Revolution in the Air

Fifty years after famed newsman Edward R. Murrow urged those at the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention to use their medium to teach and inspire their audience, attendees at the 2008 RTNDA show were encouraged to brainstorm innovative ways to illuminate viewers—and boost revenue.

While the majority of the sessions were centered around new media, what emerged was the sense that the term itself isn't all that new anymore. Alternative media such as user-generated content, one-man bands and blogging should not be viewed as dot-com novelties, speakers stressed, but as vital mechanisms for gathering and distributing content.

“There's a lot of talk about, 'What would Murrow do?'” said Audience Research & Development Senior VP Steve Safran as he moderated the panel “Leading Change in a Digital Newsroom.” “Murrow would be blogging from London. Murrow would be empowering residents with digital cameras and with blogs.”

Television seemed to take a back seat at last week's show in Las Vegas, with on-air programming deemed simply a part—albeit an important one—of a station's local-media portfolio. KLAS Las Vegas online manager Caroline Bleakley mentioned how fully two-thirds of the visitors to KLAS' successful site don't watch KLAS newscasts. Stations can't be retrofitted to truly accommodate digital needs, said the speakers; dedicated digital employees should be tasked with creating and monetizing digital content. They suggested that graybeards with decades at the station helm are not always the best people to oversee strategic plans for reaching the Facebook/Guitar Hero generation. “We are not our target audience,” said WTKR Norfolk News Director Shane Moreland.

As was seen in the CBS station group layoffs three weeks ago, some predicted the continued demise of the high-profile, payroll-busting anchor, with that massive salary instead buying scores of digital video cameras, training and a few Web producers. “It's about everyone in your newsroom being a journalist,” said WSB Atlanta News Director Marian Pittman, who mentioned “reinventing editors” at the station to adapt to digital media, and losing several holdouts in the process.

Panelists spoke of tapping not only everyone in their newsroom, but the community as well for viewpoints and access to stories that elude the newsroom's grasp. Senior VP Mitch Gelman mentioned CNN's iReport platform enabling so-called citizen journalists to file stories in such media-restricted locales as Myanmar, in Asia. WCBS Digital Media Director Dan Shelley spoke of the new CBS Local Ad Network, which supplies targeted news and advertising in widget form to the blog community in an effort to expand stations' reach. Maximilian Duke, interactive media manager at public broadcasting station WPBT Miami, talked about launching the video-sharing portal uVu on a minuscule budget—and in the process enhancing the station's connection with the community. “We've got stuff on uVu that we would never air in a million years on PBS,” he said.

In the closing session called “What Would Murrow Do?,” many felt he would applaud the notion of media responsibility being spread across the masses. “What we are seeing right now is a more democratic version of [Murrow's vision],” said TitanTV president Mark Effron.

Indeed, the notion of the station being the booming voice of local authority is shifting toward it being a local media brand that effectively taps a broad chorus of contributors and correspondents. During the session “Going Local…In a New Direction,” KING Seattle Digital Media Director Cory Bergman described the station's “Citizen Rain” blog aggregator, featuring posts from 325 local blogs, local user photos from Flickr and news from a wide range of sources (even rivals).

“You can say so long to promoting yourself as the voice in the community,” said Hearst-Argyle Television digital director Jacques Natz. “There are way too many voices out there.”

As if to mark Murrow's historic challenge 50 years before, actor/filmmaker Tim Robbins prodded broadcasters during his keynote to concentrate on substance instead of celebutante flash and trash. “I implore broadcasters to unite and focus on the positive,” he said. “We are better than that. Help us reclaim our better nature.”

At his panel a few hours later, Safran showed off the video camera, about the size of a pack of Murrow's beloved Camels, that he used to record Robbins' speech and post it online. Said Safran: “This is how the personal media revolution happens.”

—Additional reporting by Alex Weprin

E-mail comments to

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.