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In News, Word Continues to Spread

We have seen the future of news, and it is—Twitter? Jon Stewart? Glenn Beck? The answer, it seems, is “yes” to all three as a mashup of new media and new voices speaks to a disaffection with traditional news outlets and a broadening mistrust of authority figures. It also underlines the challenges that news organizations face in 2010 as they attempt to corral consumers who have never watched an evening newscast.

As more viewers migrate to digital platforms, the role of television news and its anchors will continue to evolve, with news organizations throwing more things at the digital wall to see what sticks.

Although he has disavowed Twitter, NBC's Brian Williams, who anchors the top-rated evening news program, will continue to be the genre's good-will ambassador. An avid blogger and wry talk show guest, Williams will make his third appearance on NBC's 30 Rock this spring. Katie Couric of CBS has staked out new ground with extended online coverage, Facebook chats and the recently launched Web interview program @katiecouric, aptly titled in Twitter-ese.

'A seismic shift'

“There's a seismic shift in the media landscape right now, and everyone's looking for ways to put their product online in a whole host of different ways,” Couric says. “I think I've been very aggressive in my approach.” Couric calls @katiecouric “partly an experiment, partly an opportunity and partly a vanity project.”

ABC News anchor Diane Saywer—who, at 64, is the eldest among evening news anchors Williams, 50, and Couric, who turns 53 on Jan. 7—has been less active in the multimedia space. Last month, World News added the Web feature “The Conversation,” designed to give viewers a behind-the-scenes peek at the making of a segment. It is part of what will be “a significantly altered and expanded presence” for Sawyer and the broadcast on the Web, according to ABC News President David Westin.

Although Westin equivocated on whether Sawyer would join the ranks of the Twitterati, he did allow that the broadcast will have “significant social networking components.” Digital extras notwithstanding, ABC News is weathering significant changes across its broadcasts. Sawyer's ascension to the anchor chair at World News after leaving Good Morning America will have spurred changes at all three ABC broadcasts when George Stephanopoulos passes the baton at This Week.

“Any change in anchors has risks associated with it, and also opportunities,” Westin says. It remains to be seen if the changes will create opportunity for ABC—or its competitors.

It remains to be seen if the changes will create opportunity for ABC or its competitors.

Anchor transitions, says NBC News President Steve Capus, are "difficult territory to navigate."

"I like how we've handled them. Some of them have been planned; some of them have been unplanned. I think all of the changes are really an opportunity for us."

One opportunity that is unlikely to come the way of the broadcast networks is to recover the audience share they enjoyed before viewers discovered cable news, the Internet and myriad other news sources. Fox News—besides its much smaller competitor, HLN—was the only major cable news network to show growth in 2009. It was a record year, however, for Fox News, where the highest-rated programs are those fronted by Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and the polemicist Glenn Beck. The network's status as the voice of the opposition was sealed when the Obama administration mounted a clumsy and ultimately failed campaign to ostracize the channel. And it will enjoy that status for at least three more years.

CNN, the original cable news network, finished 2009 third in the primetime demo, well behind Fox News, and was edged out by MSNBC. CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein maintains that the network will not succumb to the pressure to put opinion in primetime, a strategy that has propelled MSNBC from also-ran to competitor and fueled success at Fox News.

Also showing gains is Spanish-language news, underscoring the growing influence of Hispanics in media and politics. With the 2010 Census expected to recast official U.S. ethnography, broadcasters Univision and Telemundo are funneling more resources and airtime to news. Last month, NBC Universal-owned Telemundo announced plans to launch its own Sunday public-affairs program in the first quarter, part of a company-wide initiative that includes increased resources to local news, a new multimedia strategy and more news on cable network mun2. Spanish-language networks are also finding a younger audience than their English-language competition. Univision's Sunday public affairs program Al Punto con Jorge Ramos may have a smaller national than those for Meet the Press, Face the Nation and This Week, but its median viewer age, at 46, is more than a decade younger.

Meanwhile, a plethora of independent online news operations, many of them staffed by pink-slipped newspaper reporters, continue to see gains in visibility.

All of the networks have news-sharing deals with foreign broadcasters. But as the recession-ravaged advertising market puts more pressure on traditional organizations, the online operators will gain market share. PBS' Frontline struck an arrangement with Tehran Bureau in the wake of last summer's disputed presidential elections in Iran. CBS News partners with investigative nonprofit ProPublica and Boston-based GlobalPost. The future of TV news, it seems, will be written by the new-media operatives.

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