Monday, January 11th, 1999
There was a point when the hunk of newsprint that landed on your front door and the half-hour of transmitted pictures and sound arriving at the dinner hour were chock-full of news. This happened here. That happened there. Who did what, when. And after they told you this news (or printed it for your perusal over breakfast), they didn’t tell you again. That content ceased being news—they reported it already, so there was no need to repackage it or repurpose it. The Falcons won. Here’s the score. A murder happened last night. Here’s the who-what-where on that. Okay, done.
But somewhere in the process, a decade or two ago when clever marketers realized that what they had was not so much a service as a product, the word "news" embedded in "newscast" and "newspaper" became a more of a lie.
I hate to say it, but I peg that moment of change right around June 1, 1980, when CNN went on the air—although I could probably attach culpability to Entertainment Tonight, USA Today, and the television news consultants coming into vogue at that time.
It was about then that I began to hear the word "information" attached to "news," and my initial impression was that information was kind of a weak cousin, a non-time-specific, loose gathering of fact or spoken utterance. Compared to news, information had far fewer active ingredients. If you had news for dinner, the dog would get a nice bowl of information.
News, need I say it, carries the connotation of "new." In and of itself, it has a short shelf life. So what do "news" executives do to make it last longer? They pad it out with filler, and use the same content again and again.
Now, we hear about an event before it’s going to happen in a half-dozen different ways, then we get saturation coverage of the event itself, and then reports of that event are recycled, chopped, and pureed into a bunch of regurgitations for days after it happened. And I’m not just talking about big, long-term stories like impeachment, global conflict, and the environment. It all gets this treatment.
Just one example.
I watched WSB’s Action News Sunday Morning last Sunday, God knows why. It was, in short, a rerun of the week’s reporting on Channel 2. Not an insightful week-in-review, mind you, but an actual re-showing of the news, presented as if it might still be news to you. Falcons coverage: recycled. Health features from earlier in the week: recycled. Interminable cold weather blather: recycled. The actual amount of reporting on events that happened between 11:30 pm Saturday and noon on Sunday: 0%. And the repeat reports were so content-free to begin with that it was thin gruel indeed by the time we got it served for Sunday brunch.
Well, sure, news directors say. Nothing happens in the middle of the night on weekends. So why do we have lengthy newscasts on Saturday and Sunday mornings? A simple reason: they’re a cheaper wrapper for commercials than anything else, including kids’ cartoons and old reruns of Gilligan’s Island. It’s for the same reason that the "Sunday" paper is in fact all but completed by Friday, and is about as fresh as expired milk.
The only way this will change, of course, is if the all-holy research reveals to the execs some day that we’ve lost our taste for this stuff. Be sure to mention that you have, if someone asks it might be news to them.