CNN, CNET and necessary evils

Those Of Us Who Care About Journalism are up in metaphorical arms this week over two stories:

1. The Daily Show laid bare the effects of CNN cutting its investigative reporters. I’m no optimist — I saw in my grad school work more than a decade ago that we were likely to see a race to the bottom in terms of quality, but I was still hoping CNN would attempt to distinguish itself from unabashedly lefty MSNBC and unabashedly loony Fox by doing actual reporting.

2. CNET and corporate owner CBS are in a kerfuffle because CNET wanted to bestow an honor upon a device that, in addition to a few other neat features, lets viewers zap ads on TV shows they’ve recorded. CBS said no, and CNET’s Greg Sandoval resigned in protest, citing a lack of confidence in “editorial independence.” Sandoval is, of course, an instant folk hero for standing up against blurring the line between business and editorial interests.

I won’t dispute Sandoval’s stand, but let’s back up a second. Why is CNET honoring something that kills a revenue stream?

Salon’s Andrew Leonard puts it nicely here, not letting CBS or CNET off the hook by any means but pointing out the problem:

For 40 employees of a company that is owned by a television network to get together and put their Best-of-Show-imprint on a device that takes dead aim at the business model of their owner is provocative, to say the least.

The underlying problem here: Today’s young adults have grown up in an era in which everything is free. They can browse nearly limitless content on the Internet, and they can watch hundreds of channels on TV. And as the Emily White controversy showed last summer, they’re not all that likely to pay for music.

And that gets us back to CNN. Why did CNN cut its investigative staff? Because they’re not making enough money, and it’s a lot cheaper to hire talking heads to sit in the studio that it is to go to foreign countries and embed a TV crew for months to get one story.

So as much as I hate to be the grownup, I have to remind people: All of this stuff needs to paid for somehow. Do you really want a world in which the programmers are paid but the content creators need to be independently wealthy?

Or, as NewsRadio so aptly put it: “What is the Constitution of the United States? An advertisement!”

(And yes, I know the irony of posting a TV clip that has no advertising. Fair use, blah blah blah, and go out and buy the NewsRadio DVDs like I did!)


2 thoughts on “CNN, CNET and necessary evils

  1. As it happens, despite a 20-year ratings low for CNN domestically, CNN the company is still quite profitable. Why? Most of its profits come from CNN International, various flavors of which I’ve seen on friends’ satellite hookups. The programming on CNN International is MUCH higher quality than what we see domestically. So The Daily Show wasn’t completely wrong.

    I think the CBS/CNet issue is a problem, but I disagree that there’s just one adult solution. One might be for CNet simply not to pass judgment on products/services in which its corporate parent has an interest, as here.

    I would further point out that the history of U.S. business is littered with the bankruptcies of companies that died because of disruptive technology invented by their own people that, rather than being used to transform the company’s business model, was sat upon until someone else came up with the same idea and used it against them. Tim Wu’s book “The Master Switch” is a good intro to the syndrome.

  2. I don’t really agree, Beau. CNET’s awards are part of their coverage of tech, and to ignore a major innovation like the Hopper is akin to The Washington Post ignoring the controversy surrounding for-profit colleges because it owns Kaplan.

    Yes, journalism, music, movies need to make money to survive. And I want them to survive. But tech that changes revenue models — such as the Hopper — is going to keep developing. Companies like CBS will be better served trying to figure out how to adapt rather than trying to stop the unstoppable. And damaging the credibility of their editorial arms in the process.

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