TV: The News: The 'new news', read by a drudge in his bedroom

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The Independent Culture
I seem to have been visiting a lot of newsrooms, and this week it was the turn of the BBC's busy Westminster newsroom in the legendary Four Millbank. This is the building, down the road from the Houses of Parliament, from which the BBC, ITN, Sky News and several foreign broadcasting organizations operate. Arguably Four Millbank, not the Commons chamber, is the centre of our political life.

I was struck by something Brian Walker, who runs the BBC's parliamentary and political output there, said. Technology, he said, means that BBC journalists from Westminster to Pretoria have more and more outlets to serve. At the same time, computerized editing suites, satellite phones, digital cameras and digital audio make it easier and quicker to serve these outlets.

The snag is, says Walker, that journalists have less time for reporting. Go into any newsroom in newspapers, radio or television, and you'll see young people, and they are mostly young, surrounded by dazzling equipment, bringing in, editing and turning around pictures and commentary at astonishing speed. Reporters are finding less time to get out of the newsroom, let alone improve their background knowledge of the stories they cover. Everywhere, process takes precedence over content.

This is what Marvin Kalb, the veteran CBS anchor who now runs the Shorenstein Centre on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, calls the "new news". The centre, has just published a study of the early stages of media coverage of the Lewinsky scandal that have implications beyond that classic of over-exposure. It makes, as they say, disturbing reading.

Kalb and his fellow researchers attribute the changing values of the news business to new technology and economics. Twenty years ago more than 80 per cent of Americans watched one of three evening newscasts, by CBS, NBC or ABC. Now, fewer than 40 per cent watch these broadcasts. Instead, there has been a huge increase in cable channels.

The new economics of news date back to the 1980s, when US conglomerates and Wall Street discovered that news was not just a loss leader, but could be immensely profitable. All three traditional networks disappeared into conglomerates, and before long CNN, which had seemed likely to pioneer a new television journalism, disappeared into a fourth, Time-Warner, and Rupert Murdoch set up a fifth, Fox.

As Kalb puts it, in each organization "two executives made editorial decisions - the editor and the business manager. Every story had a price tag." The combination of technological change and business criteria "transformed the ethics, values and standards of journalism."

The Harvard researchers pinpoint four consequences of this revolution. One is "sourcing - or the lack thereof". Once upon a time respectable news organizations required two solid sources for every news story. In the early days of the Lewinsky feeding frenzy, once-reliable news organizations started printing rumours, gossip and in one case a story that was literally fifth-hand, as well as being untrue.

The reason, says Dan Rather, who is paid US$7m a year to be the "heart and soul" of the CBS news operation, is fear. "The gut fear", he explained, "is that if we don't do it, somebody else is going to. And they're going to get on a ratings rocket up and you're going to look stupid and be selling insurance or real estate." That Rather should live in fear of corporate displeasure is revealing in itself.

Technological change, Kalb argues, makes newsrooms terrified by what may be "out there"; on the internet, especially. The Monica Lewinsky affair has made Matt Drudge, an obscure internet gossip who operates out of his one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, into a news source comparable with the New York Times. Management is attracted by the idea of getting the play Drudge gets without the cost of producing a New York Times, with all its bureaux, experts and expenses.

Competitive pressures make for the rush to judgment, as when ABC's Sam Donaldson, less than a week after the Lewinsky story broke last January, said, "Mr Clinton, if he's not telling the truth, and the evidence shows that, will resign, perhaps this week."

Lastly, the new news business blurs the lines between reporting and comment, between journalists and politicians, who cross over and take jobs commenting on the political game in which they are players, and between reporters and participants.

As we enter the multi-channel, competitive world that has existed in the States for some years, we can expect to see the "new news" here, too. The danger is that, thanks to new technology and economics, process will squeeze out content. But digital technology, cheaper, faster and simpler to use, is an opportunity as well as a threat. Everything depends on how it is used.