TV News: Endangered Species?

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With poignant timing, the funders of the new Newseum in Washington, D.C., last week said the newly constructed version would open April 11. The irony, of course, is that in the last few months, the newspaper industry, which forms part of the spine of this 250,000-square-foot museum, has been caught in what seems to be a persistent downward spiral. To many Americans, newspapers belong in a museum with other artifacts.

Television and radio news will also be a dominant feature of the Gannett Freedom Forum-funded Newseum, and indeed, ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos will air from the building located near the Capitol every week beginning April 6, a week before it officially opens. There will various galleries funded by Cox Enterprises, News Corp., Time Warner, and NBC and ABC News. A 74-foot marble engraving of the First Amendment is a centerpiece of the place, but the heart and lifeblood will be the Americans who recognize the Amendment for the living miracle of freedom that it is.

The need for this museum has never been greater. The freefall of many newspapers is largely because of the rise of the Internet. But it's also because, for several decades, even before the Internet, newspaper owners did little or nothing to stimulate new readership and with some truculent disdain toward their readers, resisted change that would have reflected the new patterns of American life.

The next endangered species may be television newscasts, which have some of the same problems. If newspapers are too slow, the network newscasts are in trouble because they're on when viewers can't reach them. Most network magazine shows, and morning newscasts, are now more like People than Newsweek or Time. Many local newscasts are in trouble because their cookie-cutter Action Eyewitness Newscenter formats are parodies of news, not purveyors of it. Alas, cable news, on its worst days, is just a dogfight between “celebrity” ideological egotists.

Our provocation is intentional. Journalists wondering why people are seeking alternative sources for news might do well to visit the Newseum to be reminded that it's the news profession they are in, not showbiz, and they have a crucial role to play in the day-to-day life of this country. They have a job to do. If they practice their craft with imagination and tenacity, the business will take care of itself.