Points of failure.

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

One of the things I’ve accumulated along with my advanced years is a sense of the impermanence of things that I would have thought were as timeless as the Sun and the Moon.

(I still think the Sun and Moon are relatively eternal. But hey, I guess we’ll see?)

I went to journalism school. I wanted to work at a newspaper, or maybe a magazine, a radio station, or a television station. I ended up doing all of those things to a greater or lesser extent, and now I sit back in astonishment and watch these media struggle to remain viable in a world with vastly changed communication technology, vastly reduced attention spans and in an economic world where their work is, to say the least, devalued.

I read an article earlier this week that said The Columbus Dispatch, one of my hometown newspapers, will no longer be printed at their still-fairly-new facility on the outskirts of town—as opposed to the ancient big rumbling downtown presses across from the state capitol that I associated with “downtown” as much as I did a huge department store, the bus station, and the first Wendy’s. Okay, I’ve checked the dates, and the “new” facility is some 30 years old. Boy, I’ve been away from Columbus for a long time. Is the bus station still there?

The Dispatch will now be printed in Indianapolis. Indiana. 175 miles away. The once family-owned paper sold out in 2015 to a company that…well, the simple version is that it’s part of a massive group with papers numbering in the hundreds, an entity named “Gannett,” although it obtained that old-school-journalism name alongside some very aggressive mergers and acquisitions.

TV stations have similarly banded together, and many are now controlled by “centralcasting” facilities that (their press releases uniformly tout) provide economies of scale and (they don’t tout) fewer but more fragile, centralized points of failure. Our local once-struggling PBS station’s signal now apparently is sent to its Atlanta-based transmitter from some mysterious place in Florida. And some media outlets these days would prefer to keep “where the stuff comes from” a closely-held trade secret.

So when something goes wrong, say when I’m watching a rerun of Perry Mason on a “station” that is a subchannel of an Atlanta station, I can’t just pick up the phone and say “hey, every commercial you’ve aired for the past hour has the slates attached to the front and is clipped off at the end!” —you know, the way a good citizen viewer should report any issue to an FCC-licensed broadcaster. I have no clue where or what (maybe not at all “who”) is controlling these commercials and serving us gobs of televised sloppiness.

As far as I can tell, you can’t tweet @metv and say “hey, your centralcasting facility is messed up.” There’s no “in case you’ve caught us messing up, email us here” notice at these outlets’ websites.

If there’s a multi-vehicle pileup on Interstate 70 in western Ohio in the middle of the night (not at all uncommon, apparently), will the readership of the Dispatch in Columbus notice that their papers haven’t made it to their porch? If a mechanical failure in Indy means that readers in, I don’t know, a dozen cities find themselves newspaper-free at breakfast-time, is that noteworthy any more?

The inevitable mistakes that are a byproduct of media creation have, in a sense, become more anonymous, cloaked behind levels of corporate bureaucracy. Put simply, there are fewer human eyes on the product at key moments where quality control makes a difference. Oh, we put a misspelled thing on the front page or on your TV screen? Ah, well. But look, the computer wrote this baseball piece without any human intervention!

My first job in commercial television, at Ted Turner’s superstation at the end of the 1970s, was at one of those QC chokepoints—master control operator, and somehow (good management? good training? good genes?) we were imbued with a sense of duty that kept mistakes to a minimum and made fixing what was wrong a matter of seconds, not hours. It was a point of pride not to screw things up. Ah, pride. Ah, copy editors, master control operators…ah, human beings.