This morning I am listening to NPR’s Weekend Edition. It’s a good way to spend a Sunday morning. In 1990, I was doing the same thing, when it occured to me that NPR could make some pretty good television, if you could get the NPR radio reporters to carry video cameras instead of Nagra tape recorders.
Sometimes when you get an idea, you just can’t let go of it. So I went out to see if I could make that happen. I was fortunate that I was able to raise a few million dollars on Wall Street, based on that idea. Nick Nicholas, former CEO of Time/Warner was one of my anchor investors. I went into his office and explained my idea, and before I was done, he took out his checkbook and wrote me a check for $100,000.
Most NPR radio reporters, some of the best journalists in the world, are stringers. They live in the countries from which they report, they know the languages, they have the contacts, and as radio journalists, they were used to carrying their own recording gear and editing their own work. Within 18 months I had equipped and trained more than 100 of them. And their work was good. Very good.
I took this treasure trove of reporting potential to the major networks. I met with the Presidents of ABC News, NBC, News, CBS News and the newly formed Fox News. “For a mere $3 million, I will lease you exclusive access to 100 of the best journalists in the world.” (This at a time when Dan Rather was getting $7.5 million a year for reading the Evening News). “In a stroke you will have global coverage better and deeper than CNN or The BBC. Doesn’t that seem like a good deal to you?”
They all turned me down. Not for 3 million, not for 2 million, not for free. They explained that they had no interest in journalists in China or Africa or Afghanistan at any price because, ‘we don’t do Africa or China or Afghanistan’. They did OJ.
It was one of those ‘build it and they’ll come’ approaches, except no one came. No one cared. And it was not a question of the quality. No one argued about the quality. (In fact, two years later, my NPR vjs would garner a national Emmy for documentary news for Killer Virus, (produced by NPR’s Peggy Girshman), beating out all three networks).
It was then that I was fortunate to make the introduction of Punch Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times. He was the father of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the current publisher of the paper. Punch Sulzberger understood what I was trying to do. We had long talks. I told him I would build for him the ‘video analog’ of the newspaper, and with that, he bought my company. It became NY Times Television.
In 1996 the Times was just starting NYTimes.com. But the web could not accomodate video. The bandwidth was not there. And so NY Times Television had no place to go with its video stories, except to cable. And cable was not interested in news. Cable wanted shows like Trauma, Life in the ER, which is what we produced.
Today, the web has changed. It carries video, and it is going to carry a lot more video. And every newspaper and magazine, and just about everything else, is going to migrate to the web. The economics of it, on all levels, are just too attractive. Well, once you are on the web, no one cares if you had been a magazine or a newspaper or even a radio program. There is an inherent expectation that you will present in whatever medium the story requires. Sometimes that is text, but sometimes it is video.
If you look at NYTimes.com or Washingtonpost.com, you will see stories reported and presented in video. Last year, Travis Fox (www.travisfox.com) won an Emmy for his videojournalism work at The Washington Post. More will come.
The local TV news stations I work with are traumatized and frightened at the speed with which they are going to have to change. Most of them just don’t want to do it. They don’t want to endure the fear and hostility of their staff as they adjust to change. They have chosen the path of least resistance. It is a mistake. Newspapers and magazines will move far faster and far deeper. They don’t have an inherent culture that sees this as going backward – they see it as moving ahead into a digital future… which is what it is.