In the news chain

March 21, 2000|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- On one of my very first ventures out of the newsroom and into the green room, a young production assistant handed me a form describing me as "The Talent."

Until that moment, I had always thought that talent had something to do with cellos or tap shoes. So I benignly explained, "I'm not The Talent, I'm The Journalist." She looked up and answered cheerily, "Oh, same thing."

This was the same year a close friend left her job at a wire service for a network and cringed when heard herself defined as "a television personality." We should have realized right then where the news business was headed. But names can never hurt you. Or so we thought.

Fast forward through the era when it became harder to tell the news from the entertainment, the journalist from the talent from the personality. We are now in a brave new media world that just got a little braver and newer when the Chicago Tribune bought out the Los Angeles Times and created a giant company of 11 newspapers, 22 television stations and Internet operations said to attract 3.4 million monthly visitors.

The multi-multimedia universe that ranges from print to pixels has a maw that's widening until the jaw hurts. And in the process journalists, reporters, those "old media" working-stiff job titles that sound irrevocably stuffy, have gotten another new name. We have become -- ta da! -- content providers.

The cable stations want "content." The Internet wants "content." Everybody is talking about "content" as if there were a spigot somewhere to fill up the electronic jar.

A recent story in the New York Times about a day in the life of a content provider at the Tribune company describes an employee who hosts a weekend radio show, writes for the newspaper, and announces the winning numbers of the lottery on television. He moves from one to the next with just a touch of powder on the nose.

If the operative word in the multimedia world is synergy, this content provider is the one-armed paperhanger of synergy. His subjects, you will note, straddle the line of news and entertainment -- if there is still a line at all.

I am not going into a rant against the steam hammer. We've now learned that some 400,000 people would just as soon download Stephen King off the Internet as buy him at the bookstore. The medium is not the message.

As for news, we get it from a cafeteria of choices. And we've already seen a lot of the morphing of media and its working classes. Today there are TV studios in newspaper city rooms. Every news operation has its dot.com. There are journalists, talents and personalities who reign all over the various cable and Internet clones of NBC News.

Watching a reporter -- excuse me, content provider -- switch from cable to radio to Internet is not, after all, like watching Pat Buchanan go through the revolving door from presidential candidate to columnist to candidate to talk-show host.

Indeed, the problem isn't with content providing at all. It's the effect on the older, less flashy, less efficient reality of content gathering. You can bet that content providers are going to provide less content in their content.

There is, alas, a limit to the productivity of a c.p. in the real news world. They may be able to talk sports and announce the lottery number with cost-effective speed. But to cover, say, a war, you still have to go overseas, risk your neck, gain the trust of soldiers or civilians, and put it all together in an accurate, fair package.

In politics, the unsynergistic reality is that good reporting takes time. The folks who are rushing from the keyboard to the studio to the standup, from one cable show to another, aren't making that extra call or interview. Those who spend too much time talking about the news in nice little round tables where senators and journalists -- excuse me content providers -- call each other by their first names aren't out reporting it.

In my own end of the news business, I am ashamed to admit -- it seems so old-fashioned -- there really isn't a way to speed up the thought process. You can use all the high-tech equipment imaginable to distribute your thoughts. It's thinking itself that eats up all the hours.

In the end, a journalist is to a content provider as a farmer is to a waiter. They're both in the food biz. But the farmer is the one to count on.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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