THE BLOG
08/26/2014 03:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Television Journalism Could Look Like

2014-08-26-ill_pho_port_bw_smith_doctor_child.jpg
c 1948, 2014 The Heirs of W.Eugene Smith.

Newspaper journalism is dead

And television journalism is not far behind.

CNN chief Jeff Zucker announced yesterday the CNN will have to do 'less with less.'

But it's not just CNN.

Take a look at any of the network evening news shows. Take a look at the ads. Adult diapers, Cialis, and a whole range of pharmaceuticals whose side effects may cause depression, suicidal thoughts, blindness or death.

This is not an audience that is going to be around for a long time.

And why is television news so terrible? So unwatchable?

It is largely because it is visual boring. Uninspiring. Deadly.

But it does not have to be anything like that.

Television is a child of technology. Without technology, needless to say, there would be no television. And that technology dictates what the content looks like. In the past 10 years, that technology has changed, but the look of TV news has not. It is, more or less, still pretty much the same as it was when Walter Cronkite delivered the news -- and that was 50 years ago.

Television is a visual medium that barely pays attention to the visuals, with the exception of the 'look' or the anchors.

Photography is also a visual medium. And it is instructive to see how a new technology made it possible to completely re-invent photojournalism, at about the same time that television was invented.

For much of the history of photography, cameras were big, expensive, bulky affairs that were hard to operate and difficult to move around. They were 'view' cameras. They were made of wood, for the most part. They sat on a tripod (because they were so heavy), they shot on single exposure sheet film.

The photographs that they produced were a direct consequence of the limitations of the device itself. You probably have some of these up in your attic. Photos of your great grandparents. Or you have seen the Ken Burns Civil War photos. People sit stiffly in a chair, or stand, dressed in their best clothes, staring into the camera. The photographer counted down, 3, 2, 1 and squeezed out the shot. That was photography.

Then, in the 1930s, two technological changes forever altered what photography was and could be.

The Leica company in Germany brought to market a small, hand-held camera. (It was actually first invented just before the First World War, but global events intervened.) At the same time, Leica, borrowing from Thomas Edison's work in motion pictures, replaced the single exposure sheet film with a roll of 35mm film that could get 36 or 38 exposures at a go.

That camera changed photography forever.

It allowed photographers to create images that were powerful, personal, intimate. It took photography from being a mechanical process of capture to an art form, a fine art form in its own right.

The photograph above, by W. Eugene Smith, who invented the idea of the photo essay for Life Magazine is an example of the intimacy and power that those cameras unleashed -- placed in the right hands. Smith's work, like that of so many other photojournalists of the era, people like Cartier Bresson, moved from the darkroom to the walls of museums. And it changed the way we saw the world, and thought about it. It also changed the way we thought about ourselves.

Today, television journalism is still done, for the most part, with big, heavy and complex cameras that sit atop tripods or a cameraman's shoulder. And look at what television news looks like every night -- someone standing up in front of a camera (or sitting at a desk) staring into the lens. It looks just like those photographs of your great grandparents. Or some Civil War general. Stiff, formal, static, deadly.

But even though the technology of shooting video and television has changed, the 'look' of TV news has not.

But it could.

Television news could be as powerful (and as popular, and as dramatic and as moving) as Life Magazine once was to all of America.

There is a whole new generation of very small, yet very powerful hand-held video cameras, capable of creating images of technically good (or better) than those giant betacams.

These small cameras could do for television news what the Leica did for photojournalism -- create a highly personalized, emotionally powerful and moving image for the 'small screen.' If... if, we used the small cameras the way people like W. Eugene Smith used a Leica -- working alone to tell a very personalized story.

It would mean a re-thinking of how television journalism is created, and how the 'evening news' is supposed to look.

But all the pieces are there.

The networks and cable news channels should move quickly.

There is no reason to wait until their last viewer is dead.