“The Newsroom”: Big Media’s Fantasy In a Nutshell

January 6, 2013

Like anyone who fell in love with The News in the last millenium, I welcome the warm, cozy blanket Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” gently lays over me. But it is false representation of reality. I know I’m coming late to this party, this week I finally got around to watching the first season, which aired last summer. It unintentionally demonstrates the struggle Big Media is having with adjusting its brave new world.

When Sorkin’s “The West Wing” first aired in 1999, I was a junior staffer in the Clinton Administration and personally knew a few of the White House personalities the show seemed to be modeled after. The show’s interactions were real, but it irked me with how well-rested and civil everyone in the West Wing was supposed to be. The White House I knew from friends was a powerful six-and-a-half day a week job that provided almost no tied-up-in-a-bow moments with plenty of backstabbing and sleepless nights. People worked there not because the job was fulfilling, but because it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience where every decision affected millions and just a year there punched your ticket for life.

Sorkin’s version missed most of that, but he did get the gravity of the West Wing right, and how much things mattered. By itself, revealing those truths broke some important ground.

“The Newsroom” instead promotes only fantasy. Cable television news does not change the world, it rarely alters major government policy and it certainly does not reach millions of people on a daily basis. Occasionally Sorkin’s show acknowledges that fact, especially when it talks about the fictional show’s ratings, reaching 500,000 to 1 million people a night, a far cry from the “Broadcast News” era in 1987, when the three network television news reached a combined 42 million viewers a night. In 2010, all cable and network evening news shows reached just under 22 million viewers.

There’s important fail moment early in the series when the star TV anchor asks, “What did the other guys have on tonight?” meaning the other networks. His dutiful producer then rattles off the lead-off stories on competing news shows and they congratulate themselves for breaking an important story to the world.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Nowhere in the show is there any mention of Drudge Report, Talking Points Memo, SCOTUSblog, Daily Kos, Breitbart.com or any of a million digital news sites that command audiences three to ten times larger than their daily evening broadcast audience. And the show’s blog is maintained by an earnest-but-also-ran kid, whose potential audience is as big as the star anchor’s TV show.

Twitter is treated as a cute curiosity followed by the twenty-something set, and tabloid and morning television is treated as if utter trash, beneath contempt. In “The Newsroom”, the Great and Good run the real news show, and everything else is non-existant. There are no external pressures, no social media, no viral videos, no trending on Twitter.

It is a world frozen in 1999, when the web behaved like a superfast reference book and the levers of news power were pulled by just a few who carried A Great Responsibility to get it right and tell the world what they needed to know to live their lives.

Those days are so gone. Today’s competitive news world is guerrilla warfare, where anyone with a website and willingness to adhere to basic rules of reporting can alter the newscape. It takes a bit more resources to create a significant news organization, as TPM, TMZ and Gawker can testify, but not nearly as much as the millions expended to keep the imaginary newsroom of “The Newsroom” afloat.

News consumers sense this too, and are heading to where the freshest, most relevant news lives: On a hundred thousand niche websites. They are taking their eyeballs and advertising dollars with them, making “The Newsroom” less real with every day. We live in a post-modernist, asynchronous news world now, where there is no broadly accepted truth, no individually powerful forces, but instead millions of voices, occasionally uniting to agree, but usually clashing over even the smallest things, like which facts are actual facts.

But there are still newsrooms like “The Newsroom” out there. Maddow, O’Reilly, Matthews and Anderson still have them. They are rare, and devastatingly expensive compared to their competition. It is no accident they cater to specific world-views, since those are the last audiences loyal enough to stick with a regular news source.

Instead, news consumers are flitting between dozens of different news sources every day, finding their own facts, making their own conclusions. And they like it.

Big news organizations have everything to lose in this new world. Their primary assets, their brands and their salesforces, gain value only with larger audiences. NBC News is only marginally more important than Buzzfeed or Politico, two brands that did not exist ten years ago. Readers control this trend and advertisers are following, putting big news organizations in a vicious circle of not enough readers to attract ad money to pay for good content and not enough good content to attract readers to attract ad money.

Soon, “The Newsroom” will deserve a Ken Burns treatment more than an Aaron Sorkin one.