Salvaging CNN Must Involve Compelling Images

Compared to present day CNN, I’d much prefer the alternative lineups proposed by either Jay Rosen or Ross Douthat, but even these ever astute writers miss diagnosing what I regard as the biggest flaws in cable news, and are insufficiently radical in imagining alternatives.

Put simply, both writers fail to grapple with the medium of television and its comparative advantages. Yes, CNN is competing with Fox News and MSNBC, but it is also competing with The New York Times, The Drudge Report, National Public Radio, Twitter, and every other medium Americans use to stay informed and satiate their appetite for current events.

Unless CNN can persuade more people to meet these needs by watching television, it is fighting a doomed battle for a shrinking percentage of Americans who watch cable news, many of whom are going to die in the next decade or two. (Recent posts about the successful growth of NPR in recent years would do well to point out that its staffers have been quite adept at harnessing the particular strengths of radio — listening to a show like This American Life, it is evident that its producers think very carefully about how to showcase on the medium of sound.) Take a story like the Tiger Woods affair: watching it on CNN is very inefficient. The images are inevitably boring aerial shots of his house or stock footage of him playing golf, and the same information is endlessly repeated as if you’re living in a loop, whereas if I turn off the TV, I can drive at the same time as I follow the story on sports radio, or work at the same time as I absorb it via Tweets, or quickly scan a Web article that doesn’t keep regurgitating the same information.

Even more depressing from the perspective of CNN is the fact that Web operations like The New York Times Online can now offer video that is comparable in quality to what CNN broadcasts, so even a story that is enhanced by some moving pictures doesn’t necessitate turning on the TV — just as the Web has made long form journalism the comparative advantage of print magazines, the Web magazine makes longer form, broadcast quality narrative video a comparative advantage of television networks.

Mr. Douthat noted that there simply aren’t enough exceptionally newsworthy, visually compelling news stories to fill up 24 hours of CNN airtime. More about that in a moment. His suggested replacement — quality political debate — is no more visually compelling. Guys in shirts and ties and women in blouses talking to one another in a studio doesn’t harness the comparative advantage of television. If I can listen to quality debate on the radio while I drive or surf the Web, or tune into on my iPod, or watch an opinionated vlogger via my RSS reader, why would I instead consume it on television, where the need to book guests who meet some minimal aesthetic standard and are physically convenient to a studio inevitably degrades the level of discourse?

So what do I suggest? Unlike Mr. Douthat, I don’t think there is a dearth of stories suited to a visual medium, or that covering more stories with an emphasis on moving pictures is necessarily prohibitively expensive. There are talented documentary journalists all over America who would thrill at a new market for work that is shorter form than their films, but longer form than anything reaching a mass market today — and they wouldn’t have to be paid much. I think that CNN should borrow from certain news radio programs, and structure things as follows: breaking news of the sort it does now on the hour and the half hour, and in between more considered segments of various lengths streaming in from freelancers all over the country, showcasing interesting visual risks, creative approaches to storytelling rather than the same old reporter standing in front of where news happened several hours before, etc. Put another way, CNN should turn some of its hours into the visual equivalent of a magazine rather than a newspaper, and it should also create particular shows organized by subject.

Mr. Douthat wrote, “You won’t be surprised to learn, too, that I’d like to see a serious hour-long show focused on religion and/or the culture wars — a kind of serious analogue to the Daily Show’s ‘This Week in God,’ you might say, featuring a nightly interview round-table that would accommodate new atheists and neo-Calvinists alike.” I’d rather see an hour long religion show in which video journalists broadcast moving images to tell stories from congregations all over America — show me the staid protestant church in New England, the snake handling Pentecostals in Appalachia, the Amish teens striking out into the world to help them decide their future, the mega-Church of Rick Warren, the charity projects some Catholics are doing in Tijuana, etc.

Just as The Big Picture is far more interesting and wonderful than the usually boring photo on the front page of the newspaper, and the audio interviews in This American Life are so much more rich and varied than the sound-bytes heard on straight news programs, CNN could broadcast moving pictures that are far more varied, interesting, and creative than the formulaic crap they so often show today — and even their boring video is better than the endless time spent inside the studio staring at an anchor, a news desk, or talking heads. Either cable news is going to capitalize on the comparative advantage its medium affords, or it is going to die, whether sooner or later.

Show me things I need to see — or else why would I watch?