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Outside Voices: Eric Deggans On Journalistic Authority And Letting The Viewers Decide

(St. Petersburg Times)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week we turned to Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times and author of the blog Media In The Mirror. In today's post, Deggans discusses "Assignement America," a new segment on the CBS "Evening News" that asks viewers to choose from three story topics what correspondent Steve Hartman should report on for the following week. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Eric:

Guessing the inner emotions of a TV anchor during a newscast is a dangerous game.

Still, CBS "Evening News" anchor Bob Schieffer seemed a little uncomfortable a few weeks ago while reading the intro to the newscast's latest innovation: allowing the audience to pick the story features that correspondent Steve Hartman would tackle next.

If my perception is accurate, that's too bad. Because this seemingly lighthearted project illuminates the biggest challenge facing news providers in the digital age … connecting to consumers while maintaining your journalistic authority.

Dubbed "Assignment America," the project features Hartman … a clever reporter who once picked his story subjects by throwing pins at a dart board and picking a name from that town's phone book … offering three story ideas every Friday and allowing viewers to vote until 2 p.m. the following Monday on which notion he would turn into a piece for the "Evening News."

To old-school journalists, it probably sounds a step above offering viewers a chance to win a refrigerator by watching the newscast. After all, isn't it our job to tell people what the news is?

The options on tap as I write this: a look at the drought in Bryson, Texas, so severe, kids are washing hands with towelettes; a story on people who have vowed to buy nothing new in 2006 (except stuff like food, medicine and underwear); and the inventor of the western shirt, a 104-year-old CEO who still goes to work each day.

Exercising an astute amount of news judgment, the audience picked the CEO. The stories picked in previous weeks involved a soybean-powered car and the country's first all-natural, do-it-yourself cemetery.

Once you consider the themes embedded in these stories, these choices make a lot of sense. Mortality. Economics. Gasoline alternatives. Aging. Business. All factors any news professional would consider in judging potential stories.

Hartman's project has exposed, in an offhand way, the twin forces challenging every news outlet in America: an increasingly savvy news audience and digital technology which allows them more control over their news sources than ever.

So let's ask a heretical question. Why not allow people to choose more than fun, frothy features?

Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media critic, wrote Monday about the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, which has allowed readers to vote via the Internet on which story they would like to see on the next day's front page.

According to the Journal's managing editor as quoted by Kurtz, readers have picked an analysis of Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections, a retail chain overcharging customers and the possibility that the state legislature will allow the carrying of concealed firearms.

All are substantive stories with loads of community impact. Not a single Bennifer or Britney Spears takeout among them.

I've often wondered, particularly as news outlets fill their output with celebrity gossip and the missing white woman of the moment, whether we're taking the easy way out to boosting our audiences. It's a lot less threatening to run the occasional lightweight story than to relinquish part of our decision-making process to the public.

NBC bowed to such pressures in developing its online coverage of the Winter Olympics. Rather than hold results from its Web sites to funnel viewers toward prime time broadcasts showcasing events which occurred hours earlier, the network developed a new online destination for its Olympics coverage, shoveled 400 hours of programming onto its network and cable channels and let viewers decide what they wanted to consume and when.

There are many reasons to shrug off such an experiment when it comes to hard news. Publicizing story ideas also alerts the competition; the public likely doesn't know the story subjects like we journalists do; Web-surfing knuckleheads who have nothing better to do can skew the process.

There's really only one good reason for doing it: A better connection with an ever-shrinking news audience.

Perhaps its time for Ed Bradley to consider letting "60 Minutes'" viewers decide his next story -- can't turn out any worse than the decision to let him do a story on the ivory-billed woodpecker.