THE 21ST CENTURY
By Suzanne Huffman
Broadcast news was born in the 20th century as radio and television developed in the
United States. Pioneer stations put news on the air to inform their viewers and to build
their audiences. By the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, most U.S.
citizens turned to radio and television for most of their news. That was particularly
evident on September 11, 2001, and for days after, as millions of Americans were glued
to radio and TV coverage of the terrorist attacks against the United States.
As we begin the new century, the broadcast-news business continues to change
rapidly. The 21st century will almost certainly involve changes in the technology used to
gather and distribute news, changes in the business structure of media companies, and
changes in what news employees are expected to contribute to those companies.
Good writing will be key to surviving and navigating the changes ahead. As the
technology changes, a need for trained writers who can use the language effectively will
remain constant, and such people will be in demand. By good writing, we mean simple,
clear, accurate, coherent, grammatically correct sentences. This writing will increasingly
become more multi-dimensional and will involve layers of information, incorporating
words with audio, video, graphics and links to sites on the Internet and World Wide Web.
And as live news reporting becomes the norm, the ability to produce quality writing at the
speed of spot news will be increasingly important.
Changes in the Technology Used to Gather and Distribute News
The world of broadcast news is increasingly technical, and the time between gathering
the news and delivering it has shrunk to seconds in some cases. Since the 1950s, the
format of news-gathering equipment has changed from film to tape to digital. The digital
environment is leading into a multimedia world, where radio and television programming
is delivered by way of computer terminals and Palm Pilots linked to the Internet and the
World Wide Web.
Millions of Americans now use the Internet, and the number grows larger every
day. The Internet isn’t radio or television; it’s a whole new form of interaction that radio
and television are starting to use both to expand and to promote traditional programming
and news. The major broadcast companies, cable networks and many local stations have
sites on the Internet. Viewers can see and hear broadcast news on their computers or
personal digital assistants (PDAs), and they can access archived programs there as well.
Many news programs tie into the Internet with “read and/or hear more about it” sites.
Viewers and listeners are directed to check Internet sites for excerpts from books,
speeches, court testimony and other public documents.
We see examples of this on NBC’s “Dateline” news magazine program, wherein
viewers are directed to the show’s Web site for additional information about a story.
Viewers can read additional in-depth material about a story or the main players involved,
“chat” with the newscasters, react to the broadcast itself by sending e-mail messages in
response to a particular story, respond to an online poll, and participate in the news-
gathering process by suggesting ideas for other stories. This interactivity underscores the
need for good writers, because all of this information, from the broadcast script itself to
the Web site material, is written.
The television networks are also continuing to unveil “Web specials” that feature
original content tailored to Internet audiences, thus blurring the boundary lines between
television news programming and online journalism. The purpose of these specials is still
to promote network shows. But the specials themselves are increasingly sophisticated and
multi- layered. Getting people invo lved through Web sites is expected to result in a bigger
impact when specials air.
Traditional media companies are evolving into larger and more diverse
multimedia groups. Gannett Company, based in Arlington, Virginia, is the nation’s
largest newspaper company, but it also has TV stations and cable TV systems in several
states. A.H. Belo Corporation, based in Dallas, Texas, began as a newspaper publishing
company in the mid-1800s, but it’s now a multimedia conglomerate that owns
newspapers, network-affiliated television stations (including Web sites for most of them),
and a Texas regional cable news channel, which provides news 24 hours a day, seven
days a week. Newspaper reporters are increasingly involved in that cablecast. The
network news divisions are expanding their activities into such new media as cable,
online, satellite and digital services. The Associated Press, once strictly oriented to
newspapers, now provides newsroom technology, audio, and video to broadcast media
outlets around the world. We learned in Chapter 13 how converging media technologies
are affecting news workers at WFLA-TV, the Tampa Tribune, and Tampa Bay Online
In such an environment it makes less sense for writers to think of themselves as
strictly television, radio, or newspaper people. It seems more practical to take a
multimedia approach and to think of oneself as being a broad-based communication
practitioner. The ability to write well is the key skill one needs in a multimedia
environment, whether that writing is strictly with words or also involves audio, video, or
a combination of some or all of those elements. In published research and in conference
presentations, news directors and publishers repeatedly emphasize good writing as the
key skill they seek.
Changes in the Business Structure of Media Companies
In the beginning, news wasn’t expected to make money for a station or network; instead,
it was expected to lend prestige and legitimacy to the company and to provide useful
information to the public. Now news is expected to make money, and unrelenting
pressure to do so is leading to changes for those who work in and write for the media.
There is new competition from cable, satellite and Internet programmers. TV
viewers may choose to view traditional broadcast news programming, but they may also
choose alternatives, such as cable, satellite pay-per-view and webcasts on the Internet. In
the early 1950s, the new medium of television offered just three viewing options. Today,
the average cable subscriber has doze ns. This situation has led media companies into a
ferocious competition for the “eyeball time” of information consumers/viewers. And
there’s intense pressure for profits in this increasingly competitive media marketplace,
which is dominated by huge corporations such as Time Warner, Walt Disney Co., and
This new corporate ownership structure followed broadcasting deregulation in the
1990s and is making the broadcasting business environment increasingly complex and
interrelated. ABC is owned by the Walt Disney Co., which also produces movies and TV
shows; owns theme parks and retail stores; and has interests in cable networks such as
ESPN, A&E and Lifetime. CBS is owned by Viacom, which also owns MTV, Showtime,
Nickelodeon, VH1, Country Music Television, The Nashville Network, Blockbuster Inc.,
and the Paramount Pictures film studio. NBC’s parent is General Electric, a huge
company that makes everything from light bulbs to turbine engines and weapons. Fox is
part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns 20th Century Fox, the Los Angeles
Dodgers and several newspapers. Time Warner and the Tribune Co. back WB. In 1999,
Clear Channel Communications consolidated 955 radio stations into one radio
broadcasting behemoth, which includes station Web sites. The FCC may lift ownership
rules that limit groups to a reach of no more than 35% of U.S. TV homes. And a few
companies have vertically integrated everything from bookstores to video stores, to
television and radio stations, to newspapers and Internet sites all under one umbrella.
This situation is leading traditional news organizations to co-produce news
programming with corporate partners. For example, some CNN news programming is
now linked to such Time Warner magazines as Time, Fortune and Entertainment Weekly.
Other television news programs are also combining with their own and related print
companies and Web sites, further blurring the traditional lines between broadcast and
print media. NBC News co-produces news stories with Newsweek magazine, and NBC’s
“Dateline” co-produces news stories with People magazine, The Discovery Channel,
National Geographic, and Court TV. The “PBS NewsHour” works with correspondents
for The Washington Post, and NBC Sports promotes its MSNBC Web sites. NBC and
The Washington Post Co. have joined forces to share news reports in print, on TV and on
the Internet. Contributors to the alliance are NBC News; the MSNBC cable network and
Internet site; and the print and Web operations of The Washington Post and its sister
publication, Newsweek magazine. Journalists from The Washington Post and Newsweek
appear on NBC News programming and on MSNBC Cable, including regular segments
of its nightly program “The News with Brian Williams.” A merged Web site,
Newsweek.MSNBC.com, is part of the venture. NBC’s other cable network, CNBC,
already has a deal with The Wall Street Journal to share business news. MSNBC is itself
a joint venture created in 1996 between NBC and Microsoft.
On the local level, examples include Cleveland ABC affiliate WEWS-TV and
Akron’s Beacon Journal, which formed a strategic partnership that links their news
services and Web sites, with each gaining from the other’s strength in its respective
community. Akron is a significant part of the Cleveland television market. The station
uses the newspaper’s resources to beef up its Akron coverage, sometimes featuring
stories from the Beacon Journal newsroom. They two entities also collaborate on news,
features and special reports. Early in 2002, Scripps-owned WMAR-TV in Baltimore
entered an agreement for joint reporting, advertising and promotion with the Baltimore
Sun. In addition to putting the newspaper’s reporters on the air, the station will exchange
on-air ads for newspaper ads and may jointly sell ad space. The newspaper is dominant
in its market, with editorial staff in the hundreds in the city and numerous bureaus; but
the television station has suffered poor ratings. Because of limited resources and a
saturation of news options, some stations can no longer afford to stand alone and expect
to serve their audiences in the best way. Partly as a result of these economics, writers are
expected to be able to perform in both broadcast and print environments.
Today’s media executives are also being directed to “do more with less,” and that
means media employees will increasingly need to be flexible and versatile. Reporters for
the Dallas Morning News also appear on the parent company’s regional cable news
channel. Newspapers in many other markets across the country have set up similar
operations. Jim Cummins, an NBC news reporter based in Dallas, Texas, now not only
reports for “NBC Nightly News,” but also does live interviews for MSNBC and writes
articles for the MSNBC Web site.
Changes in What News Employees Are Expected to Contribute to
The ability to write accurately and work swiftly in a rapidly changing environment has
never been more important. Those entering the broadcast news business today feel the
full impact of the 24-hour news cycle in a way previo us generations of writers did not.
The unrelenting pressure of the 24- hour news cycle has resulted from the growth of CNN
and the more recent arrivals of MSNBC and Fox News Channel. All- news seemed like a
grand concept—and it is—but it has created competitive pressures to constantly “feed the
beast.” Each news network has many programs, the needs of which must be filled. And
each news network is locked in a continual race to attract viewers—and advertisers.
Whereas we once had ABC, CBS and NBC, we now have ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, Fox
News Channel, MSNBC, NBC, C-SPAN, CNBC and Headline News competing “live”
around the clock for news viewers. Viewers interested in sports and weather can turn to
ESPN, ESPN2, regional sports channels, The Weather Channel and local cable systems’
weather information channels. Broadcast journalists who work within this crowded, 24-
hour-a-day news cycle face constant and relentless pressure from the clock. And they also
face new pressures from several other sources as well. They face economic pressure from
media owners and news executives for higher ratings and profits. And they face
competitive pressure from other journalists for a story.
A survey of news directors across the country asked them to define the
characteristics they considered most important in new employees and evaluate graduates
seeking entry- level jobs in their organizations. The results were published in what is
known as the “Jane Pauley Report.” Based on the survey responses, news directors today
look at four major cha racteristics in job applicants: writing ability, good attitude and
personality, knowledge, and good work habits. The news directors are most concerned
with writing skills. News directors complain that many applicants that seek entry- level
jobs don’t write well, lack basic grammar and spelling skills, and need to develop better
“people skills.”1 One of the key recommendations of the report is to emphasize strong
writing skills within the university curriculum the very purpose of this text. The news
directors say the abilities to gather information and write with style are equally important.
They say students must learn to produce copy on deadline that answers the five W’s and
H, offers context, and (in the case of television) is written with video in mind in short,
active- voice, declarative sentences. And whether you’re dealing with beta, digital,
satellite delivery, or writing for three different media as part of one job, writing is the one
skill that cuts across technologies and media. The computer revolution has created a
1 Tomorrow’s Broadcast Journalists: A Report and Recommendations from the Jane Pauley Task Force on Mass Communication
Education (1996), Greencastle, Indiana: The Society of Professional Journalists.
booming economy with plenty of communications jobs. But no software can replace solid
writing skills. And the first skill that employers seek is writing.
The Bottom Line
Clarity of meaning is crucial for today’s writers. So are specific word choices. As we’ve
noted on numerous occasions in earlier chapters, it’s paramount that broadcast journalists
be clear, be specific, and use the words that best convey the meaning they’re trying to
convey. The audience for broadcast news is becoming increasingly diverse. This makes
clear, understandable and inclusive language all the more important. You want to avoid
all “isms,” such as sexism, racism, ageism and—in many newsrooms, such as CNN’s—
nationalism. CNN founder Ted Turner objects to the use of the word “foreign” in CNN
broadcasts; it’s more specific to name the country itself. Students must also learn to write
with accuracy; they must get the story right.
Broadcast journalists enter the business for a variety of reasons. Some harbor a
desire to become celebrities and make money off of personal fame gained from on-
camera exposure. Others burn with a desire to report the news fairly and accurately and to
make a difference in people’s lives. The audience in the meantime is being overwhelmed
with the amount and uneven quality of news products, and the public is growing more
and more skeptical about the media’s trustworthiness.
In fact, the public's faith in the media may be at a new low. In November of
2001, the Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of Americans rated the news as
highly professional, but that number had dropped to 49 percent by July 2002. According
to a poll conducted in the summer of 1998 for Newsweek magazine, 61 percent of those
responding said they get most of their news about current events from television. But
when asked how much they think they can believe of what they see, hear or read in the
news media, 11 percent said almost all of it; 35 percent said "most of it"; 42 percent said
"only some of it"; and 11 percent said "very little of it." That's more than half (53
percent) of Americans who characterize news reporting today as "often inaccurate." And
76 percent say the race for ratings and profits has driven the media "too far" in the
direction of entertainment rather than traditional reporting. Now there's more need than
ever for broadcasters to be clear, truthful, accurate and fair in their news reporting and
As public confidence in television news erodes, some stations are experimenting
with a style of journalism called "public," "civic" or "community" journalism. Broadly
speaking, this journalism aims to reinvigorate public thinking by re-engaging people with
public life. It has been described as an effort on the part of journalists to become involved
in the process of finding solutions to community problems rather than just reporting the
problems. Those involved in the movement stress its cooperative, collaborative nature.
Broadcast stations often work with newspapers in their communities. And they seek
"solution" coverage rather than conflict coverage. They interview "average citizens," not
just "experts" or polarized combatants.
At the October 15, 1958, meeting in Chicago of the Radio and Television News
Directors Association, Edward R. Mur row, one of the founders of traditional broadcast
news as we know it, said, "This instrument [television] can teach, it can illuminate; yes,
and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to
use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and
perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This
weapon of television could be useful." We would expand Murrow's definition to include
the multimedia environment of today. These means of information transmission can be
useful and educational, provided we use them to those ends. Like Murrow, we also
encourage all who write for the media to strive to be the "wordsmith" Murrow himself
became, choosing his words thoughtfully, writing his copy carefully, and rewriting as
often as necessary to get the story right.
In this text, our approach has been to craft good writers by laying a solid foundation
and then building on it. We believe excellent writing is the essential skill in radio,
television, and online news. Equipment operation can be learned in a few days—good
writing can't. It takes time, effort, thought and practice. We hope we've provided the tools
and inspiration for you to begin.
DOs and DON'Ts in the New Century
• Learn to write well. • Expect things to remain the same.
• Learn to write accurately and swiftly. • Be afraid to try new things.
• Be flexible and versatile. • Forget to “feed the beast.”