I kind of feel bad for America’s children, kind of. You see, growing up in my house, the evening news was a given, five nights a week. Dinnertime was always 5:30 P.M. You had to be home, no questions asked. If you were late, you had better have a really good excuse. On school nights, dinner was followed by homework, while starting at 6:00 P.M. my father would commandeer the television to watch the local and national news. At the time, we had four options, and one was PBS in really poor quality.
Writing this makes me realize how much of my youth involved being forced to watch something I did not choose. I am the youngest of nine, which topped out at seven living in the house at the same time during my formative years. I could tell you anything that was happening on Dallas or Knots Landing. I knew who Luke and Laura were and understood when my mother and sisters would talk about them as if they were neighbors. However, when it came to real TV drama, you had to look no further than the news.
My first memories include the much-talked-about clumsiness of President Gerald Ford and the 900-plus people drinking the
“Kool-Aid” in Guyana. The latter, of course, being the image most burned into my brain. I believe at 9 years old, it both frightened and enthralled me. The idea that so many people could let one person direct them to take their own lives was weird and thankfully far away. I don’t recall anyone in my family trying to fully explain the breadth of the scene at the time, but I do remember knowing it was bad.
Throughout the years, my household changed for various reasons and, I should take this moment to point out, never included cable television (to be blamed on my father’s tight wallet). The routine of watching news continued for years to come. I’m sure I didn’t realize then how it was shaping my career path. I learned to be inquisitive. I was even voted biggest gossip in my high school, an honor I wear proudly now as a badge of my journalistic abilities but at the time completely mortified me.
Once I hit college and started hanging around those crazy folks who had CNN and Headline News, I was love-struck. I said, “That’s my calling,” and immediately changed my major from secondary education, never looking back. When they brought the first Gulf War into our living rooms—well, not mine but someone else’s—I was smitten.
I know it makes me sound somewhat old, but here’s why I worry about the kids today. There are so many choices on television. If you meet a family that doesn’t have cable, you’d give them the stink eye. There are few families that sit down and have dinner together and then turn on the TV the way we used to.
Every time a big event happens, e.g., September 11, those of us in the industry think, Well, this is going to change things for good. It wasn’t long afterward that we returned to doing stories about fallen starlets stumbling drunk out of limos with no knickers on and waterskiing squirrels. I blame the attention span brought on by the so-called MTV generation. If I can’t blame that, I have to blame parenting, and if I can’t blame that, I have to blame an oversaturation of “news” on cable TV. It makes me think that someone down the road is going to look back and say, “The first thing I remember seeing on the news is when Lindsay Lohan went to jail.”
One of the things I enjoy most about the industry in which I work is the camaraderie. I have friends, and not just the Facebook kind, with whom I have stayed in touch over the years. Many of them were co-workers of mine, which makes me believe there is something inherently social about the television-news business.
Having not worked in any other field, I can only guess that the amount of imbibing done by news employees tops most others’. In my 20’s, so many nights after the 11 o’clock news were spent at local watering holes, where we would expound upon the day’s events. It is a practice that continued well into my 30’s and pretty much to this day. Conversations went something like this: “I can’t believe I saw that dead guy in the street” or “Can you believe the director punched up that camera at that exact moment?” Much laughter would follow one of these two comments, and it was usually the first.
When you break down the root of said socializing, it is not difficult to determine the source. Our job is depressing. If we’re not writing about kids killed in a fire or murdered teens, we’re writing about politics and fraud (often in the same story). It creates a need for an outlet to blow off steam.
I’ve taken to not watching the news when I can. Weekends are spent ignoring what’s going on in the world locally and nationally. That is, until Sunday when I need to be in the know for the workweek. Vacations often include watching some news, only to judge its production and talent value. I wish I didn’t even care about that, but it’s easy to critique the job you do when it’s done by someone else who is nameless and faceless.
I imagine the same scenario in newsrooms across the country. A shooting on the south side of Chicago, a fatal fire on Cleveland’s east side, a killer on the loose in suburban Reno. After the news every night in all of these towns, the migration happens. People hop in their cars after the show, pull out of the parking lot and meet four blocks away at their spot. In most of these places, the bartender knows the clientele. Drinks are had, some laughs are shared and eventually everyone goes home.
There are many nights, before I go to bed, that I find myself wondering why I do what I do. I like to say that no one will live or die based on what they see in the news. There will, however, be people who are deeply saddened by it. That does not usually include those of us who are writing it. We’ve desensitized ourselves to the point where we are unshaken despite knowing we should be.
In the meantime, I will continue to show up when I am scheduled to and continue to mindlessly write stories that someone else will see and say, “That’s awful.” And each night as I fall asleep, I will ask for the strength to do it again tomorrow.
I find technology fascinating but I am also terrified of it. I didn’t even buy a cell phone until years after all my friends had them. The first two computers I ever owned were hand-me-downs, and I quickly killed both within six months. Basically, I had to ease myself into the idea of the “World Wide Web” and have come to discover, at this point in life, it controls almost everything I do. It may in fact eventually be the demise of my industry.
I would say that I first noticed the impact the Web was having on news when our newsroom stopped getting newspapers delivered. The edict was: Get it online—it’s free. I find this to be somewhat annoying in that we essentially may be contributing to the end of newspaper publishing. What I don’t believe is that the general public understands the effect of reading news online rather than picking up a newspaper or turning on the nightly news, be it local or national.
For the most part, we are the source for the news that everyone is reading online. If you go to any news-based website, you will find stories that are links to already-produced news from TV stations, radio stations and newspapers around the world. Meanwhile, the revenue streams for all three continue to dry up because people are no longer tuning in and are instead getting the info they want, customized to their needs, online. Most advertisers are following them. Do you see where this is going?
Let’s pretend that all the TV stations in America stop news operations and newspapers go away because there is no money coming in. Where, then, will most of the news you read online come from? You would be hard-pressed to find any source remaining that is not creating its own stories. Therefore, your news is no longer the journalism that we’ve all come to know, the kind that has been shaping this country for centuries and has been held to ethical standards that today’s Internet is not.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe the damage at this point is beyond repair. I don’t even believe that a disappearance of the concept of journalism will happen in my lifetime. Perhaps if the backers of news were to invest in doing it right online, we could all ride this wave together. I don’t see that happening until someone realizes the amount of money invested in new media needs to be the handled the way television was in its early days.
I will now e-mail this to someone who will post it to a website that I will be able to share with my friends via Facebook. Later I will look at it on my cell phone, which has become pretty much anything but a phone.
Interestingly enough, I started in this crazy business on a technical path. I worked as a shooter and editor in my first job out of college and eventually as a TD, director, chyron op, stagehand, studio camera, boom operator, graphic designer and (please God, never again) a master control operator. Why do I bring you this short history lesson? I’ll get to that.
After holding my various jobs in news production, I eventually slipped, somehow, into the journalism side of things, producing for the CBS affiliate in Youngstown, Ohio. We were number one for murders in the mid to late 90’s, hooray! Gang warfare, Mafia warfare, you name it. It made the job very easy. The old, if it bleeds it leads concept. But I didn’t like it. I was hell bent on changing the world! I wanted more positive news, less negative. I impressed my friends and family. They would say “Oh wow, you are a news producer. How cool”. And it was, for a while at least. Then the fight got old and I, like any good producer, needed a change. So I moved on and eventually landed in New York City.
Flash forward or in this case scroll through the years. I held onto my technical know-how along the way, by doing the jobs that I could when not in a union shop. When I ended up with a union gig, I was disappointed that I couldn’t touch the machinery. It took getting yelled at a few times, by someone jaded and in the business for decades, for me to learn. Although I still have issues with the “you can touch this deck but not that one” mentality.
Here’s where I revert to the beginning. All these years later as we see the diminution (it annoys me that I just used this word) of the local news business, my earlier skills are coming back as a blessing. Across the country, TV stations are changing the way they do things. In the once union heavy market of NYC, where I used to get my knuckles smacked with a ruler for touching eject, I am now editing on a desktop. Companies looking for new ways to save money are beating down IATSE and NABET which in turn is forcing the writers and producers to do more with less. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I have an eye for shooting, when it eventually comes to that and I am sure it will, and I have an eye for editing. I’m now in a shop where producers and writers make their own graphics and we’re not the only newsroom in the number 1 market that is doing so.
I suppose the end result after 18 years is that I am forced to embrace the changes. I hear the scripted phrase “lucky to have a job”, over and over again. I get it. I am lucky to have a job. I am not lucky to be in a position where I am now not only critiqued on the content and writing of a news show, but on the look of it as well. When I made my transition I expected to be judged on writing ability and producing know-how. Now I hear “that video didn’t match the script, what happened?” Or, “that graphic didn’t work with the story”. In essence, the job of a News Writer is becoming quite blurred and the actual writing of it is not the main focus anymore. I’ll expound on that in a later entry. That is unless I find a brand new career between now and the next time I sit down to write one of these.
Patrick Mason works as a Producer for WNYW FOX 5. Most recently as a producer for Good Day New York. He previously worked as a producer and copy editor for WWOR My 9 and News 12 New Jersey.