Friday, January 29, 2010

Media: Looking Back on Changes

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In 2009, the (arguably) most intellectual evening newscasts in Canada and the United States, CBC's The National and The PBS NewsHour (formerly the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) went through major re-formatting. Now, after some months in which the broadcasts have stabilized, I would contend that neither re-format has proven to be especially profound and both broadcasts remain the worthwhile presentations that they have been for years.

The National made its changes first, in late October, and the first day was not well-received on this blog. Visual changes aside, the story selection and emphasis on man-on-the-street interviews was disturbing--the amount of hard news and "real" (perhaps "traditional" would be a better term) journalism had clearly declined, and I wasn't the only blogger complaining about the changes.

A survey of the last week of programming reveals a different story. The "streeters" are basically gone, except when the story is actually about public opinion (e.g. on a change in political polls) and thus have journalistic relevance. Originally touted as a weekly feature, the "Analysis with Wendy Mesley" pieces have proven to be less frequent, bumped at times by real news like Haiti, and have tended to be more relevant, particularly in the political sphere, such as exploring the accountability of the prime minister. The puff pieces like whether NASA should be funded (hardly a burning issue for Canadians) seem to have quietly disappeared.

In fact, I daresay that if one compared a National program from August with a recent program from January, the only significant difference that would be seen would be the visual appearance changes. I don't find Peter Mansbridge walking the set to be distracting (or enticing, for that matter), or the new color scheme incorporating blue to be that significant. Guests--if not reporters introducing a story--are now allowed to sit down again (Rick Hillier was especially awkward standing up). Differences of style rather than substance don't really bother me. Ratings are apparently still down (though a MacLeans article points out this may have as much or even more to do with new monitoring devices to determine ratings than with the broadcast), so this story may not yet be over.

The PBS NewsHour made its changes officially on 7 December, but as has often been the case on this show, many of the changes were gradually introduced, including the placement of the news summary after the top story of the day, something that prompted a margin note from this blog last August. The major changes in December were a mild (compared with the CBC's) visual makeover and the re-introduction of two anchors each evening, just like the program had prior to Robert MacNeil's retirement in 1995. The second anchor besides Jim Lehrer rotates amongst the program's senior staff. Hari Sreenivasan now reads the news summary instead of one of the anchors.

I never detected any serious change in editorial selections or tone as a result of the re-formatting, or any change in the journalistic value of the newscast. What has changed significantly has been the on-line integration of the broadcast. Whereas the podcast had been spotty in delivering the complete program (and, in fact, the program as presented on-air was not available on-line, just most segments), the On-Line NewsHour, as it is called, is now if anything more valuable than the broadcast itself, with additional coverage of some stories and often extra interviews with analysts. The full broadcast is readily available. As someone who was traveling for most of the early weeks after the change, I really appreciated the improved on-line NewsHour.

So, a few months into the changes, I rate the CBC changes as a long-term wash after short-term negatives, and the PBS changes as a clear improvement.

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