Follow the money.
Another week of heavily-laden headlines focusing on the further demise of local news — this time, the story centering on FiOS1 News.
In a nutshell: Verizon is pulling the plug on its contract with RNN News, which supplies the news content (but does not sell the advertising) for FiOS1 News, effective Nov. 15. It’s not what was wanted by RNN, which negotiated throughout the year to hammer out a new deal. And it’s not what’s deserved, as 150 people will be out of work through no fault of their own, as they simply fall victim to changing priorities. To his credit, RNN head Richard French is advocating strongly to help his employees find new opportunities while touting the historical importance of what FiOS1 offered: An alternative voice within a market that before it had only known News12.
Time to Evolve
When it first hit Verizon’s cable channel in 2009, it didn’t immediately impress, as Richard Huff tells here in his piece, Lost Verizon: FiOS1 Already Looks Like It’s Old News, for the Daily News. But all news outlets need time to work out the kinks, grow up and evolve — something that requires the luxury of time, boatloads of money and sustained patience, bordering on saintlike, on behalf of the public. Remember, unlike other industries, a news outlet has to find its groove by trying things out in the public eye. The good is visible; the bad, seldom forgotten. In 10 years time, FiOS1 News distinguished itself for its attention to politics — with French at the helm — as well as compelling storytelling produced by its Push Pause community affairs team and extended live coverage of developing news stories, ranging from major weather events like Sandy to the aftermath of the Mangano trial. More recently, efforts like Push Pause and Waldo Cabrera’s Long Island TV were faded out. Victims, too, of cutbacks.
The true impact of what FiOS1 News accomplished? The voice thing. Every market, no matter the size, needs multiple voices, not only to tell stories the others’ won’t but to provide competition which, in turn, creates better news outlets overall. This isn’t to imply a media conspiracy but rather to call out the ephemeral definition of news itself: What’s news today isn’t necessarily news tomorrow. What one assignment editor sees in a story is different than what another will see. And it’s why a well-crafted story that in no way meets the definition of news at any given moment in any given day will manage to find its way to the top of a newscast or on the front page.
Beyond the headlines
News, for all its emphasis on objectivity, is based on a highly subjective methodology. That’s truly why multiple news voices are crucial to the health and well being of a community. National news is there to guard the country’s front door. Local news keeps watch over your backyard. Neither are your enemy. Both do a second-rate job of actually explaining why they exist which, when you think about it, shouldn’t be necessary. But it is in today’s world because news has devolved into what can now be considered a startup phase.
One of the things wrong here is that what the news focuses on is the so-called demise of news. Headlines tell the number of newspapers closing down and staff being cut from mainstream media. The headlines you don’t see are the ones announcing new news outlets organically popping up, finding a niche that is authentic to a community. These smaller outlets have been summarily dismissed as somehow unworthy of note, but they now tout some serious talent from those same major media brands — victims of downsizing, but still possessing skills, talent, and the type of knowledge a young reporter will only acquire after decades of working within a community or a specific subject area. The real story is news is changing. At the moment, we’ve hit rock bottom, across the board. It’s hard to be optimistic when reporters aren’t there to cover school boards and town hall meetings, so people know what’s happening inside their schools and where their tax dollars are going. We need informed citizens. Democracy is waning. Yes, we get it.
What the headlines also don’t tell you? The new perspective and educational advantage that lands in the public’s lap every time they hear one of their local news outlets is going away. The same people who criticize the likes of FiOS1 News are now rallying behind it. There’s something amazing in that. We’ve gotten to a place where the changing news landscape is as much a wake-up call for the public as it is the media.
There are bright spots emerging that illustrate the news of tomorrow will be stronger, in its ability to tell stories in interesting ways and to truly incorporate the public into the process. (The classic downside of the printed newspaper is you were delivered a product that gave you no latitude to talk back in a timely fashion in front of an audience.)
For far too long, news media has been bought and sold like a commodity, no different than coffee beans and pork bellies. It never belonged in that category, did it?
What that era of news media has left us with are institutions with no vested interest in being news outlets. It’s created a great flaw in today’s news product, one where newsrooms take the easy way out. It’s that mindset that opens the door to irresponsibility, unnecessarily ruining the reputations of people as well as brands. After all, just because you could, doesn’t mean you should. It’s a newsroom lesson most often learned the hard way. The rise of individual owners also gives hope. Whether it’s with small startups that are like Patch.com or with larger entities, like Patrick Soon Shiong buying the L.A. Times or Patrick Dolan buying Newsday, individual owners provide something corporate ownership simply can’t: A heart, a soul and most definitely, a conscience, to guide newsrooms to maintain a level of character and to remind it, every now and then, it’s purpose is to serve the public.
Verizon now says it’s committed to local news and will be announcing a replacement for FiOS1 News in early-to-mid September that won’t be called FiOS or be produced by RNN. What’s interesting is how cable companies no longer place an emphasis on creating their own local news as a selling point for their cable product, as cable fades from homes. Oh, and the time frame corresponds with the Dolan v. Altice lawsuit, focusing on the diminishment of News12, landing in court.
What needs to replace FiOS1 is a new voice in the market. For everyone’s sake. What will happen? Follow the money.
The Watch List is part of the Fair Media Council’s weekly newsletter. Sign up here. Jaci Clement is CEO & Executive Director of the Fair Media Council. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org