Sharing: Good for GOP, bad for media

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David Brooks of the New York Times argues that Republicans spend too much time worrying about freedom and individual choice rather than community and sharing.

 

Perhaps the GOP should call Chicago's big television stations, where sharing will soon be the order of the day, and night. Economic anxiety is breeding what seems a pragmatic camaraderie but may constitute, upon later inspection, the media's latest self-inflicted wound.

Four of the city's five biggest stations will pool two camera crews apiece, for a total of eight, with one first-among-equals manager deciding how they'll be deployed. The driving notion is that there's a lot of generic footage everybody duplicates---of press conferences, fires, car accidents, cat in tree, man on street opining about 70-degree weather, baseball player declining to discuss steroid use, shocked neighbor saying alleged serial killer "was such a quiet man," etc.---and this will free the stations to exhibit more enterprise in how they use their other crews.

 

The stations can decide for themselves if they want to dispatch an individual reporter, maybe more, to any story. They can edit the shared footage however they desire and write their stories any which way. If they want to add musical refrains from Beyonce or Sinatra, so be it.

 

Unfortunately, this gambit has precious little to do with viewers, and their declining loyalty, and everything to do with economics, especially for weaker stations which have already downsized sharply. For all the naval-gazing done by us print guys about ourselves ----namely the decline of newspapers amid catastrophic revenue declines---local broadcasters have been similarly creamed, even if they suffer with less attention.

 

"We've sunk so low, I embrace this!" says a friend of mine, a veteran Chicago TV reporter. The reporter notes that cutbacks have already meant sometimes skipping press conferences of the city's Mayor-For-Life Richard M. Daley, or simply not having anybody other than a freelancer to cover a breaking story at 2 a.m.

 

Interestingly, while stations owned by NBC, CBS, Fox and Tribune Co. are part of the just-announced Chicago consortium, the one owned by ABC is not. That station, WLS-Ch.7, in part fueled by the engine of "Oprah" (she co-hosted a morning show on the station before she became a planetary icon), is the clear market leader and would essentially be subsidizing its competitors, who by and large have fewer resources (cameras, trucks, bodies) than WLS.

 

Not only does the station's boss, Emily Barr, not see any significant savings (the real expense at a stations like hers is compensation for anchors), but she divines the journalistic  homogeneity already besetting her business only accentuating.

 

She's correct. If young people are already turned off local TV because they find it pedestrian and banal, imagine when they see exactly the same video and sound on a significant number of stories.

 

For sure, there's the implicit argument that the consortium's members make that there are lots of pro forma stories for which sound and photography are indistinguishable. A press conference is a press conference is a press conference.

 

Even if one concedes the static nature of a fair number of events, what then does distinguish the practitioners of a distinctly visual medium from one another? Is it simply the convivial, six-figure anchors and the latest variation on the weather person's Doppler Radar?

 

In fact, there are good photographers and bad ones. There are industrious, inventive ones, and there are lazy bones. There are those who will focus on former reality show wannabe  Rod Blagojevich's front door while he slides out the back. There are those who will be fixated on pedestrian angles at a press conference, as opposed to making lemonade out of lemons with something a bit more interesting.

 

And there is the reality that competitive reporters will now be beholden at times to having one camera person servicing them all. So imagine when the static turns dynamic and downright interesting. Imagine the press conference where the Mayor-for-Life not only says something truly notable or provocative, which needs follow-up as he stalks off the podium, but there's also some other official elsewhere in the room from whom reaction is incumbent.

 

 If you've only got one camera at that gathering, you'll either have to quickly clone the shooter or miss out on obvious elements of the story.

 

And consider this: When the Cook County Board (whose huge domain includes Chicago) voted Tuesday to repeal a controversial sales tax hike it passed a year ago, only one local TV reporter, Mike Flannery of CBS-owned WBBM, had the perspicacity to show. It was a raucous, important session, and only his station had video. Those pictures included the  moronic board president regularly using the word "crap" and one of his political allies chiding him by declaring, "You might want to listen for a change."

 

 Safe to say there was blood on the floor at rival stations, including Barr's, as Flannery (one of the best political reporters anywhere) beat the pants off them all. But in a world of shared video, poor judgment may now be hidden, if not rewarded. "Well, boss, I didn't think that meeting would be important but at least we've got the pool video and can fake it for the six o'clock newscast. And I can try to track down some of the commissioners on the phone."

 

It's not quite the competitive dynamic at play in "The Front Page."

 

And that's probably a loss, as felt economic necessity breeds even more creative languor, which breeds more consumer fatigue.

 

Of course, all this sharing is not new for media---consider the occasionally pooling of resources in covering the president, or reliance on the saintly souls at C-SPAN for other Washington hearings and events. But it is accelerating nationwide not just for both broadcast and print media (the radio-influenced folks overseeing my alma mater, the Chicago Tribune, have mulled certain common pages of national and foreign for all their papers).

 

And it's not new for many other sectors. At a recent meeting of bigshot international trade and finance bankers I attended, there was unprecedented discussion of combining certain technologies and administrative functions among traditional rivals (even now, clients may be clueless that their bank is outsourcing certain functions to another). Growing government mandates heighten the sense that there are new economies of scale to be sought, and the need for technologies which can interface with one another.

 

All that may be well and good. Ditto growing cooperation among churches, universities and other institutions. But, when it comes to media, and the benefits of competition, I might prefer the rugged, Western individualism of Hollywood lore which David Brooks deems to be the Republicans' Achilles heel.

 

John Wayne and pool cameras don't really mix well.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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