Friday, May 8, 2009

Mayor Dave and the Demise of Local News

On his blogpost this week, my friend Mayor Cieslewicz decries the loss of still another veteran local news reporter, and alleges the college papers cover more city news than anybody else.

We’ll talk about that in a moment.

The Mayor misses his regular chats with Jennifer Miller, an acquaintance of long-standing and former reporter/anchor for the local ClearChannel radio cluster over on Fish Hatchery Road. Like so many of us in the last year, she’s been sent packing. In her stead, ClearChannel now runs newscasts from Julie Tedesco, a ClearChannel employee in their Grand Rapids, Michigan cluster of stations. Her half-hourly afternoon newcasts are filled with material written and produced right here in Madison by people like Robin Colbert and her dad, John, the dean of radio news guys in Madison. Ms. Tedesco is a pro and gets the local pronunciations right and sounds like she’s in Madison….but the mayor is right. She’ll never get the flavor of the City of the Perpetually Offended by living and working in Grand Rapids. Julie Tedesco will never know a tenth of what Jennifer Miller knows about Madison.

The mayor echoes the common belief that the demise of so many of us in the news biz is because of declining revenue.

Not really. It’s a factor, but more of an excuse than a factor.

ClearChannel, the largest radio consolidator in the history of the known universe, in its most recent iteration, was put together by two idiots who grossly overpaid, don’t know how to manage broadcast properties, and dance to the tune called by the even more greedy bankers who loaned them the money for the inflated purchase of all those radio stations. In the past few months, ClearChannel has fired over two thousand people, and ClearChannel still can’t meet its financial obligations.

Ever hear of a local broadcast MANAGER or PROGRAM DIRECTOR or NEWS DIRECTOR or EDITOR being “laid off” in an economic purge? The bosses fire the worker bees in news, to protect their own salary.

Too many broadcast properties, like the ClearChannel radio entities, are managed by people who were at one time good at selling commercials. They don’t have the foggiest idea of what it takes to gather, write, and produce newscasts. Many of these managers, and I speak from vast experience, cannot recognize or appreciate good news content. To them, news employees represent at best a cost item, and at worst a force for evil within the corporation because they have the temerity to point out from time to time in their newscasts that sponsors - cash-paying advertisers - sometimes fleece the public. Makes it harder to sell more ads to the offending merchant.

So, you see, my friend Mayor Dave proceeds from the false assumption that local professional news organizations (his words) WANT to keep their reporters. First, Mayor Cieslewicz, they’re not “professional news organizations”, particularly if you’re talking about broadcasters. Like the so-called “newspaper”, they exist to sell ads and generate revenue. News content is secondary, tertiary, or lower. Second, if the FCC would only drop that pesky requirement about addressing community issues through LOCAL programming, they could dump any pretense of doing “news” without jeopardizing their license.

Now if those young folks at the Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald want to sit though every city council meeting, and take notes on the debate about who should be a sister-city and who shouldn’t, and whether we should ban plastic bags from landfills, and impeachment hearings on George Bush and all the other stuff that masquerades as “city” business, more power to them. In my thirty-plus years in the biz, I never encountered a public official, board, commission, or council that wanted LESS coverage of its activities. In the news biz in 2009, it’s pick and choose, manage overtime, and prioritize your coverage.

I join Mayor Dave in lamenting the loss of still another experienced local news reporter. But lots of us are still here, Mr. Mayor….you’ll find us in places like this, on the internet.


  1. Once upon a time I religiously listened to a morning newsman. His newscasts were filled with intelligence, wit, and impartiality. I recall a discussion as to how the aforementioned newsman and a certain farm director were the only two from the news department that through whichever measure were impartial. Since that fateful day in November, I still haven't found a professional news organization since. Fortunately there is still a professional newsMAN here.

  2. Perfect aim! This little stink bomb landed right in the trench, and I am applauding.

    The "news industry" response to the disruption wrought by the Internet and an economy plundered by corporados has been abysmal. Industry leaders (publishers in my case, because I'm riding the newspaper dinosaur down to the pit of perdition) have been so hung up on doing what always worked in the past that they have become lost in the fog bank of the change they now find themselves in the middle of, disoriented, confused, unable to determine where the shoals are or in which direction to proceed.

    This is the industry's Battle of Verdun. A grievously bungled blunder to victory, but at a horrible, dreadful, Pyrrhic price. Only this time there is no Pétain rallying the troops with "Courage! On les aura."

    So to save the wounded ship - and their own purses - the managers and directors and editors and assorted corporate parasites throw the reporters overboard and give away what passes for news. That they think this might ultimately work is a measure of the mind-boggling incompetence that brought us to these straits.

    What farmer ever preserved his future by eating the seed corn?

    They say that if you go down far enough, everything begins to look like up. Hang on, I think we're we're almost there...

  3. Please allow me to vent about Mayor Dave.
    I was looking forward to a round table discussion about Urban planning that the Mayor had scheduled at the Humanities building @ 5:30 P.M. this past Thursday. 5:30 Dave? With the concert traffic Dave? I doubt that it was covered by the local news as the location and timing were ridiculous. I did try, but gave up after a solid hour of traffic congestion. It will be interesting to see if it was afforded any coverage. Urban planning is probably the hottest issue going.