There was a time not so very long ago when a profession existed that defined the visual element of television news gathering. The photographer, or videographer, was as much a fixture of the newsroom as a camera. Not so much anymore. Larger markets still employ them and smaller markets are phasing them out, some completely, in favor of the hapless MMJ, or “multimedia journalist.”
While it’s true technologies, especially cameras, have become smaller and more user- friendly, and even live shots can be done solo now by the MMJ, what’s generally lost in the American newsroom reshuffle is a level of quality of both photography and writing. Managers will argue the public doesn’t notice. Quite frankly, they’re correct the public doesn’t notice the change specifically, but the public does notice an overall sense that newscasts aren’t as good as they used to be. There are lots of reasons for that. One of them has been the loss of the photog. Another is the expansion of the reporter into the role of MMJ. As the change has been occurring, when old reporters are asked to also write scripts for the web and take on a number of new roles, they generally resist, for they most certainly are not paid more for the extra work that takes away from the job they are paid to do…report. So the creation of the MMJ puts the job in the job title just so there’s no confusion and lots of kids want to get hired.
As financial pressures increase on broadcasters, who must compete with cable and the internet these days for advertising dollars, the trend has been to downsize the newsroom and to depend more on technology. Before I explain that more fully, however, I do believe it must be stated regarding public companies, including those involved in the media, that putting the shareholder’s concerns ahead of the stakeholder’s concerns, a reality now thanks to acolytes of the economist Milton Friedman, has been a detriment to news as we have known it. Arbitrary acceptable levels of profit frequently don’t jibe with doing a job well. It’s perceived to be better to redefine the job than take a lower profit, and that’s precisely what’s happening.
For decades, news has been defined as a product, and as with any product, let’s say hamburgers, as cost cuts slowly and ceaselessly pervade an industry, quality becomes a casualty. A manager is expected to always look to cut costs and is usually rewarded when those cuts are made. The managers hope the newsroom can operate with less and they hope the consumer won’t notice the difference in the product and will continue buying. They’re banking on brand loyalty trumping taste. That works for a while, until a competitor introduces the original product as “something new.” Suddenly everyone remembers what a real hamburger tastes like. Meanwhile the industry has changed and despite the fact you can make a better burger yourself, or find a good one that costs a little extra, the new normal is stopping on the way home for convenience. Fast food.
Once upon a time it took two cameras, a director, and a tape operator to make a simple dissolve between photos. Now the MMJ can do it all herself. The MMJ can set up a story, doing everything a reporter would do, but then shoot video for a story, at the same time shooting photos on her phone to send back to the website producer, interview a subject on camera, maybe set up a live, drive back to the station, write the story and edit it and perhaps be on the set, which means changing clothes, write the story for the website, share it on the various social media platforms, and then she's free to go home, except she's on call that night for potential breaking news. Or maybe she has more than one story. You can see from the description, all very accurate, what used to be called a “reporter,” a respected, if not sometimes reviled figure, has now become nothing more than what is generally viewed as a “content producer.” However, all the aspects of production will not necessarily have the same quality. Maybe she's not a good photographer or editor or writer. She does a great Facebook live! The MMJ is not unlike the fast food worker, except she's in a "glamorous" business in a small market. She follows a specific recipe and techniques working with automation to create as many hamburgers as possible as quickly as possible. Quality has given way to quantity. Why not extend the metaphor? Call it fast news, information as product. The difference, of course, is the MMJ usually has a Bachelor’s Degree and works with intellectual content. But don’t kid yourself. Many managers really don’t care how intellectual the content is so long as it gets posted in a timely manner. They want clicks, clicks and more clicks.
The metaphor can be extended to the newsroom as a whole and to the News Director. Getting breaking news on all the platforms as quickly as possible has become analogous to the fast food manager, barking orders into the microphone during rush hour, keeping the employees moving, delivering content to the customers. The structure of the newscast is shaped to maximize ratings, stacked like the colorful menus, offering faux variety, different versions of the same thing. Newscast structure was once about maximizing the impact of a story. Now, everyone in a position to do so will say the consumer doesn’t like the old model so a new model has to be created to attract the consumer, but really, isn’t the consumer just tired of the same old sandwich, which is really a sandwich gradually stripped of anything that gives it character or taste?
Publicly held corporations, those beholden to their shareholders, are creating a fast news model with as much automation as possible. Today in the Information Age, just as in the Industrial Age a little more than a century ago, the owners (shareholders) of the factory (news station) are producing (stakeholders) a product (information) for consumption (stakeholders). You can promote your product as being the best, but really, you just want people to buy what you’re selling. These days, the idea of objectivity is less relevant than if the product sells, which frequently means skewing the story to benefit one political side. If you are an employee you’re not allowed to express an opinion, however, the business may express any opinion in the products it disseminates throughout its network of stations.
Now think about this. Despite the fact you may be really hungry at the moment, information is a lot more important than a hamburger. In fact, you can have information about that hamburger but there is nothing the hamburger adds to information other than your subjective opinion that it’s bad, okay, or great. News can’t be judged the same way just because we don’t like a story, and yet, that’s exactly what’s happening. We’re picking and choosing our information from a menu on our television screens. I want Fox. I want CNN. I want MSNBC. There’s too much Russian on MSNBC. I’m watching Fox because they don’t put the Russian stuff in their product.
The increasing corporate role in local channels has also redefined the role of the News Director. Once, the Managing Editor, the leader of the newsroom, and generally one of the more experienced of all journalists (think Lou Grant), the ND has been relegated to corporate lackey, in charge of implementing the various mandates from the corporate office. Today the News Director candidate is judged by how willing he or she is to comply with corporate demands, which has more to do with marketing and shares than journalistic ethics. Consequently, if the ND has a personal vision for the newsroom, there will be blood resulting from friction with the top-down management structure. It’s easier and safer for an ND just to supervise the assembly line and hopefully improve efficiency by cutting costs.
In the old days, when a photographer and reporter went out on a story, they could talk about the story afterward and bounce ideas off each other. Generally, the photog would drive and the reporter would write. By the time they got back to the station, the photog might edit after the reporter wrote. That guaranteed more time working on the story, getting it right, and making it more interesting, and using the storytelling skills that are developed from such a working technique. The photog made the reporter better and, if the reporter was wise, would learn how best to work with that specific photog, who truly cared about the craft of photography.
Unfortunately, today many MMJs only have the experience of being required to fulfill a lot of tasks in a limited time. Overtime is generally frowned upon, so to meet the News Director’s demands, an unimaginative MMJ develops a technique to produce the same product over and over again with little variation. The story itself becomes unimportant. Content production is the only thing that matters. But the content, stripped of nutrition and taste, becomes just another burger on the assembly line.