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In Today’s Manic Journalism World, What Would Lou Grant Do?

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In this manic age of journalism, what would Lou Grant do?

As some may have read in these pages and elsewhere, after two years Politics Daily has lost its lease with AOL and will be vacating this space soon. Some of the newspeople who work here will bring you news from other “verticals” at AOL, and some of them will report from new web addresses. I’ll still be reporting, as I always have, from various other outlets and chasing a new story sooner rather than later.
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It’s in my blood. As a kid, I was obsessed with “Lou Grant,” the CBS drama that ran from 1977 to 1982. While other kids loved Barbie dolls and GI Joe, I loved newspapers. (Yes, I was a geek.)

Crotchety Lou Grant, played by Ed Asner, left a job as a television news producer (after being fired) and an ex-wife in Minnesota to return to the newspaper business at the fictional “Los Angeles Tribune” as its city editor. Newspapers were in troubled waters, and it was up to Grant, who got his journalism start in newspapers, to figure out how to increase circulation. Weekly, he had to battle a changing journalism world, the advertising department, and a bossy publisher while making sure his reporters told compelling stories.

Even the opening credits for the show that first season fascinated me. A bird chirps, a tree falls, that tree becomes newsprint, and that newsprint becomes liner in the bird cage. To me it symbolized there was another story to write the next day and the one after that.

So, if Grant was an editor these days, how would he deal with the rapid changes buffeting the industry?

First, he’d learn the lingo (while cussing under his breath) as to not look stupid. “Content” has become the new term for “copy.” “Clicks” replace “circulation.” “Content management system” is the new printing operation. “Unique visitors” is the equivalent of how many people buy or subscribe to a newspaper.

He would chortle and realize today’s news biz, even the digital aspect, is in many ways the same as it ever was. The clash between the advertising department, striving to control editorial content for dollars, and the editorial side still exists. The publications that thrive on tragedies, disasters, and juicy scandals are still out there, too, except they loom on your browser instead of at the grocery market check-out. Lazy reporters who plagiarize other reporters’ stories? Yep, they still exist, too.

One critical element remains most constant — readers’ craving for good stories.

In every episode of “Lou Grant,” Grant knew a compelling story was always worth seeking out, investigating and then clearly explaining to readers. Grant also realized that taking chances for a front-page — or these days, it would be called “viral” — story was worth the expense and the agony of dealing with higher-ups.

He was a harsh editor who put his reporters through long hours, challenging edits and tight deadlines. Journalists, cub reporters and veterans alike, all need that direction once in a while.

In the series premiere, Grant acknowledges he doesn’t know anything about the new-fangled machines — desktop computers — that have come into the newsroom since he left ten years earlier. But that doesn’t stop him from plunging in with gusto.

In the 1970s, television was newspapers’ biggest competitor. The competition was stiff. The medium could broadcast live from a breaking news story and reach thousands immediately. Radio, with the same immediacy, was a stiff competitor as were fully engaged wire services with countless reporters who moved fast to cover breaking stories with the basic who, what, when, where, why and how.

Lou Grant and his staff hardly acted like dinosaurs slugging around waiting for their extinction.

Instead, they reported the stories of their day, finding new angles on police corruption, spousal abuse and Nazi sympathizers long before it was vogue in mainstream television. Sure, “Lou Grant” was a TV show, but it won 13 Emmys, and I learned a lot about journalism from it.

My hero on the show was Billie Newman, an intrepid girl reporter with a heart. She started her career in the lifestyles pages where women were relegated back in the 1970s. But when she was sent on assignment to interview a famous author and he ended up dead, Newman took the story and ran with it. She scooped Joe Rossi, the star reporter in the all-boy newsroom, and won Grant’s heart.

Grant, Newman and Rossi would be unstoppable in the current Wild West frontier of journalism. Social media, search engine optimization, or whatever the next big technological advancement in journalism might be — it would not intimidate Grant’s newsroom. While Grant might not understand some of it fully, he would see it as a useful tool to reach more readers.

He would tell his reporters not to miss a tweet or a Facebook post by a possible corrupt politician or news figure. He would press them to excel at multimedia (360-degree photographs, audio and video) and realize that media now work across a cross-platform system that allows readers to read their stories almost anywhere (in the newspaper, on an iPad, through an app). But most of all, he would tell them not to just report, but dig deeper, investigate a story. With deadlines looming, he would stress to them to balance the brave new world while adhering to the tried-and-true rules of old-school journalism — ethics, original reporting (in the field), and fairness.

And he would see — even now — journalism as an honorable profession.

Without a doubt, over a stiff drink at his local watering hole with his staff, Lou Grant would seize the 21st century challenge. (Today, colleagues in virtual newsrooms like ours kick back in closed Facebook groups.) Hell no, Lou would say, this technology won’t beat us. We’re reporters. We tell stories. Now get to it.

[Originally posted on Politics Daily March 12, 2011]

Written by suziparker1313

March 14, 2011 at 5:40 pm