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…