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New News Is Bad News?

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We'll soon find out whether "You" will be tapped as Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" or not but 2006 has certainly been a year of change in the media world. When it began, media organizations like CBS were asking YouTube to remove its content from their site. Now? They're sending out press releases trumpeting a successful partnership.

In a press release yesterday (see more at Lost Remote), CBS said the network's month-old partnership with YouTube is already paying dividends. The network has uploaded over 300 content clips to YouTube which have received a total of 29.2 million views. In a somewhat unexpected bonus, it appears the collaboration has even attracted new viewers to the network – the CBS programs with the most-viewed content on YouTube have seen "notable increases" in their ratings since the content-sharing began.

This is a glimpse at what the new media landscape promises – a winning collaboration between new and old brand names. YouTube gets quality content while CBS gets exposure to a new audience. It's win-win. Leave it to someone like me to be concerned about where it's all going.

Looking at the CBS clips which have gained popularity on YouTube, it's hard not to be worried about what this says about the audience (or lack thereof) for "news." See, the most-viewed CBS clip, coming in at 1.6M, was a "cat fight" from the program NCIS. After that, seven of the 15 most-viewed clips touted in the press release were from David Letterman's "Late Show" and three from Craig Ferguson's "Late, Late Show." Two clips were from CBS' College Sports network (one a story about the USC cheerleaders, another about a one-armed women's soccer player). Just two clips were from a CBS News program – one of "Early Show" host Harry Smith wrestling Borat, the other was anchor Katie Couric's interview with Michael J. Fox.

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So, while YouTube's audience may have a voracious appetite for clips of two women wresting around on the floor, there isn't a whole lot of interest in news among this new audience. Now, anyone who has perused YouTube's most-viewed list on a daily basis will have seen some clips posted from the "Evening News" or other CBS news programs which are legitimate "news" clips so it's not like that part of the network is unrepresented in this experiment or that there is no audience for "hard news."

It's another sign though of consumer appetites, as if we needed more. Even before the Internet began seriously eating into the audience, news has had an uncomfortable relationship with the rest of the media universe. It's not as if the networks were opening up the checkbooks for the news divisions before YouTube came around. The evening news broadcasts didn't go from one-hour hard news show to half-hour "your money" segments just because bloggers showed up.

The real concern is not whether entertainment is more popular than news (it always will be), but that the emerging media world will continue eroding the news audience rather than finding ways to increase it. Will the rich (entertainment) just keep getting richer while the poor (news orgs) get poorer?

I was surfing around last weekend and happened to catch some Bill Maher's HBO talk show, "Real Time." Actor Richard Dreyfus was in the middle of a very passionate and high-minded rant about the nature of today's news media. His take: News is a public service, one that should not be profit-driven and something dedicated to the purpose of informing the nation about events and issues affecting the world in which they live and help them make informed decisions.

I probably don't agree with Dreyfus about much of anything but was impressed with his argument. But here's the problem: Even in a perfect world where news divisions of networks were not expected to make money and they gave up hours every week for news programs, documentaries and investigative reports, it wouldn't mean anyone would watch. You can't force-feed an audience any longer that can turn to cable, the Web, iPods, DVDs and video games for alternatives. You have to attract an audience. The question is, will the new media make it easier for news organizations to do that with straight, "hard" news? The early returns certainly don't look promising.

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