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Leo C. Wolinsky

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News: Making Money The Old-Fashioned Way

Posted: 10/08/11 11:06 AM ET

It's hardly news that news organizations -- print, television and the internet -- are struggling to make money and trying a variety of experiments to boost their bottom lines.

But one of these well-intended efforts has revealed a seamy side to this otherwise laudable experimentation.

Fox News in Los Angeles, one of hundreds of news outlets to blanket the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray in the death of Michael Jackson, has developed an app so that smart phone and tablet users can stay glued to the trial 24-hours a day.

The app, which costs a mere 99 cents, has soared to the top of iTunes rankings with a variety of content including live streaming from the courtroom, links to a flood of news stories, analysis from "experts" rounded up by the station and background information of all kinds.

For those who get off on sensational criminal trials, it certainly delivers its 99-cents worth.

The problem is not that news stations are trying to make money off of a celebrity tragedy. After all, isn't that what newspapers, television news outlets and internet news sites have done from the beginning? News is usually what's bad in the world. The stories draw large audiences. Those eyes are sold to advertisers. Voila!, the financial model.

What bothers this veteran newsman is the way it's being sold. It's the very news people who are charged with telling the story that are shamelessly -- or shamefully -- hocking the apps as part of their regular news coverage.

If you tune into the program, you will hear endless talk about the app before or after each and every trial update. When the app was introduced, the anchor of the morning show -- one of the more credible in a broadcast that focuses more on cleavage than reportage -- remained on air into the next program to personally push the app.

Given that it's making good money and drawing larger and larger audiences for Fox, is there any chance the trial will be kept in its proper perspective with all the non-paying news that surrounds it? On a day in which the trial produces little or no news, do you think Fox will simply move on to another story? Doubtful.

Am I shocked? Hardly.

The fragile wall that separates news gathering from advertising sales is there to assure the independence and credibility of the information. But it's been gradually disintegrating for some time.

Modern newspapers routinely create editorial sections that give advertisers a "friendly environment" for their ads rather than run them alongside downbeat and controversial stories. Some wrap their papers in advertisements designed to fool readers into thinking they are actual news stories.

Many internet sites use words embedded in their articles to hock commercial messages from their sponsors. In some cases, it's impossible to tell paid content from actual reporting.

In television, the trend accelerated with the financial bonanza from reality programming. I clearly remember seeing one of television's most veteran and credible newsmen, Early Show co-anchor Bryant Gumbel, touting the CBS reality series "Survivor" on his show nearly a decade ago.

Before you knew it, Gumbel had become a veritable spokesman for the program which, along with ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," spawned a wave of reality television that continues today. This kind of reporting that presents reality shows as if they are actual news events is as common as the weather report.

I suppose news credibility is a quaint notion these days. As is all that old rhetoric about the press being the last bulwark against tyranny of the state and so on.

But there's no reason that new journalism needs to be cheap journalism.

Certainly no one has lost sleep over this at News Corp., Rupert Murdoch's far-flung media empire, which is responsible for the Jackson trial app. This is the same conglomerate that publishes tabloid scandal sheets worldwide and was itself scandalized by revelations that journalists were hacking phones for their news scoops. It's a blurry picture, of course, since Murdoch also publishes the staid and credible Wall Street Journal.

The real question is what's ahead for experiments like the "Michael Jackson Doctor Trial" app. Jose Rios, vice president of digital news operations for Fox Television said in an interview with Broadcasting and Cable that this was the first of many more to come for all of the Fox owned and operated stations.

"When I moved into this position in June," he said, "I knew that this trial was coming up and that it would be one of those high profile trials that would be a lot of interest to people."

Fair enough. But what's in the offing at Fox and elsewhere? A car chase app? How about an app for following registered sex offenders? One can only imagine the financial possibilities, particularly during sweeps periods.

And one can only imagine the pressure placed on the few journalists who remain at Fox to keep pushing these applications and to make sure their product gets plenty of air time.

I don't think this is the end of credible news, although the word cheap does come to mind.

My question is what would Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow do?