The newspaper industry is a financial Gong Show. Can it be saved by turning it into a reality TV show?
A couple of weeks ago, the NBC television network announced it was developing a "documentary style" show that would follow a small-town newspaper "working hard to stay on top of breaking … news and keep financially afloat in an ever-increasing competitive world." Plenty of us laughed: What sane journalist, after all, would submit to the ritualistic debasement demanded by TV producers?
And then about 150 newspapers went ahead and applied for the privilege.
You can understand the urge: As the classic newspaper business model – sell ads, sell subscriptions, zealously protect your 35-per-cent profit margins – has faded, proprietors have desperately tried to monetize their operations in other ways. Media companies are building conference and trade show operations, launching lecture series, opening retail stores, and undertaking commercial partnerships in the belief that their brand has value in other formats.
Indeed, in a report this week about the prospective show, as yet unnamed, the senior vice-president of development at NBC's Peacock Productions told the New York Times that, while the chosen newspaper wouldn't be paid directly, "The advertising rate for that newspaper would go through the roof."
The fact is both NBC and the newspapers lining up to volunteer may already be too late. In the past few years, newspapers have been in full scramble mode, like exhibitionistic reality-TV ingenues, to put their operations on display. The Guardian in England has been at the fore, publishing a daily list on its website of some of the stories it is working on for the following day's paper. Reporters at countless other news organizations regularly correspond with people over Twitter and Facebook as they work up their stories.
In doing so, journalism has lost the superhero sheen it acquired during the Watergate and Pentagon Papers era, and revealed itself to be more flawed, more human. More Snooki.
As it happens, at the same time that newspapers began flooding the Peacock Productions offices with applications, news organizations around the world began experimenting with the new Twitter app known as Vine, which enables people to record and upload six-second videos. The Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism school, curated a handful of Vine vids that showed, variously, a German newspaper's front page being laid out, a short promo for a local Virginia TV news segment, and a glimpse inside the Huffington Post offices.
So far, no one has used Vine to reveal inter-office sex scandals, reporters trash-talking editors behind their backs, or cat fights at editorial board meetings. But hope springs eternal, right?
It's a little surprising NBC would consider making another TV show out of journalists. In the summer of 2006, the NBC-owned Bravo channel ran a six-part reality show, promisingly titled Tabloid Wars, which tracked the New York Daily News doing battle with their crosstown tabloid rivals at the New York Post. But the Post had refused to participate, so producers were left with only one side of the story, and a slightly sad-sack one, at that: In the pilot episode, the gossip columnist George Rush was shown at his computer, one arm in a brace, talking about carpal tunnel syndrome.
Dumped to air in the July-August doldrums, the show achieved unexceptional ratings.
Still, if the recent feature film documentary about the New York Times, Page One, earned only a little over $1-million at the box office, it helped launch a few of the paper's reporters into a sort of semi-stardom: Media columnist David Carr, for one, now has more than 400,000 Twitter followers.
More common, of course, is the reality-TV roadkill that finds it has to live out the rest of its days after a show leaves the air, like Pig-Pen from the old Peanuts cartoon, surrounded by a smudgy cloud of reputational disarray.
Most people understand that instinctively. In 2003, I travelled to the backwoods of Appalachia to cover a controversy over The Real Beverly Hillbillies, a reality show then in development that CBS hoped would make rural hicks the latest target of viewers' ridicule. It was way ahead of its time – Honey Boo Boo hadn't even been conceived yet, by either her parents or network executives – but after Congressional leaders from both parties weighed in, CBS scrapped the show.
Most reality TV is fake, sure. But the parade of newspapers marching to NBC's door is as real an illustration of the state of the news industry as you're likely to get.