Friday, April 4

Cheese? What Cheese?

The future of television news is in doubt. There, I said it.

The CBS O-and-Os (Owned and Operated stations) have gone through a blood bath in the last week. Everywhere you turn, layoffs: huge cutbacks. Some long-time, big-name reporters, anchors and behind-the-scenes staff—men and women who have dedicated years to their craft and their stations—have been sent packing.

We all know that the television news audience is shrinking: cable and the Internet have taken their toll. It used to be you had to catch a dinner-hour newscast to be informed. Now the news comes to you when you want it, and in new ways. Fewer people are watching TV news than in times past; and the biggest source of revenue for any TV station, automotive ad sales, has dried up in this recession-or-whatever-you-want-to-call-it.

Maybe I’m na├»ve, but I thought that the industry would at least survive (if not thrive) during a political year. My crystal ball didn’t include 2009, but I thought we’d make it through 2008 untouched. I was wrong.

It’s not just broadcasting. Editor & Publisher last week quoted stats that show newspapers just had their worst year for ad revenues in the last fifty!

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on out there: mine included.

Wait. Just a second. Maybe there are lessons to be learned in that 10-year-old motivational management book, Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. This slim volume made it onto the Publisher’s Weekly hardcover nonfiction bestseller list for 200 weeks. There are over five million copies in print.

Let’s see if I can condense it. Two mice and two miniature humans live in a maze. They roam around looking for—well, for whatever it is that satisfies mice and men. Down corridor “C” they find a large stockpile of cheese. Every day they return to that big pile. The pile shrinks, until one day there’s no cheese down corridor “C.” The mice, who had noticed the pile shrinking, had made plans to hunt for cheese in new places.

The humans made no such plans. They expected (contrary to evidence) that the cheese would last forever. “Where’s my cheese?” one of them asks. It’s got to be here. This is the right tunnel. (Humans have a lot invested in being right.)

The mice, meanwhile, started looking for a new source for the cheese. Mice don’t care about right, they care about cheese! They scurried around, and after some lean times finally found a new pile of cheese (new rewards, new satisfactions, new pleasures) down a corridor marked “N.”
The little humans kept going down “C” however. It’s the right tunnel! Before too long they started arguing about what to do. They were afraid.

One of the humans, on the verge of starvation, wrote "If You Do Not Change, You Can Become Extinct" on the wall of “Cheese Station C”, and "What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?" His friend wouldn’t listen.

The first little human set out on his own. It was tough going at first, but he eventually found new sources of cheese, and new kinds of cheese as well! And along the way his journey taught him valuable lessons.

With a nod to author Spencer Johnson, here are the lessons the little human learned and wrote on the wall for all to see.

Change Happens
They Keep Moving The Cheese
Anticipate Change
Get Ready For The Cheese To Move
Monitor Change
Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old
Adapt To Change Quickly
The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese
Move With The Cheese
Enjoy Change!
Savor The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese!
Be Ready To Change Quickly And Enjoy It Again & Again
They Keep Moving The Cheese.
I hear him loud and clear. But here’s my dilemma. What if they stop making cheese altogether? I’ve been in the “cheese” business (broadcast journalism) for forty years. I was blessed enough to be in it when cheese was all people wanted or needed—when every night (it seemed) every home in America was tuned to a local newscast. In those times when television news was coming of age, I was coming of age. I was proud (OK, cocky), because I was convinced that what I did every day mattered to my co-workers and my community.

When I was a younger man, I promised myself I’d never be one of those old “Remember When” kinda whiners. Now I am one. I find I’ve been blogging more and more about WABC and my time there. I’ve said all along that I was there for the tail end of the Eyewitness News glory days: I had nothing to do with the creation of EWN as an art form (and you’re going to have to trust me, it was/is an art form). I was just a grunt doing his job: “another brick in the wall.” But damn, it was an important wall, and it was built by intelligent, dedicated people, and the work meant something.

I’ve had successes and failures since then. In my last news director’s job I was very successful at failing! I guess I was a broadcasting pioneer: I helped gut a once-proud newsroom long before CBS even thought about layoffs and cutbacks at its O-and-Os.

In my last job we grew the news “hole” by 25%, cut the staff by 20% (mostly by attrition), cut the budget by 25% and overtime by 70%. My bosses did everything in their power to get us out of the cheese business. And to (seriously) mix metaphors, I became a Nazi collaborator, a quisling: "Ach, velcome. You muzt be ekks-hausted avter your long train chourney. Vy don't you take a nize hot zhower???" I smiled on the outside while I was dying on the inside.

Why did I do it? Ego. Pure ego! I thought, “If I don’t do it, someone else will take my place, someone who doesn’t care about the journalism, or the staff, or the community. I’ll take the sleepless nights. After a lifetime spent trying to build newsrooms, I’ll help demolish this one—but I’ll try to do it in a way that as few people as possible get hurt.” The turnover rate at that station was so constant that I flatter myself not many actually realized how depleted the place was becoming. Or maybe they did and I didn’t know it. I was light-headed from going without cheese for so long.

One CBS executive was quoted this week saying something like, “Hey, we’ll still be doing the same amount of news—just with fewer people.”


I know what Spencer Johnson would say: “Why didn’t you read the signs—they were clear enough—that the TV news glory days were past? Why didn’t you move on?”

From news to what? From cheese to yogurt? I don’t like yogurt. I guess I can learn to make it, if the demand is there. Newspapers and TV are moving to “new media,” to the web. I guess that’s where we’ve got to go, but God Damn! I’ve seen some really wretched websites out there. The New York Times sold all its TV stations to make a big move into (and onto) the web. It looks OK. Are they going to avoid starvation, long-term? I don’t know. Newspaper people trying to tell stories with moving pictures still doesn’t work very well. Our print brothers and sisters don’t have the video sensibility yet.

I guess I don’t have any of the answers. Maybe the late Ron Tindiglia did. I’ll have to write a long post on Ron, his insights, his knack for news, his sense of humor and his humanity one of these days.

Just time for one story here. In his consulting days he would play clips from movies to illustrate his points, to rev up the troops. I think it was in Cleveland that he showed our staff a clip from “The In-Laws,” that hysterical Peter Falk/Alan Arkin comedy from the 70s. Not this scene, but the one where the two are being shot at. Falk starts dodging the bullets, running madly back-and-forth, side-to-side, all the while yelling at Arkin, “SERPENTINE.” That was Ron’s advice for when times got tough.

Spencer Johnson may know about foodstuffs. I think instead of “Where’s my cheese?” I should be shouting, ”SERPENTINE.”