Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Memphis TV News Has a Dateline Issue

Posted By on Tue, Jan 29, 2019 at 3:24 PM

TV 5
  • TV 5
I almost didn't post this because I worry about sounding like a broken record on this topic. But a recent WMC Facebook post stands out as a special example of how our broadcast media has abandoned any responsibility to the idea of "first do no harm."

For years Fly on the Wall has observed local news teams over-reporting crime and padding their broadcasts and social media feeds with crime reporting from other markets. Most out of town stories aren't introduced with a dateline, giving the initial impression that these scandals and abominations might be local. This dislocation is amplified by headline driven "scroll and share" consumer habits. I'm hardly the first critic of this cheap, media economy approach to news delivery, nor am I the only journalist to suggest that an over-saturation of fear-based reporting coupled to endless stream of brown faces builds stereotypes and cements misleading cultural narratives while triggering racist anxiety and public policy crafted in response to racist anxiety.

The post in question:

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On one hand, the link attached to WMC's post does eventually identify Houston a the location of the event. Many, similar posts don't even do that and one has to be clicked in order to see a dateline pegging the story to Florida, California, or somewhere else in the heartland. Only, people don't read news in blocks, taking in all the content at once. We read top to bottom, left to right. So the first information consumers get from WMC's post is the station's logo followed by news that five officers have been shot and are being transported to the hospital. At this point in reading, anybody with a husband, wife, son, daughter, or friend on the local force experiences a little heart failure. It may be allayed if they read on, but the messenger has already failed by not providing key information up front while appealing to raw emotion and cravenly picking at the scabs of discontent.

As if on cue one of the first commenters emerges from the disinformed fever swamp to pin this mass shooting of police officers on an imagined "race war" ginned up by President Barack Obama.

So why would the commenter think this drug raid-related shooting was somehow related to younger generations and Obama's secret race war? Although the linked story doesn't include the usual mug shot and one has to Google a bit to get the details, these perps were 50-ish and white. 
Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle
  • Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle

But an endless news stream showing crime after crime — brown face after brown face — creates a misleading narrative that lends itself to irrational conclusion. Per the old programmer's maxim: Garbage in, garbage out.

None of this is accidental. It almost feels trite to remind consumers that content is a market run by enormous financial interests who use trusted, appropriately coiffed personalities to anchor their brands and make you think they care about anything besides where the next dollar's coming from. That's glib, but it's neither incorrect or an understatement to say that news content is determined by market, not the public good. 

For newsrooms, police blotter crime reporting with no context and no followup stories requires very little investment and no investment at all if you're sharing from an affiliate market. This stuff is as close to free as news content gets. Meanwhile, to borrow from media critic James T. Hamilton, useful and informative but more costly and potentially less clickable stories are left undone due to the "difficulties of translating the public benefits from excellent news coverage into private incentives for [media] owners."

If TV news is our window on the world, the view is constantly grim and brown is the color of mayhem. The market has spoken and the second comment to the post is the kind of dividend it pays. 

All WMC's social media person had to do to make this post not abhorrent was include the word "Texas" somewhere in the first sentence. That's it. So, at this point it may be fair to assume that showing a jot of responsibility really would kill our TV news folks, and someone would no doubt interpret their tragic death as yet another victim of Obama's fantasy race war.

In other words, we're doomed: Scene at 11. Thanks WMC. 

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Gannett Layoffs Hit Commercial Appeal Newsroom

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2019 at 10:14 AM

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In December of last year, Fly on the Wall predicted layoffs would be forthcoming at Gannett sometime after the new year. It had seemed like an inevitability since November's dismal quarterly report and the call for early buyouts that always presages another round of cuts. 

Yesterday, it finally happened. On Wednesday, January 23rd, Gannett laid off newsroom employees at newspapers across the country.

Via Poynter:

Another brutal day for journalism.

Gannett began slashing jobs all across the country Wednesday in a cost-cutting move that was anticipated even before the recent news that a hedge-fund company was planning to buy the chain.

The cuts were not minor.

The CA, which lost many top-of-pay scale employees to the Daily Memphian startup and has been under a hiring freeze, appears to have fared better than many Gannett publications.

As of now only one newsroom layoff has been confirmed. Four open positions have been eliminated. This story will be updated as more is known.

  

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

On Gannett, The Commercial Appeal, and Digital First

Dead Pools & Death Stars

Posted By on Thu, Jan 17, 2019 at 1:59 PM

"I am most afraid of our important, consequential work getting upended because our business model is further disrupted."

- Commercial Appeal managing editor Mark Russell in an interview published by Poynter.org, 1-13-2019.

"In April, The Post published the editorial headlined 'As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved,' calling on Alden Global Capital to sell the newspaper after it cut 30 more positions in the newsroom, leaving it at a fraction of its size just a few years ago. Then in May, three top figures at the Denver Post, including its former owner, resigned amid budget and staff cuts."

- From an AP report about Alden-backed Digital First Media's move to acquire The Commercial Appeal's parent company, Gannett Co. Published 1-14-2019.

If MNG/Digital First Media successfully acquires The Commercial Appeal's parent company, Gannett Co., it's time to start a dead pool. Only, instead of celebrity deaths, we'll bet on daily newspapers. Also, I'm calling first dibs: The Commercial Appeal, 2021 — RIP. 

After news broke that Digital First media was making moves to acquire Gannett, many local media watchers wondered if there was any juice left to squeeze from Memphis' already greatly diminished daily newspaper. It's a fair question, but only a tiny piece of the bigger picture. Whether or not the CA can withstand another round of screw-tightening, the market's certainly interested in finding out. Gannett stock rose 21 percent following the announcement and, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, this makes it harder for Gannett to, "justify turning its back on the offer," or go forward with plans to expand its own digital footprint by purchasing Gizmodo Media (Previously Gawker Media).

Frankly, if not for Digital First's reputation as "The Death Star of newspaper chains," the company's reasons for making an offer and encouraging Gannett to pursue other offers, might sound downright noble.
From the WSJ:

In the letter, Digital First accused [Gannett's] management of poor stewardship and of damaging the company’s financial position by making several “aspirational digital deals” that haven't paid off. It demanded that Gannett put all digital acquisitions on hold and hire bankers to review strategic alternatives. 

That sounds like the Gannett we all know. But to extend the Star Wars metaphor, this isn't Han Solo swooping in with his blaster to save the day. To borrow from Will Bunch at Philly.com:

"The dirty little secret is that DFM learned — at least for now — that it can sell longtime readers an inferior (or, to use the technical term, crappier) newspaper and only 10 percent of reach each year will cancel. Do the math, though, and it’s clear that much of America outside the biggest cities will become news deserts by the early 2020s, after Smith and his fellow hedge-funders have sucked out every last drop."

Is Bunch being alarmist? He's certainly not the only media watcher to sense a disturbance in the force. I caught a similar chill and the market's positive response to the Digital First news instantly called to mind a line in James T. Hamilton's 2003 book All The News That's Fit to Sell. When applied to the information business, economics really earns its reputation as "the dismal science."

Hamilton's book is aging well. It delves into how markets shape media bias with attention paid to how little the value of well-informed communities has to do with the value of commodified media product. It more or less describes and defines the kinds of changes we've all observed in local media markets. It's what happens when the public's interest shapes public interest and profit drives all.

via GIPHY

What happened to Alderaan can happen here.

The Digital First news took me back to that happy moment in 2018 when The Daily Memphian, a new startup, siphoned away much of the CA's top talent, effectively cloning the ailing Gannett property in a locally owned but digital-only environment. Most media consumers cheered, but I went full Cassandra on social media and any excitement generated by the prospect of a new information startup was dampened by the sense that we'd now crossed some kind of risk threshold. Every media  startup's a dicey proposition; now the Gannett-damaged CA had been cut in half — its talent gutted by a digital twin with good intentions. The idea of having no daily non-broadcast news source in Memphis within the next decade had to be seriously entertained.

In spite of recent and well-justified optimism, I once again submit my modest observation: The sky is falling. Maybe not for everybody and maybe not right now. But someday and soon and as reported elsewhere, there are no good guys in this deal.  But if Digital First takes Gannett there won't be a Commercial Appeal in 2022.

Write it down. 

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Local 24 Quietly Deletes Controversial Tweet

Posted By on Thu, Jan 10, 2019 at 10:00 AM

WATN, Local 24, had an interesting way of framing news about Cyntoia Brown's commuted life sentence.

Brown, the teenage sex trafficking victim who killed a john when she was 16, was granted executive clemency Monday, January 7th.

Here's WATN's original tweet on the story:

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Local 24 quietly deleted the tweet Tuesday, after it started receiving negative attention. The account has made no official mention of the deletion, nor has anybody accounted for the unfortunate framing of a tragic and complicated story.

Commissioner Tami Sawyer cuts to the heart of things:


Over the past week, MLK50 founder Wendi Thomas has been taking local broadcast stations to task for the huge role they play in linking African-Americans and criminality. She's been particularly vocal about the number of black faces linked to crime that show up in local social media feeds whether the news is local or not.


If you want to know just how disproportionately crime is reported in the Memphis market, the Memphis Flyer does an occasional survey.

This isn't a condition unique to Memphis and since, at a national scale, local TV news stations reach more viewers than all the top cable stations combined, it's fair to say that regional broadcasters across America play a huge role in shaping urban narratives related to race and crime. Local 24's tweet is just the latest example, and an especially egregious one. 

By deleting the tweet, someone has acknowledged its inappropriateness or, at least, the potential for controversy. But deletions like this require some accompanying public statement. For example, when WMC distanced itself from a deleted tweet reading: "Nashville is still trash,"  a subsequent tweet explained the deleted post didn't represent the station's "values or views."

Whether there's an accounting or not, here's something to think about. Negligent and incendiary headlines and the over-association of black and brown faces with violent crime isn't new, and neither is criticism pointing it out. The people responsible for organizing and distributing the news in 2019 know exactly what they are doing. They do it anyway. 

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