As this column goes to press, Katie Couric's debut as anchor of the CBS Evening News is days away and a million questions hang over civilization. Will America tune in? Is Uncle Walter (Cronkite) really going to play some role in the first broadcast, crowning Katie "queen" of broadcast news, as some reports had it? Does she have gravitas? Is she gonna make it after all?
It's a peculiar moment for the media, and not as silly as it looks. Most of the Katie discussion revolves around personality, a subject that is at the core of journalism's identity crisis.
Reporting the results of a poll on the evening-news anchors, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press noted that Couric "is already a more familiar personality than her NBC and ABC counterparts." Those polled were asked to sum up their general impression of Couric in a word. The top 10 responses were: "Good," "Liberal," "All Right," "OK," "Perky," "Cute," "Informed," "Like Her," "Knowledgeable," and "Nice." The 20th most popular response was "Fluffy."
Now that list does a pretty nice job of summing up Couric's public personality, which in fact spans the range from Knowledgeable to Fluffy. And her success will depend on how well she deploys these elements.
We tend to think of personality as a commodity that matters only in television and radio, the two kinds of media whose practitioners are often referred to as "personalities." Newspaper reporters and columnists are never called that. But take a print hack, put him or her on Hardball half a dozen times, and, voila, you've got a personality.
In fact, personality figures in all media, not just the chatty ones. Style, sense of humor, "voice," attitude—these things matter in all varieties of journalism, from television to print to blog. And personality will be decisive in determining which kinds of outlets survive the massive shakeout currently under way in the profession and which fade away.
At the moment, the media are a kind of laboratory where an enormous experiment in personality calibration is taking place before our eyes. The most interesting corners are the outlets that aren't quite sure how much personality is right, e.g., the CBS Evening News.
How does personality work in the media? In one sense, it's a pretty blunt instrument. As a general rule, bigger personalities draw bigger audiences and thereby have more impact. Thus, if you're a hair-on-fire ideological warrior of the Right or the Left, you will naturally get more attention than if you have the less flashy personality of a moderate. Likewise, columnists and bloggers who lean heavily on attitude—sarcasm and other varieties of jadedness are currently big—tend to register nice numbers and become little industries unto themselves.
These personality maximalists are onto something. Personality is a kind of vitality, and when it's lacking, the results can be deeply dull (see most newspapers today).
But too much personality is also deadening, especially if it becomes an end in itself, viz the Today show (which gave us Couric), the snarkier blogs, and every other outlet where personality is, well, a cult.
The results of the great personality experiment are not yet in, but any thoughtful news consumer can see a pattern emerging. The best outlets are those that realize a little personality goes a long way. Thus, the most promising blogs are not the pure-attitude shops like Wonkette. They are the ones that are heavily subject-driven, with personality around the edges.
Take LA Observed, an excellent blog run by former L.A. Times staffer Kevin Roderick. It works because it's not really about Roderick himself or a pose he's striking. It's about the city of Los Angeles, and the content is driven by what's happening in that city. News itself—stories, facts, happenings—is ultimately more magnetic than personality.
This is a simple truth, and not exactly revolutionary. Cronkite wasn't Cronkite because he let his personality hang out every night. He was Cronkite because he kept his personality in a kind of dignified check, revealing glimpses of himself only occasionally, when the moment was right. Less was more—much more.
Is that a lost art? Over to you, Katie.