Monday, March 06, 2006

Every now and then I'm going to write about the press. I know the world is full of media critics, but few of them actually seem to be members of the working press, much less in the trenches where I am.

Let me know what you think

I was at the Chicopee Colleen pageant the other night and I realized how this little story summed up so much of what is wrong in American media today.

Chicopee is a city of about 50,000 in western Massachusetts. It’s a blue-collar community that was settled by Polish, French Canadian and Irish immigrants among others. It has managed to re-gain a new industrial base after the demise of its first generation of factories and is considered to be a safe, stable place to raise a family.

One of its biggest civic events is its participation in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in neighboring Holyoke. The parade is the second largest in the nation – only New York’s is larger – and Chicopee is one of the many local communities that have a large contingent in the parade.

For many years, Chicopee – like Holyoke and Springfield – has presented a Colleen contest. Unlike other Colleen competitions, Chicopee doesn’t require the participants to have any Irish heritage. There is something nicely American about a contest to celebrate a particular ethnic group that is open to all.

For Chicopee, this is a fairly big “soft” news story. It’s a feel good story. It reflects some of the lifestyles and values of the community, which I understand is supposed to be our jobs.

For weeks preceding the event I publish photos of the contestants in our weekly newspaper serving Chicopee, The Herald. The culmination is the contest itself and someone on the staff must sacrifice a chunk of a Saturday night to make sure we have the name of the winner, her court, and photos for the edition that will be distributed on Wednesday.

It’s not a great assignment. The time at which the organizers tell you the decision will be made is never accurate. There’s nowhere to sit, generally and not even a place to stash your coat. So you stand and wait.

The heart-breaking part is when the five finalists are picked out of a group of 30 or more young women. To see their faces and to realize just how controlled they’re trying to be as they’re returning to sit at the tables with their families is a detail of the story that is seldom reported.

So I had the cover the story this year as because of budget cuts we have lost a reporter and since I’m on salary – and because I’m the boss – I have to do it.

Now at the event there were the three television stations, the editor of the competing weekly in Chicopee, and a photographer from the daily ‘paper, The Republican to cover it.

It was a nice turnout all right. It was the weekend, which is notoriously slow for “real” news. I advise many non-profit groups to stage their events on the weekend because television is hungry for material at that time.

The three TV stations left before the winner was announced. How could you leave before the climax, the purpose of the story, unfolded?

The Republican opted not to send a reporter this year. Undoubtedly they will have a reporter call one of the organizers and do something after the fact.

Only myself, the photographer of The Republican and the editor of the Chicopee Register remained until the end.

Now the organizers had done something that they thought would ensure them proper television coverage – they had asked one of the local TV weathermen to be a judge. That ploy, however, did not keep the videographer there for the entire event.

The problem is that the event went on too late. The Colleen wasn’t announced until after 10 p.m. The TV crews had to get back to the stations, where I’m sure they handed a producer a telephone number where someone could call to get the name of the Colleen.

That’s missing both the point of the story and the advantage of the medium: to capture the emotion of the moment on tape.

The sad truth is if the Colleen contest producers had wanted the TV crews to be presenting at the crowning, they needed to be sure the winner was announced at 8 p.m.

So instead of the media reporting the news, the newsmakers must make their event media-friendly to ensure the story is presented correctly.

It’s all about money. It’s better to go cheap and shoot some footage of the contest and supplement it with a voice-over than to do the story correctly.

Same thing goes with the daily newspaper. It’s better to send a photographer to grab a shot and hold it until someone can do a story by talking with someone after the fact.

This is how you meet the lowered expectations of your audience.

There’s no profit these days in raising the bar. Media owners don’t want to give audiences more than their competitor. They simply want to get by with as little as possible.

The Springfield television market is about 104th or 109th in the national rankings of size. It’s a mid-size market. The NBC and ABC affiliates have a 90-minute evening broadcast Monday through Friday that repeats the same major stories and weather forecasts every half-hour. They do not have the budget to produce a solid 90 minutes of local news. They could do a great 30 minutes or an okay hour, but 90 minutes is way beyond their capacity.

What is within their ability is a promotional effort telling audiences over and over that they “are working for you.” They’re not, of course. They’re working for the advertisers trying to create a product that will attract viewers to watch the ads.

I try to be honest when I’m talking to people about the reality of the news business for our newspapers. We have a small operation and can’t be everywhere people want us to be.

Television wants to perpetuate this myth and generally fails in trying to cover a broadcast market. However the vanity element of “being on television” is very seductive and many people court TV for coverage much more than the print outlets because of 30 seconds of fame.

In the meantime, the story is lost.

It’s all smoke and mirrors and these attitudes get worse as the media outlet gets larger.

To be continued…


Marky Mark said...

I suspect this is already on your list of things to address - internet news' impact on traditional news. Internet cannibalizing its sources of news, like a big tick slowly killing the very thing it feeds off of.

SRBissette said...

Mike, is the tick draining and killing its "source" more fundamental to the current corporate era of journalism -- advertising $$ and sponsor interests forever placed above journalistic ethics; bottom-line economics delivering a literal death-of-a-thousand-cuts to any meaningful journalism; etc.?

I've seen it on the local level with the Brattleboro and Southern VT newspapers (hey, the Reformer has a new publisher), and your portrait of the Chicopee event succinctly captures some aspects of this: if the event isn't timed and pre-packaged for local media, it's a no-go/no-show. It doesn't take much extrapolation to realize how badly underfunded journalistic venues fumble non-pre-packaged events -- like, life and reality. NEWS.

No wonder the current Administration's domestic propaganda machine has found such a welcome even from once-respected venues like THE NY TIMES.

Josh said...

well, here's the thing. news consumers want the news for free (you don't need cable to pick up the abc and nbc affiliates), but it's not free to produce. so, you take what you have for income, figure out what your important stories are, and how much in the way of resources you can dedicate.

at $18 an hour (say, at overtime, as it's saturday night, and we're assuming what i think might be a low rate for someone at lin or sinclair, which are probably union shops) for a photographer, you figure on getting there a little early, setting up shop, and staying for an hour or so, figuring the announcement will be made a little late.

two hours late, and you're still waiting, unsure when the announcement will be made, how long do you hang on? is the shot of a smiling kid worth $50 in wages, plus the inability to use that camera somewhere else?

if you didn't happen to be salaried, where would you have drawn the line at sending an hourly employee? with a bare-bones staff, is it worth sending someone home for four hours during a busy week to get the money shot, so that you don't have to pay her overtime?

what happens if the mayor resigns or the river floods? are you happy you got that colleen pic, even though you can't get the big hard news story the next week, because your reporter's sitting home?

Mike Dobbs said...'re right, but what I'm trying to get at ( and will in future media rants) is the "money shot" is the goal. The person making the decision has to maintain his or her budget, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the story.

I know this is pie in the sky these days. The story is among the last factors to be considered all too often.

But we have to get back to determining how to get the story. I'm willing to bet you dinner at the Dino BBQ (sorry I will be in Scotland this year when I'm generally at Syracuse!) that the news assignment desk at the three TV stations DIDN'T ask when the Colleen was expected to be crowned. That info could have made this story more affordable.

In a market this size it's a shame the local media has trouble covering the planned events, much less those that spring up.

As consumers we've allowed this to happen by wanting something for nothing and not insisting for higher quality.

The shift in advertisers away from locally or regionally businesses to national chains is placing local newspaper such as ours ( we laid off the Chicopee Herald reporter in the name of budget cuts and now I get to do two papers, along with a freelancer) in trouble.

Josh said...

i think it's telling that when the cuts come down, you're left to do the two papers in communities where there's a lot more news news happening, as opposed to the one they throw more resources into, which is the community in which there's a lot more people willing to go out to try to sell advertising.

one of the problems with readers wanting thing in their newspapers (and i imagine this goes likewise on tv) is that often when a paper does a readership survey, it finds that readers want more comic strips and photos and sports and less crime and politics -- and then readers get all upset when they're uninformed come election day, but know all about the top 10 scorers on the high school basketball team.

and then, readership goes down, advertising goes down, and budgets get cut, and you can't cover actual news anymore.

and if you're going to be somewhere that's not syracuse, scotland's not a bad place. maybe one of the trade show or big conference or whatever things happen in nyc some weekend i could hop a train down and we could check out the new fancy-pants dinosaur bbq in the city.