Gosh, did I say cheaper? Yes. To send a reporting team to Alabama for a few days might cost a few thousand dollars, Klein estimates, but to send that same team to Afghanistan, “you’re looking at extensive security, and it runs you into very serious money . . . between $50,000 and $100,000 just to get going.” Instead, Klein explains, “It’s far less expensive to have a reporter do a live top from the Pentagon, where we have a fixed camera, than to send a reporter to the battlefront. The best news organizations find ways to do both. You make periodic trips to make sure your reporting is authentic and informed, but you cannot afford to do that every single day.”
Indeed, “We go to fewer places, a lot less often,” says an A-list network correspondent with years of domestic and international reporting experience, and “finance is one of the reasons.” Does this make a difference? “It’s the difference from seeing something up close and seeing it only from afar,” he says. “It goes to the very essence of reporting.”
More and more, the correspondent says, he and his colleagues report on international stories from Washington, using the money-saving formula described by Klein. “The audience gets a different perspective if the story is seen from the outside looking in, rather versus the inside looking out,” says our correspondent.
But turning the focus of news away from video is not just about pinching pennies. Klein explains: “The challenge that I and a lot of news executives laid down for our people . . . was to break out of the standard formula and think about what the best way to tell a story would be. Sometimes, the tape package is the best possible way to tell a story. But sometimes there are other, better ways.”
Better in what sense? Not in representing reality, but in giving viewers the familiar personalities they love. “TV news programs are increasingly driven by star anchors,” Klein points out, “The audience is drawn to the anchors’ performance and their insights and their presentation of the day’s news.” But, he says, “as soon as you go to these generic packages, ordinary correspondents, many of them not known to the audience, the show becomes generic.”
But is that true? It is, in fact, a huge group of “ordinary correspondents, many of them not known to the audience,” that has helped make Al Jazeera English into the world’s fastest-growing news channel. And that popularity has come during a period of growing global competition.
I’ve counted sixty-six television news channels broadcasting in English today, and after more than two years of watching many of them, I can tell you that most look like they learned to shoot and edit watching the old BBC and CNN. They’re all using more or less the same gear as today’s CNN and BBC, and more and more often demonstrating professional levels of mastery. By my reckoning, 90 percent of these channels didn’t exist ten years ago, and some of them operate under severe political constraints. For both those reasons, most do not yet approach the quality of journalism or videography found at ABC, BBC, CBC, or AJE. But their ambition is to compete, and every year they get better at it.
Where did all of CNN’s minutes go, you ask? the ones that used to be spent on video packages? PEJ’s numbers give a simple answer: to chat. At CNN, between 2007 and 2011 the share of airtime for packages dropped by 28 percentage points, while the share for interviews went up by 26 percentage points. This exchange did more than rob correspondents of storytelling time; it changed their work.