Open the Floodgates

And let the audience in

From the newsroom at CBS, where I have spent the majority of my days since I took a desk assistant job here in November, I have an abundance of time to think about why I find the job so mind-numbing. Surrounded by the metal devices that take in and transmit satellite data, I gaze longingly at the leftmost in a bank of televisions that hang from the ceiling. This is the TV tuned to CNN: the only network that is, slowly but surely, embracing participatory journalism by incorporating their audience into their coverage.

I imagine the excitement that my counterparts in the CNN newsroom face as they field reports and comments from both their higher-ups and an engaged audience. When jerked back to reality by the ring of a telephone, my surroundings are an invariable disappointment. If traditional newsrooms like CBS’s don’t embrace the culture of audience participation—not just acknowledging but also incorporating engaged news consumers—then not only will the audience lose interest, so will young journalists like me.

I was born late enough to have always used the Internet, and so my journalistic aspirations involve making waves on the Web rather than publishing the perfect print piece or producing a regular radio or television newscast. Because of this, I watch my colleagues at CBS with the same anthropological interest that they reserve for “the blogs.” And I’ve come to realize that the torpor of the job elicits the same frustration in a few of them as it does in me, only for different reasons.

These broadcast veterans are not upset because listeners are left so thoroughly out of the newscast (why would this seem odd to them?). Rather, they’re mad because the audience is not interested in the stories that they want to tell. A radio anchor storms out of his studio yelling: I can’t do this anymore… I’m going home to bed if I have to lead another hourly with Chicago when there is an actual war going on in Afghanistan. When I receive a call from a stringer in India who wants to do a piece on three hundred Bangladeshis drowned in the Bay of Bengal, an assignment editor tells me No, Americans aren’t interested in that, it’s too far away. “How do you know?” I think.

Traditional news outlets aren’t yet taking full advantage of technology’s ability to shrink distances. It’s shocking to me that the only way for a listener or watcher to make constructive criticisms or suggestions is to call the “angry listeners line”—really just a depository of unchecked voicemail messages. When an older gentleman calls, he catches my attention by asking: “Why are you guys all of sudden trying to entertain me with these American Idol type sound effects when all I want is the news?” I can only agree and hang up politely.

This man is one of thousands of news addicts out there, listening and watching. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way for their comments to reach the executive editors of a newscast, rather than just a lowly assistant like me? Granted, lucid suggestions will be peppered with crazed rants and everything in between, but does that diminish the need for a platform to absorb audience criticisms? This is, after all, the norm on any weblog.

News consumers aren’t as passive as they used to be. Eleven thousand people volunteered their time over the course of the election to complete unpaid assignments for the Huffington Post; in less than a year, CNN has recruited almost a quarter of a million IReporters; there are at least a hundred and twenty thousand new blogs started every day. “Lazy news consumption” has not, as Michael Hirschorn suggests in the February/March issue of The Atlantic, become the norm.

As a result of the online environment, the audience is more, not less, active—and that is the promise of journalism in the decade to come. Vibrant commenters, immediate coverage of breaking news by uncredentialed citizens, and the wilting force of the paper product are all just symptoms of a media environment that is increasingly, irrevocably, dependent on public participation. If one source lets you choose the stories that they cover, and the other doesn’t, why would you pick the latter? I know I wouldn’t.

To be sure, I don’t think that Rick Sanchez or Wolf Blitzer are changing the world when they point viewers to their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. But the fact that I find myself gazing with awe at CNN’s coverage says something about the lassitude with which its competitors are responding to the new media environment. It will be a long time before CBS News catches up, and I’m not waiting around. Instead, I’m returning to the tools of the Web with the hope that one day I can use them to improve network news coverage from the outside in.

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Susannah Vila is a journalist living in New York City.