Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Print is the biggest straw that stirs the news drink

A couple of weeks ago on sports talk WFAN-AM, former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason was aghast when his co-host Craig Carton described who was booked on the show that day -- a guy who "streaked" across Citi Field in the middle of the previous night's night's game.

In two half-pages articles in New York Post and the NY Daily News, the man claimed his boss offered him $1,000 if he would take his sudden naked sprint, which landed him in jail.

Esiason was puzzled as to why this streaker deserved air time and demanded the show's producer Al Dukes come out for an explanation.

"I'm booking to follow the news," he gulped.

In those six words, he's described the double-edged sword of media coverage that every good publicist should know. The key word there is follow because that is exactly what most radio and TV news have done for years -- follow the work of other media, especially print.

For all the pundit calls about print's death throes, print is still doing a heck of a job being the straw that turns the news drink.

I came to this conclusion in the late 80's, which goes to show you how some habits die very hard. While working at Radio City Music Hall Productions, I saw that every time we placed a story in a daily newspaper, TV and radio bookers and producers would call our office like clockwork to do the very same story, sometimes ones they turned down already!

Listen yourself when radio and TV anchors frequently beginning their stories with, "Today's New York Times reports..." or "The mayor says in today's Daily News...." Listen yourself because it's still done now all the time.

With the exception of sweeps programming and TV newsmagazines, radio and TV bookers, assignment editors and producers are often following the news reported by newspapers first, as opposed to breaking news themselves.

Why? There are probably a few reasons:

1) Newspapers, despite their growing and unfortunate endangered status, often have the resources to pursue and break news stories.

2) Newspapers, consciously or not, rank very high on the credibility and respect meter at least to other media.

3) If a story is in a newspaper, "it must be news," so bookers, producers and writers have their butts covered by assigning it.

For example, when the New York Times published a trend article on high school hugging last week, NBC-TV's Today show wasted no time in producing a short segment about it.

From a public relations pro's point of view, targeting a print placement can be the first flick of the finger that knocks down the row of media dominoes.

But let's go back to WFAN's show, in which a few outraged listeners e-mailed in that if streaker appeared on the program, they would turn it off the remainder of the show. Esiason was clearly not thrilled with his producer slavishly booking the streaker either. However, it was too late to stop the fellow from going on air.

Here's where the downside to this trend is: is TV and radio following much of what they read in newspapers a good thing? Does it magnify stories which don't deserve much attention, while ignoring ones that really merit coverage?

WCBS-AM Newsradio 88 news director Tim Scheld likened his station's all-news format to an online news aggregator like The Drudge Report that also credits its sources: "If you listen to us for a half hour, we will get you up on everything you need to know. We'll give you a full plate." Although he admits "Newspapers have bigger staffs."

He points to the local 10 pm and 11 pm TV newscasts: "What they do is similar to what we do during the day, putting their own spin on it."

Of course, radio does have its day in the sun, like when a plane landed in the Hudson River last fall: "All you need is a cell phone to cover that story. You can't beat the immediacy of that."

If newspapers and magazines sadly fold, what will radio and TV stations do with nobody to break a lot of their news for them?

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