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Is news business?

The New York Times on Saturday reported that the president of ABC News, David Westin, was one of the last to know about ABC's decision to try and lure David Letterman away from CBS. If successful, this would displace "Nightline," probably ABC's most prestigious news show. Perhaps worse, an earlier article quoted an ABC executive as saying, "The relevancy of 'Nightline' just is not there anymore."

The all-too predictable reaction has been indignation and self-righteous outrage. The news executives and producers feel betrayed. According to the Times, however, executives for Walt Disney Co. (which owns ABC) are unsympathetic, and "insisted that they would not let what they considered to be a sentimental attachment to an aging news program get in the way of righting the corporate ship."

It's a pity that the news division doesn't address this argument. (If they do, I haven't seen it anywhere.) Is there really no business sense to keeping "Nightline"? Journalists too often seem to feel that there's some moral justification for news programs — as if they are on another plane from the entertainment business — and that that's all that matters, or that they need to say. But the fact is, news is a business, and, ultimately, that's how it's judged by the people that sell its product.

This is a good thing. It means that news executives do have a defense for their programs, and a good one at that, if they make it. Serving reliable, accurate and up-to-date information has a real value that, done right, undoubtedly rivals that of the drivel that passes for entertainment on the tube these days. That value is what should motivate corporations to offer the news to their customers.

If news executives can't come around to face the facts — and right their programs so that they serve real needs — then more news programs, respected or not, will get the ax. Continuing to neglect the business aspects of their industry will only make things worse. It's time for them to put away the moral indignance and get to work.


Update: Ted Koppel makes the case for news as good business in an opinion piece in the Times entitled "Network News Is Still Serious Business". They should have made him CEO.

March 4, 2002 1:10 PM

Comments

News already has long been intertainment, at least TV news, since the advent of "investigational journalism" and the ascension of "60 Minutes". Witness how many "news" programs "analyze" issues presented earlier on the stations' flagship sitcoms, or send the head of their news division to interview all of the "Survivors" immediatley after the series' conclusion. No serious person, except in a pointless act of criticism, has taken TV news seriously for at least 20 years...the mere fact that CNN has successfully filled the void of "serious news" on the networks should speak for itself, if you've ever seen their graqndstand reporting and constant development of reporter as "TV star." Unfortunately, print journalism, which owned this mantle of ridiculous self-interest and promotionalism in the glory dayes of William R. Hearst, is now forced top play catch-up, in which I'm sure they're fully engaged.

Posted by Les on March 4, 2002 7:52 PM

That's right, Matt. Business rules. Les, you might want to check out the Lehrer Newshour on PBS. Don't need cable and it doesn't have those pesky ads in the middle -- just some annoying "sponsor words" at the beginning and end.

Posted by Mike on March 4, 2002 10:18 PM


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