Local television broadcasters are increasingly challenged by the disruptive impact of new technologies. The concept of families gathering around the television to watch the 6 o'clock news exists only as a nostalgic memory in the age of having instant access to news stories and video clips on our PCs and mobile devices.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual media report shows a steady decline in local news ratings in all day-parts. The 2009 results revealed that early evening newscasts dropped 1.7%, late-night was down 6.4% and morning news was down 5.5%. It's a troubling trend for local broadcasters, which has been evident for some time.
When the project's researchers asked Americans to name the journalists they most admired, comedian Jon Stewart ranked number four. That may be a disturbing fact for journalism's purest, but perhaps it's an indicator of an overall cultural shift in the way we now choose to experience the news.
Comedy is playing a more significant role in the political process. During the 2008 primary, all of the major candidates appeared on Saturday Night Live. The program was clearly instrumental to the rise of Sarah Palin's public profile. And while they are often accused of being overly liberal, SNL took a jab at the mainstream media for its pampering of Barack Obama during the presidential debates.
These facts make many in the journalism profession shake their heads in disgust. However, I'm suggesting we should be inspired by these trends rather than dismayed. Specifically, local broadcasters ought to be actively engaged in finding their own Jon Stewart-type personalities in their communities. I'm not suggesting that newscasts change their entire formats to become comedy shows. However, a lighthearted segment or two that takes a satirical look at local headlines would liven up an otherwise predictable and failing format. This is particularly true if local news has any hope of attracting the younger demographic of viewers who show little interests in their broadcasts.
Our other mainstream media institutions also stand to benefit by not taking themselves so seriously. Newspapers in search of readers have perhaps forgotten that many of their loyalist fans turn directly to the comics section. Again, I'm not suggesting that news would by and large be better presented as entertainment. Rather, we should be mindful that as journalists, first and foremost, we are storytellers and that humor can be a highly effective tool in telling stories with great substance.
Let us not forget the legacy of newspaper humorists like Art Buchwald. Of course, his level of talent is somewhat rare. Perhaps that's because a comedic sense is not a skill this profession openly seeks to cultivate?
Network news is another venue where there is a highly predictable "one-note" approach to telling stories. Andy Rooney's contributions to "60 Minutes" serve to balance the hard-hitting journalism that rounds out the rest of the hour. However, to attract younger viewers networks will have to experiment with fresher approaches.
MSNBC is experiencing ratings success with "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," which strikes a healthy balance in its presentation of the day's events. User-friendly brevity, pithy writing and humor are complemented by interviews with intelligent guests who provide context for the stories.
The reality is that much of the news has become so complicated and daunting that it often requires a dose of humor to help us digest it. Jay Leno and David Letterman are arguably as relevant as their network's news anchors, in terms of their impact on political discourse. The late night hosts' jibs and jabs are what we share with one another the morning after. Many have come to depend on Letterman's top ten as much as what is on page one.
In the case of Jon Stewart, his secret weapon is his refreshing and authentic honesty. He's willing to call it like he sees it, rather than offer another homogenized account of the news. There are no sacred cows on the Daily Show. He even jabbed tech icon Steve Jobs recently, over Apple's strong-armed response to Gizmodo.com's public dissection of the forthcoming G4 iPhone. That's the essence of Stewart's appeal; his unpredictable ability to tackle the truth, even when it may involve taking on a public figure or product he admires.
Local broadcasters need to take note. It's not that viewers lack interest in local news, it's that they've grown tired of the conventions that are so overly used in its presentation. Give us at least a portion of the news in a manner that is distinctive, challenges the status quo and makes us think.