News directors and consultants: RTNDA's endorsement of TV journalism's "greatest tool".

Author:Allen, Craig
Position:Radio-Television News Directors Association - Business journalism
 
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As scholars consider the commercial values modern newscasts exude, business theories are widely cited in studies of television news. With this trend, however, comes a problem: how to treat historical literature that champions news directors' rejection of business? Empirical researchers have reacted by reconsidering the historiography and its story of public service triumph. Their concept of a "business-journalism dialectic" rests on the modern notion that, overwhelmed by competition from the Internet and other new media, a corporatized television journalism emerged. But is this really a recent trend? Or is this a perception built up from a history that hides now-relevant events?

Scholars have often focused on one such event, newsrooms' use of news consultants. Though television news consulting began in 1962, it became a hot issue in local TV news during the 1970s. Few early newsrooms utilized planning systems, focus groups, and marketing procedures so widely accepted today. Yet not clear is how such functions developed. Research to date does not explain the arrival of consultants but instead concentrates upon the great outpouring of published and spoken criticism of the commercialization of journalism. This period of consciousness-raising is well known, as many journalists and critics sought to expose consultants. Such famed figures as Walter Cronkite held up to public spectacle the growing number of "happy newscasts," "Ken and Barbie" anchor teams, and the profit mania of managers. Influential was Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Powers. His 1977 book The Newscasters is a classic critical account published in the middle of the debate. Yet even he offered no answer for why consultants were in newsrooms.

This present account revises the seeming victory of news over business that dominated speeches, commentaries, books, and articles. It is based upon new resources, the archival records of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. RTNDA was the field's largest professional body in television news and was comprised almost entirely of local news directors. Rarely known to the public, these news professionals played a vital role in the debate as they knew the consultants and they controlled the newsrooms consultants had entered.

The RTNDA materials reveal as myth that the news profession had rejected consultants. Indeed, rather than deterring news consultants, news directors encouraged them. Some alarms did sound. But with membership divided over measures to condemn consultants, RTNDA leaders formed a panel to investigate the issues raised. Some news directors sought market research and business plans--and the resulting higher ratings made them feel more secure. They touted consultants' benefits to journalism, brought consultants into RTNDA, and eliminated a provision against "external influence" from the RTNDA Code. This was a crucial step behind the proliferation of consulting in TV news today.

This article calls into question most early writings about news consultants, including those by Powers, most of which left an impression of professional contempt of what consultants did. Touted instead was the theme that station owners and managers were to blame. Chief among the misrepresentations was the role of Miami news director Ralph Renick who was lauded for leading hundreds of his colleagues in a revolt against the consulting trend. The RTNDA papers provide a very different view of Renick's role.

More significant is evidence that TV news was business-driven perhaps from its seminal stage. Ratings fixation did not begin with competition from the Internet and other recent media. This field never was a monopoly. Whether against 1 or 1,000 competitors, newsrooms' ratings never were high enough. Scholars, meanwhile, always have been certain that TV news was intended for information, enlightenment, and purposes that transcended organizational goals. Early news professionals had not behaved with this understanding. They approved news consulting the moment it appeared. Consulting was endorsed as "one of the [field's] greatest tools." Their actions demonstrate that TV news was not imbued with public service. Scholars now apply theories that may have applied from the start.

Background

News organizations employ news consultants for strategies that increase audiences and profits. Consultants guard their activities and recommendations as "trade secrets." On occasion they do identify clients. One of the roughly one dozen consultancies, Frank N. Magid Associates (Magid and Associates, 2002), recently acknowledged 160 clients. While concentrated in local TV newsrooms, the various firms also advise newspapers, network TV newsrooms, and Internet providers. Many of their largest TV news clients, including Britain's BBC, are overseas (Guensberg, 2000).

Their chief function is market research. The first consultancies, McHugh & Hoffman in 1962 and Magid in 1969, branched from institutes that had pioneered market research at corporations such as General Motors, Sears, and Anheuser Busch. They brought to journalism the same surveys and focus groups used to innovate cars, refrigerators, and brands of beer (Allen, 2005). Most news consulting is a two-phase procedure. After compiling data on content and presentation traits that audiences most prefer, consultants submit and, while working with news directors and newsworkers, spearhead implementation plans. Critics blame consultants' focus groups for news that is "not what the public needs but what it wants." Scholars also are attentive to the implications of market research in newsrooms. The context for this scholarly study is a "demand model" borrowed from business that suggests a news process driven not by journalists but by viewers (Robinson & Levy, 1986, pp. 216-217).

Empirical and historical works both relate the origin of consulting although with different perspectives on news process compatibility. Empirical studies reflect on why news directors had regarded consulting as a compatible function. The studies note a source of news influence that since widely deployed in the 1970s has rarely disrupted newsrooms. The empirical concept of a "business-journalism dialectic" proposes that presented news is a synthesis of traditional news values and commercial values newsworkers learn (Berkowitz, 1993). By facilitating commercial directions, consultants complement business-journalism convergence (Berkowitz, 1997, 105-106; Berkowitz, Allen, & Beeson, 1996; McManus, 1994, pp. 110-111). Newsworkers harmonize with consultants because they, like managers, perceive newsrooms as organizations. They seek both public and organizational success (Berkowitz et al.; Harmon, 1989; Peale-Harmon, 1991; Smith, 1988). Additional empirical research suggests that those most appreciative of consultants are not station owners and managers but news directors (Smith, 1988).

A nearly opposite perspective in historical works dismisses any notion of compatibility. Historians herald the arrival of consultants for an accompanying outcrop of critical books, essays, articles, and reportage. Relying on authors and figures who felt consultants profoundly disrupted journalism, historians interpret their writings as a moment of heightened professional consciousness that strengthened TV news. Survey histories including those by Sterling and Kittross (2002, pp. 341-346) and Bliss (1991, pp. 459-461) relate the skepticism of those who believed that managers had forced consultants into newsrooms. Allen's history (2001, pp. 174-175) discusses an "armageddon," those by Matusow (1983, pp. 367-395) and Murray (1990, pp. 367-395) the "furor" of critics who had made a "persuasive case" that consultants damaged the free flow of news. Jacobs (1990, pp. 29, 58) recounts the impact of Powers' book in exposing a "rape of journalistic responsibility by upper management."

The controversy told in these histories had formed from the November 1973 article "Folksy TV News" by Edward Barrett, former dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, in the Columbia Journalism Review. At the time of this article and since 1971, professionals and critics were engrossed in a maligned local innovation called "Eyewitness News." Although Time ("Happy News," 1972), and Newsweek (Morgenstern, 1971; "Happy Talk," 1972) had detailed the alleged frivolity of "Eyewitness News," writers had seemed to exaggerate claims that TV news was regressing into "happy" newscasters and "show business techniques." Barrett established a reason for this concern. In the first published account of news consultants, Barrett revealed the syndication of "eyewitless" news through a formula based on market research and a 1971 "action plan." Barrett quoted from an analysis of the research by Florida State University professor David LeRoy. LeRoy had found the research "biased" toward a plan that "would have been the same had there been no survey." Another "who openly states his misgivings is Ralph Renick," who reflected a "rising tide of indignation and warnings from respected news directors" who feel "a battle may well lie ahead" (E. Barrett, 1973, pp. 16-20).

With the second expose on television in March 1974 attacks on consultants began. Seen by millions was a scathing exploration of consulted...

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