September 26, 2008

News Organizations Cutting Costs, Corners

By Steve Bornfeld

Modern math hits the media. The equation: Do newscasts minus more and more newspeople still equal news that's a plus to a community?

Las Vegas isn't caught in this computation - not yet - but KLAS- TV, Channel 8 previewed the problem when, owing to an economic downturn that appears far from U-turning, the station sacked 17 employees and offered reassignments to four others, cutbacks cutting across all departments. Anchors Charlotte Evans and Colleen May and reporter Ky Plaskon were among the casualties.

As with all businesses in financial freefall, it's a split scenario: Layoffs pay off in a better bottom line while quality could be compromised. Channel 8's news-side downsizing so far should have a negligible effect on news-gathering.

But TV newsrooms nationwide have suffered the budgetary bloodletting. Solutions for many - to which Vegas might succumb if more firings follow - are ruggedly named "backpack journalists."

Economically, it does cut costs. Journalistically, it could cut corners.

Technology birthed these multimedia multitaskers: They'll shoot video, write scripts, do stand-ups, translate them into print and photos for station Web sites, edit stories and tape audio, melding standard reporting and digital razzmatazz. They're not alone: Newspapers are trending toward it to bulk up their online presence, so it would be easy to wave away concerns over their impact as traditionalists trying to escape extinction.

But when a sole journalistic octopus replaces several reporters, photographers and editors, what's the quality fallout? Despite being trivialized by trite "digging deeper" slogans, news stories need depth and breadth, with reporters - not distracted by multiple responsibilities - whose main focus is fleshing out stories, working sources, getting around stonewalling bureaucrats and doing diligent research. And, even on tight deadlines, taking time to reflect on whether the approach is appropriate, additional viewpoints are necessary, the piece is cohesive and especially, whether fairness has been applied.

Cautionary cliches apply here, as in backpack journalists as "jack of all trades, master of none" churning out coverage "a mile wide and an inch deep." If more layoffs afflict Vegas, viewers could witness the reportorial equivalent of watering down the whiskey.

Roamin' the Remote: Charo on PBS? Isn't that like mixing chili into the fondue? But Ms. Cuchi-Cuchi joins Vegas entertainment maven Tony Sacca for a national edition of his local show airing during the November pledge drive. ... Love those localized CBS promos intercutting series clips with KLAS news folk mugging for the camera. Now that's info-tainment. ... KTNV-TV, Channel 13's Casey Smith teasing to a "Dancing with the Stars" analysis with female impersonator Frank Marino: "He'll give it to you straight."

So, Casey: What possibly could've lurked behind that mischievous little smile?

Contact Steve Bornfeld at [email protected] or 702- 383-0256.

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