Saturday, June 04, 2005

All talk, all the time

Two media luminaries this week showed they know how to talk the talk. The issue, of course, is whether their companies can walk the walk. As you will see, they talk way better than they walk.

Luminary No. 1 is CNN founder Ted Turner, who has graduated to emeritus status at the network now celebrating its silver anniversary. In a free-ranging address to the staff, the free-range former Mr. Jane Fonda tweaked the troops for relying excessively on “pervert of the day” coverage at the expense of higher-minded fare

"You know, we have a lot of perverts on today, and I know that, but is that really news?” he asked the staff. “I mean, come on. I guess you've got to cover Michael Jackson, but not the three stories about perversion that we do every day as well."

In the last 25 years, CNN has learned, to its founder’s professed dismay, that wars, sexual improprieties by presidents, grisly crimes and other high-profile catastrophes boost ratings to a considerable degree. In the unfortunate lulls between wars in Iraq, the network had a choice of either letting its ratings slump or manufacturing a catastrophe to boost them.

Hence, the “pervert of the day” strategy, which elevates to the level of a national emergency a (sadly) routine case like the Lacy Peterson murder. Given the need to feed the relentless ratings beast, we reliably can count of more of the same.

"Somebody's got to be the most respected name in television news, and I wanted that position for CNN,” said Ted. "I wanted to be The New York Times of the airwaves. Not the New York Post, but The New York Times.”

For the record, Ted Turner himself was at the helm when CNN perfected the fine art of “pervert of the day coverage” during the admittedly dramatic trial of O.J. (“If the Glove Don’t Fit You Must Acquit”) Simpson.

Nice talk. Let’s walk.

Luminary No. 2 is Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the man born to be, if not wild, at least the publisher of the New York Times. Chatting with journalists at a publishing conference in Korea, Pinch emphasized the urgency for newspapers to embrace the Internet to attract younger readers.

"Some mention the crisis of newspapers, saying young readers no longer read print newspapers in the Internet era,” he was quoted as saying in the Korea Herald. “But it's not that the Internet is eroding the newspaper market but that newspapers have gained a new medium to deliver information."

He’s absolutely right about building newspaper readership – and assuring the long-term health of the business – through the aggressive and creative use of the Internet and the other new media. But there is scant evidence his company has done anything of the sort.

The New York Times and its affiliated properties run excellent websites that dutifully port everything in a day’s newspaper right on to the Net for free. In truth, there’s enough at NYTimes.Com to keep geezers, journalists, government officials and professors happily occupied for several hours a day. It also is a perfectly good and reasonable thing the site is going to start charging for some of its premium content.

But NYTimes.Com has not taken steps to develop any specialized online content that would draw new types of readers, young or otherwise, to its web site. If the publisher really believes newspapers have to leverage their strengths and resources to create valuable new media content to attract younger readers, then where's the beef?

As the most-visited newspaper website in the world, NYTimes.Com can afford to be conservative about changing a format that draws some 1.7 million visitors a month. But the rest of the newspaper publishers, who are mere mortals, had better be very proactive about following Dr. Sulzberger's Rx.

While newspaper publishers are talking, their readers are walking. Step lively, folks.


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