Once upon a time, the nightly news broadcasts, in conjunction with the daily paper, were our prime sources of news. They appeared just once a day, which meant that breaking news that took place at noon didn't get to most of us until we saw it on television in the evening. Nowadays, however, cable news channels broadcast around the clock. The Internet has put the news, literally, at our fingertips. The news cycle is shorter than it's ever been. If news happens at noon, savvy news consumers often know about it by 12:01. By 6:30, they've already absorbed news analysis, talking head debates, and endless reports about the event.
This leaves the nightly newscasts with a challenge: Should producers assume their viewers haven't seen the headlines, and orient their coverage accordingly? Or should they assume they have, and try to do something new?
"It's a delicate balance," says CBS National Editor Bill Felling. "You're looking for some way to differentiate from what people have been watching all day, but you don't want to underserve the people who haven't been watching."
Felling cites as an example the "Evening News" coverage of the tragedy at Lake George, in which a tour boat capsized and sank, killing 21 people. The network did a segment giving the latest on what happened, and then a second piece from the hometown of many of the tourists, Trenton, Mich., which included interviews with the mayor and travel club – something the cable channels didn't do. "The cable channels pick the top one or two stories and they will mine them all day long, but they do it in a way that will leave out some stuff," says Felling. "They mostly talk about it."
Still, says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the increased competition has fundamentally changed the way nightly newscasts work. "The 24-hour news cycle has done to the networks the same thing it's done to the newsmagazines," he says. "Once a day is no longer current, so they have to cover trends, lifestyles, things that go beyond what you get on cable news. Like the newsmagazines, they have to do more news that is thematic, continuous, and relevant over time so they can't be beaten to the punch."
That's a challenge, however, when you also need to report the day's news. It's not easy to cover the president's press conference this morning, for example, a stand-alone event, in a way that is "thematic, continuous, and relevant over time." One solution the nightly news broadcasts have adopted is to balance the standard news with the lifestyle stories. Last night's "Evening News," for example, started with the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, followed with the Lake George story and stories on terrorism and those left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. The broadcast then moved onto the kind of stories Lichter seems to be talking about: the topics were hybrid cars and the increasing pressures in the kindergarten classroom, the kind in which the concept of "scoops" don't come into play.
"It's a shift right now from breaking news to long term news," he says. "They have to look for news that stays news."