy, the group's members have used one another as a tremendous resource, keeping in constant contact through emails, asking advice about upcoming election coverage, and the challenges of close-captioning programs. Dezzutti has volunteered his time to compile a reel of our work, giving us an opportunity to praise, critique, and acquire ideas from one other.
The Academy also taught us how to meet the needs and opportunities ahead in the complex, digital world. "I learned a lot about what others are doing to enhance their websites with streaming video and podcasts," said Greg Grell of WDSE in Minnesota. "I have been advocating these upgrades for my station's website and I am told we will be able to add video to the site...and archive shows on the web."
The Academy's lasting imprint, however, will be how it united a diverse group of producers from across the nation and helped create a partnership, a permanent friendship, like no other. "Now I have a network of television professionals who I'm proud to call my friends," said Amy Burkett. "When I face a production problem these days, I know others to whom I can call and get advice and that, to me, is priceless."
If you are interested in finding out if the WETA News Academy will be funded another year and want to inquire about applying, contact Chris Haws, Program Director, at email@example.com.