A discussion on the future of TV news

A few months ago I was asked if I would participate in a media summit to discuss the future of television news. The media summit is held each year at my alma mater, Oswego State University in New York State. Without hesitation, I said ‘Yes’. I love my college and I love TV News, so the decision was pretty simple.

For the better part of a year the school has been working tirelessly to make sure the summit would go off without a hitch. Professors, students and donors put a lot of effort in to creating a spectacular show for the campus and its neighboring communities.

The summit was held this past Wednesday. It was moderated by former NBC Nightly News and Today Show anchor Garrick Utley. Garrick was also the moderator of ‘Meet the Press’ for a time and later served as a Foreign Correspondent for ABC News and CNN. He’s now a professor at Oswego State, based out of Manhattan.

Participating in the panel were former WSTM-TV Anchor Jackie Robinson, Dennis Mueller, who is a documentary filmmaker from Vermont, a Political Analyst from Washington DC and myself.

I had never met Garrick, Dennis or the Political Analyst (I believe his name was Edward). However, I did grow up watching Jackie Robinson on TV. Jackie worked at WSTM-TV for the better part of 30 years. She would always sign off with her signature phrase, “Goooooooood Night Central New York!”. 

I worked in Syracuse TV for three years at the #1 rated station WSYR-TV NewsChannel 9 (from 2006-2009). WSTM and WSYR were the two big stations in town.  Despite having spent a few years in Syracuse, I never had the chance to meet Jackie Robinson. 

“It took you leaving and going to Denver and coming back to visit for us to meet,” Jackie said to me with a chuckle. 

Jackie recently retired from WSTM-TV. After talking with her extensively that afternoon – I could tell she missed working in a newsroom.

Jackie and I talked about how TV News in Syracuse has transformed dramatically over the last couple of years. She said the transformation at her old station happened quickly. The transformation at WSYR-TV, where I worked, was much slower and less noticeable.

I was fortunate to have started working there at the time I did. Syracuse TV News icons Nancy Duffy and Mike Price were still reporters when I joined the team back in 2006. I grew up watching both of them, just like I did with Jackie. Nancy was the first female TV News Reporter in Syracuse. Mike was considered the ‘Good News’ guy and did feature stories every day. I always thought he had the sweetest gig at the station.

Partway through my first year at WSYR-TV Nancy fell ill. Months later, she passed away. About a year and a half after Nancy’s death, Mike Price retired and left the station after more than 35 years on the air.

That was the old NewsChannel 9. The new NewsChannel 9 looks a lot different, but still has a taste of the classic NC9 – which I love. WSYR still has its main anchors as well as other notable Syracuse TV journalists. 
More than a year ago the station made the HD transition and debuted a new set, graphics package and logo. The product is sharp and looks phenomenal on television. Syracuse is considered a medium market, but WSYR puts on a show that would make it comparable to a lot of large market TV stations I’ve seen. 
WSYR has been fortunate to maintain the quality it has had for the last 20+ years. I’ve never worked for WSTM, so I can’t speak too much about the internal changes there. From what I’ve seen on TV, there are a lot of noticeable differences though. 

At the media summit, Jackie and I talked about the WSTM I remembered from college: the WSTM with the ‘Night Team’ open, the black and yellow graphics package – and the team of reporters that would make any TV station jealous. I remember watching Jeff Glor, Dan Kloeffler, AJ Lagoe, Anthony Adornato and the rest of the team every night. Jeff and Dan have been very successful and have moved on to network positions at both CBS and ABC. Jackie smiled when I brought up their names and told me a few stories about that era at her former station.

I’ve seen changes at every station I’ve worked at (WWNY/WSYR/KUSA). Jackie had only worked at WSTM, but she’s seen her fair share of changes over the last 30 years. 
Along with the other two panelists, we talked about those changes – and discussed the future of the television news industry. One of the highlights of the discussion was about the role of a reporter now a day.

Garrick told the audience when he was a correspondent he would travel around with a photographer, audio person and some times a separate editor. He then pointed out that as a reporter, I play the role of a correspondent, audio person, photographer, editor – and in some instances, my own live shot engineer.

“He walks around with a book bag and does it all as a one-man-band,” Garrick told the crowd.

He asked me to talk about my job for a bit. 

“If you’re doing all of these jobs, what do you consider yourself? A Reporter, a photographer, or an editor?” he asked.

“I consider myself a journalist,” I replied.

My job is nothing new. For the last 6 years, TV stations across the country have been hiring more ‘Backpack Journalists’. A Backpack Journalist is a Reporter who does all of the work by his or herself, just like I do.

Four years ago the industry-wide talk was ‘Every reporter is going to become a one-man-band’. I don’t think that’s true anymore. There will always be a need for reporter/photographer teams; more so than one-person-bands or backpack journalists.

In a perfect world, I wish TV stations would only hire Backpack Journalists if they were really good at being Backpack Journalists. KUSA has done a great job at accomplishing that task. Our Backpack Journalists are some of the best Storytellers in the country. We jokingly say, ‘Put our work up against most two-person crews and you’ll be surprised at how good our stuff looks over theirs’.

That said, I warned the students at the summit, “If you think you’re going to graduate and get a job as a Reporter who works with a photographer right out of college, you’re living in a different era’.

Truth is, in one way or another every journalist has to have multi-media skills in the world we live in now. It’s important for Reporters to learn how to shoot and edit. Not only does it make them more valuable, but it also provides them with job security.

A big thing I stressed was the importance of social media. I told them I put as much effort in to social media as I put in to my stories each night. Viewership on TV isn’t what it used to be. More and more people are getting their news online, especially over social media websites.

Facebook and Twitter have become huge tools when it comes to promoting and showcasing stories. I recently started a Pinterest page and have been putting a lot of effort in to that as well. 

For the most part, discussions about the future of television news have only popped up when discussing it with my friends who work in the biz. I’m so grateful Oswego decided to focus this year’s media summit on the subject. I’m not sure how many students showed up, but I can tell you – you couldn’t find an empty seat in the auditorium where the summit was held. Some folks said there were more than 800 people in attendance; most of them were students. I’m glad they got a chance to hear the discussion.