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Trying To Interpret The NBC News Shakeup

(AP / CBS)
A great deal of attention has been paid to yesterday's announcement at NBC as it pertains to the repercussions for prime time programming. But we're more interested in how the shakeup affects the news. NBC News is being "streamlined," something that involves shifting headquarters and job cuts – 220, according to Radar, though NBC has not set a number. It's unclear if there will be significant new investment in the Web, though the rhetoric suggests as much.

One striking quote, from NBC News President Steve Capus, appeared in this morning's New York Times. "I'm not saying that now every story will get just one person who is going to meet the needs of every entity,' said Capus. "That's not the point. But maybe, instead of 30 people, we can send 25. I believe we can do that, and viewers will have no idea that behind the scenes, those are the conversations going on.'

That may be true, but the comment does seem to suggest that news organizations are continuing to move away from having people on the ground. In recent years, we've seen many news organizations close or scale back foreign bureaus in an effort to cut costs.

In the Los Angeles Times, Matea Gold and Thomas S. Mulligan argue that TV is now simply coming to terms with the economic reality faced by newspapers as a result of technology. The Times notes that NBC News says it's just trying to reduce duplication, and that it will keep its level of quality while cutting costs. Former ABC anchor Ted Koppel says that's not the way it works. "It always breaks my heart, because as much as they will make it sound as though the product is going to be as good as it ever was — no, it won't," he told the Times. But Capus points out that NBC News has just opened three new bureaus abroad.

The debate is now between those who see this as an effort at skimming the bureaucratic fat and adapting to the future and those who see it as an ominous harbinger of things to come. My guess is that it's both. In fairness to NBC, there is a new landscape as a result of the Internet, and a structural shift may well be inevitable for all news outlets. "No one has yet truly embraced the idea that online is now the dominant medium - not broadcast, not print," Robert Niles, editor of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review, told Marketwatch. "Finally it's getting to the point where ... it's time to start competing very aggressively with the nimble startups online that have started to suck the audience away."

But there is something more than a little disconcerting about the fact that Capus actually uttered the words "[w]e're still in the news business." Newsgathering is indeed a business, and the Internet has had real repercussions on the bottom line – a problem compounded by the fact that the time has long since passed that news organizations can get by on low profits and high prestige. For people like Bill Kovach, chairman of the aptly-named Committee of Concerned Journalists, the announcement is bad news – and there is more bad news on the horizon. "If a major news organization like NBC is going to reduce the number, and it sounds like a significant number, of the people who go out and gather information to go into the daily stream of news," he told the New York Times, "it's going to thin our knowledge of the world somewhat."

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