THE BLOG

Why CBS News, and Everyone Else, Needs to Remember Mike Wallace

02/11/2011 10:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's great news for those of us who worked at CBS News to see one of our own back at the helm. I have high hopes that Jeff Fager, the immensely talented 60 Minutes chief who has just been elevated to the newly created post of chairman of CBS News, can do something to stem the slide at the Tiffany network.

But it's not going to easy. I don't want to single out the troubles of CBS News, because I still work there from time to time as a freelancer. But the current state of journalism in this country is pretty bleak. Economic pressures and budget cuts mean that these days, many media outlets simply aren't doing a very good job of covering the news. It's not unusual today to see foreign news covered by a correspondent who is thousands of miles from where the news is happening. Too many journalists are satisfied with parroting wire service copy instead of doing original reporting. And there's just too little watchdog journalism... the kind of reporting that may take weeks or months and thousands of dollars to accomplish, but is one of journalism's most important civic functions.

But that's not the worst of it.

No, the real problem lies in the two vicious cycles this trend creates. The first of these is the drop-off effect: As the quality of news outlets suffers, readers find themselves with still less incentive to seek out those outlets' content. The natural result is that circulations and ratings diminish even further. This loss of audience puts even more downward pressure on funding, which in turn continues to reduce the quality of the reporting, which further alienates readers and viewers...and so on.

The second of these cycles -- the knowledge gap -- is more insidious, but it's one I've found hard to ignore in my hours spent teaching journalism at Fordham University since leaving full-time employment at CBS News in 2006. I've found that too many young and aspiring reporters don't really know what journalism actually means -- much less how to actually go about the process of creating original, high-quality reporting. And who can blame them? When there are so few examples of real journalism out there these days, it's easy to understand why young people today might think that journalism consists of rewriting the Internet, or be baffled about how to embark on a worthy path in their own journalism careers.

How do we solve those problems? Part of the solution lies in coming up with new economic models to support quality journalism. But another part of it is much simpler: despite the terrible economic pressures they're facing, organizations and journalists that create high-quality, original reporting will become standouts in this environment. They'll pull in awards, acclaim, and readers, and escape the downward spiral that might engulf them otherwise.

Proof: 60 Minutes, which has managed under Jeff Fager's leadership to continue to do hard-hitting reporting, which has kept the show relevant and drawn viewers. The show is still in the top 10 after more than 40 years, because it has the resources and influence to do reports that others can't. Scott Pelley, the marvelous correspondent for 60 Minutes, told me that he spent more than $200,000 to report about atrocities in Darfur. That report, which won an Emmy, is exactly the kind of journalism that keeps 60 Minutes must-see TV.

More proof: Rolling Stone magazine has seen its circulation creep up in the past two years when most others' has been tanking, thanks to aggressive, groundbreaking reporting by the likes of Michael Hastings and Matt Taibbi. Theirs are the kinds of stories that win awards, that readers recommend to friends and family members... and that make Rolling Stone subscribers feel that they're getting something in return for their hard-earned cash, a sensation that's all too rare among magazine readers these days.

But what about the other part of the equation: making sure that today's generation of aspiring journalists is empowered to help fight this downward trend in the coming years? Put simply, how do we ensure that tomorrow's journalists have the skills and understanding needed to do groundbreaking reporting? By trying to get the very best journalists to tell them how it should be done.

And that's where Mike Wallace comes in.

Recently, I had the honor of collaborating with the legendary 60 Minutes star in writing a guidebook aimed at young journalists. Our book, Heat and Light, was written in the hope that we could help educate budding reporters on how to do journalism right. Our idea was to produce a readable, concise book that crystallizes the best practices in the business, and passes on some of the techniques that made Mike's storied career so remarkable. After all, Mike may be retired now, but arguably no living journalist has had as long or as meaningful a career -- or is more worth emulating.

While Mike has written two memoirs, he's never before explained his views on how journalism should actually be practiced. And as a CBS News producer-turned-journalism professor, I knew first-hand exactly which questions students most need answered, and how radically their experiences with today's media differed from best practices. So Mike and I created this guide for anyone who's starting out. We culled our own experiences, and incorporated tips from two dozen other people, including journalists like Scott Pelley and the top editors of the New York Times and Washington Post. And we try to help budding reporters not only by explaining those key concepts in journalism, but by providing step-by-step instructions young journalists can use as they prepare stories.

Why the title Heat and Light? Mike says the best journalism contains both what he calls heat -- meaning emotion and drama -- and light -- meaning fresh information. And it's the combination of both heat and light in a story that makes it truly great. In fact, that very combo has been the secret formula to the long-term success of 60 Minutes. And if Jeff Fager can work his magic and focus the whole news division on creating reports with Mike Wallace's sense of heat and light, it may just be what pulls CBS News out of the doldrums.

Beth Knobel is assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York. Before that, she was an Emmy-award winning producer for CBS News in Moscow. For more information on the book, please go to www.heatandlight.org, or join our group "Heat and Light" on Facebook.