by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
June 4, 2009
TIANANMEN, PLUS TWENTY YEARS
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Hermosillo, Mexico, nursery fire that killed 42 toddlers was front and center on CNN today - four days after it happened. A glance at the crawl line before 9AM showed that story after story was four or five days out of date. When I searched cable television shows after midnight Monday morning for anything about the historic Lebanese vote for a pro-Western multicultural (Druze, Christian and Islamic) governing coaltion, not even Bloomberg had anything. More and more, it seems, "news" is old, already digested and discarded by an information-hungry public.
With newsroom cutbacks, drops in advertising dollars and circulation figures, big car ads going the way of GM and Chrysler, and classified advertising migrating en masse to Craigslist, money is short at America's media organizations. But more than money, a shortage of imagination is also eroding the appeal of sites that once were able to offer fresh news 24 hours a day.
I wonder what goes through the mind of a CNN reporter assigned to writing the crawl line, that news ticker half-blocked by graphics that crawls languidly along the bottom of cable news screens at the pace of a lazy river.
When I turned on CNN about 8:40AM this morning, the crawl line had not been updated from the day before. By 9AM, though, the Hermosillo fire had video and a reporter with full coverage, and the stories on the crawl line had changed. There was stuff from Baghdad, new bodies from the Air France disaster, lots on Euna Lee and Lisa Ling getting sentenced to prison in North Korea, on Mayor Ray Nagin getting quarantined in China due to swine flu exposure, and even a "bus plunge," the old stand-by filler story, this one from mountainous Kashmir. The Israeli military was reporting gunfire near a Gaza crossing, and Hamas said 5 were killed. It was a fresh load of news for a brand new Monday. How many of them will be there Wednesday and even Thursday?
Under the rubric "Update," the stories on the crawl line were all appropriate Monday developments. Nobody works at CNN on Saturday and Sunday except the talking heads, apparently. That was when i wanted updates on the attack on Taliban strongholds by irate Pakistani tribesmen in South Waziristan, and on the Lebanese election that rejected the influence of Hezbollah and Iran. But I would havbe to wait until this morning for those.
So what's my complaint? That only the New York Times delivered the Lebanon story in a timely way? Well, yes - but the Times was days late on Hermosillo, too. The complaint is that it often seems that by the end of the week the news is being so frequently recycled that there's nothing new in the world, when in fact there is a lot new - you just have to know where to look for it. And if it's a Saturday or Sunday, it's doubly sure big breaking news stories won't be on CNN, Fox or MSNBC. The network evening news shows may grab a tiny piece of breaking stories over the weekend, but that's rare, too.
One of the best breaking news sites in the world is in India, and is among the least known. Somberi.com regularly runs a menu of 20 to 30 stories that are the very latest available. However. it's a selective news feed; it isn't interested in p.r puff pieces and entertainment crap; although there's a slight bias towards breaking political news from the United Kingdom, all the stuff on www.somberi.com will be on a front page somewhere - tomorrow. We're hoping its founder, a single journalist, will help us add that feed to our site.
At a recent journalism conference at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, just across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge from me, the collapse of news organizations was amply illustrated by the number of former major news organization editors - guys who were household names in the online journalism world a year or two ago - now struggling with startups and self-generated sites.
Solutions were offered and debated in Twitter-like bursts of two minutes each, so there was no substance in the presentations except for those that generated technical resolutions to persistent site issues, which were potentially valuable. But how often need we to be reminded we're broke, if not bankrupt, that revenues are not there to make new hires, and venture capitalists are not backing online news startups? So, even if these topics didn't get treated at lengfth, it's not as though we were uninformed. Our presence - busy journalists with four days free - told a compelling story.
The American Reporter was founded almost 15 years ago to provide journalists with income based on the stories they produced when it was purchased by other publications. In 1995, very few print or broadcast news organizations gave any credence at all to journalism online, and we were the very first to learn that. Our correspondents produced hard-hitting, memorable copy with great appeal, and while dozens of newspaper editors signed up, few of them signed on to buy the pieces even at a penny per word.
That may have started to change as the cost of news has risen, the money to pay for it has dwindled, and the reporters to write it have been laid off. Our network of 400 correspondents around the world - all own a piece of this publication, albeit often a very small one - could take the place of many of those. In fact, they might even be the same reporters who'd gotten laid off.
Many of them have independent minds and outlooks, although the herd mentality still infects a few. Buying their stories would not only be immensely cheaper than buying an AP feed (we never raised our prices), but also more appealing to the little guy in every good editor who appreciates how hard it has become to find able reporters and breaking news, and what our people have to sacrifice to tell the stories they do.
Catching up with and controlling our own technology is a challenge; on CNN right now (12:16PM EDT), for instance, the crawl line is telling us 17 bodies have been recovered from the Air France disaster. But half an hour ago, a live CNN correspondent reported that due to someone's error, the Brazilian military had advised him that the true number of bodies was 16. The person who wrote the crawl line was obviously not listening. I'm trying to hang on.