This morning I spent the better part of 45 minutes walking around looking for a newspaper to purchase. There are normally plenty of copies of the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Times at the Starbucks just one block from my home in downtown Chicago. Today, I visited no less than 15 resources before successfully acquiring a newspaper of any kind. I tried every 7-Eleven, White Hen, Jewel, Dominick's, news stand and bookstore in the neighborhood before, in desperation, deciding to try a hotel gift shop.
SUCCESS CAME AT LAST!
While walking back to my home, I was stopped no less than 15-20 times by people inquiring where I had found the newspaper. Everyone seemed to be in the same predicament I had been in just minutes before.
The reason was both transparent and obvious, Barack Obama is the 44th President-Elect of the United States of America. And seeing as though I reside in his hometown, which was the site of the biggest election night rally in history, I can clearly understand the enthusiasm.
However there is a MUCH bigger story here. A retailing story, no less. A story being missed by the large conglomerates that run most of the media we have access to in this country.
It was the theme that catapulted President-Elect Obama to his primary and general election victories. The story is about ...inclusion!
The fact is, young people and old people, rich people and poor people, whites, black, latinos women and men wanted to read a newspaper because they were certain to see articles representing their interests within the pages.
Newspapers have seen massive declines in readership across the country for the last 6-10 years, and at a much more rapid rate lately. Television viewership numbers that would have left Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw in tears 20 years ago , is now cause for chest-thumping by the likes of Charles Gibson, Katie Couric and Brian Williams.
We are told this flight from old media is due to people having "more options for news." This, however, is an excuse, served up by media executives stuck thinking in the Hillary/McCain mold. They are looking at the "classical" ideas of media and not seeing multitudinous opportunities that lie at their feet for the taking.
"Classical" media looked at the landscape of all that happened in the world and decided to pick and choose, for us, what was fit to print or report. The "new" way is to show the entire landscape and allow the individual to decide what is important to them.
Let me be clear. This is not another article about how the Internet is better, faster, more comprehensive and revelatory than television or newspapers,though I agree they are. It is more about the growth potential that lie in both of the latter mediums. Something that can help to stem the tide of massive lay-offs happening within these important American institutions.
Inclusion requires that you not only talk about the full spectrum of people, places and events, but that you reflect the full spectrum with who covers such things for your organization. Last night, for instance, a night full of historic achievement, there was much talk of the broad coalition of various ages, races and sexes responsible for the Obama victory. The reality of who reported that news did not directly reflect the viewing audience or those reveling onscreen in the possibilities of a "new tomorrow."
The age of the principal anchors handling Election Night coverage on each major news outlet were as follows:
Katie Couric (51) and Bob Schieffer (71)
Brian Williams (49) and Tom Brokaw (68)
Charles Gibson (65) and George Stephanapoulos (47)
Jim Lehrer (74)
Wolf Blitzer (60) and Anderson Cooper (41)
Chris Matthews (63), Keith Olbermann (49) and David Gregory( the oldest 38 you'll ever find)
Chris Wallace (61) and Brit Hume (65)
All of them White. All but one, male. Two septuagenarians, six sexagenarians, four at or hovering near 50 and two other rather marginalized figures hovering near forty years of age.
I genuinely believe each of them brought a wealth of perspective to the evenings events and did their best in covering what was a momentous night. However lack of perspective is what stood out most. They all talked of JFK, RFK and MLK. There was discussion of the 60's and 70's. However, there was little talk of the impact of the Internet on this election. No chronicling of the Obama fundraising juggernaut done primarily online. No discussion of the continuous evolution of the blogosphere, now used for both information and independent fundraising. Little, if any, discussion of Obama's digital "Get-Out-The-Vote" operation that overwhelmed his rival. Most anchors chose to discuss, only, the more familiar (to them) door-knocking operation. All in all, after a while it became that story your Uncle tells to the new person every Thanksgiving. Partially true, mildly interesting and thoroughly embarrassing. They were literally, just one glaring example of why there is a massive flight from their medium as a source for staying informed
Are we to believe it would take a search party to find an anchor of Latino, Asian or African descent? Are we to believe there are no souls under 40, or hell even 30, capable of anchoring or co-anchoring the "Big News" desk at any of these companies? Are we to believe that Katie Couric is the only woman with the requisite qualifications and experience to be a part of the "Boy's Club?" I think not.
How can I know? Barack Obama just proved it, that's how. His campaign was run by a diverse coalition of people, and as mentioned previously, won by a diverse coalition of people.
MSNBC showcased Luke Russert on several occasions during this election cycle, using him to flesh out stories specifically relating the youth vote. These reports were generally well-received because of the freshness of the subject matter and, importantly, the depth and understanding that resulted from the person reporting the story being of the same generation. What struck me was how many times they cutaway from his report to find an utter lack of professionalism, not by the 23 year-old reporter, but by the in-studio host. Each time after a generally routine "back to you in the studio" from the young Russert, there seemed always time enough to discuss "how proud of him" they were, how "they wish his Dad (their recently deceased colleague, Tim Russert) could see" him, or all-around head-nodding of "how well he is doing".
We are all proud of how this young man handled the passing of his father, who was a lion in the media world. His transition into his father's line of work has seen a few kinks, but nobody with sense can say that he has seemed forced. Luke Russert is a fine professional, but it took tragic circumstances to get him on air. There are many other Luke Russert's out there waiting to be discovered. But they are being told to, "Go start in Iowa, Idaho or Montana. Then come back when you get seasoned." Like when you are in your 50's or 60's and you can no longer relate to the rest of the population.
The limitations of those currently sitting in the anchor chair are being projected onto the anchors of tomorrow, I mean TODAY!
Newspapers are not immune from the same line of thinking. The best example I can draw from is the continued slide in readership of the Chicago Tribune newspaper (down 5.8% Sundays, down 7.8% Weekdays) at a time when there is continued growth in the Tribune Company's RedEye tabloid newspaper (now up to over 200,000 copies per day, from 0 in 2002).
The RedEye is an inferior product, as far as journalistic content, when compared to it's bigger sister, the Chicago Tribune. However, RedEye drives great advertising revenue for a company that had seen it's readership literally continue to die off over the past two decades.
RedEye is viewed as a young persons alternative to newspapers. Not an alternative to the Tribune, but an alternative to all newspapers.
The RedEye meets most standards of a young news reader in today's society, delivering news in small "bursts." An article is rarely more than 3-5 paragraphs long, and many are just an one inch summation of a news story, accompanied by a screaming headline. Additionally, the RedEye discusses topics and people that relate directly to it's audience. While you can expect to read wide coverage of bands like U2, or television shows such as Desperate Housewives in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, RedEye is more likely to feature recording artists like T-Pain on it's cover and dish news on Gossip Girl within it's pages. They are ahead of the curve now, but the goal is clearly to become the curve. One gets the idea the journalist and editors are young or, at very least, young at heart.
Readers can decide, quickly, if this is a story they should look into more on the Internet once they get where they are going, or if they will take a pass. Once again, you can no longer tell consumers what news is, they decide for themselves.
The Tribune, and other newspapers, could easily boost readership by borrowing the inclusive themes that come with skewing younger, and without sacrificing it's seriousness. Shorter articles that drive readers looking for more to the TRIBUNE website, where fully fleshed out material awaits. PBS does this for every piece of it's original broadcasting. Instead of leaving it to the reader to investigate their own choice of web news provider, all the sourcing for the article can be delivered at Tribune.com. This seems a simple solution, held back only by a nasty word that's been the death knell to many organizations, institutions and even civilizations, "tradition."
Big Media has a question to ask itself in the coming months, if not weeks. Do they dare to be at the forefront, skewing younger and more inclusive with their talent? Or will they continue this prolonged blood-letting by having sexagenarian talking-heads try to explain the merits and intricacies of FaceBook in vain while the most dramatic cultural and generational shift in our nation's history is taking place on the screens around them?
The way forward is to trust in the profound talent that resides in the many cultures and youth of America. Ask of them that thing which has not been asked before, save service in the military during times of war. Let us ask them to take a seat at the table and be a part of developing solutions to the many obstacles that plague us all.
Being inclusive is not only the rational thing to do, it's the profitable thing as well.