Let’s try a little experiment in interactive journalism. Those of you who want this story to be about lobster farming in Nova Scotia, raise your hands. Okay, now let’s hear from all those who’d rather read about celebrity dental surgery. Next, how many would prefer an article on CNN’s Newsnight, the first TV news broadcast to let viewers choose which stories get shown on the air?
Lucky you — choice number three wins by a landslide.
Since late July, Newsnight has offered its audience an unprecedented opportunity to program part of the 60-minute newscast. Every weeknight at 12 a.m., the show flashes a menu of six story choices across the screen, then invites its viewers to dial a 75-cent-per-call 900 number and vote on which two- to four-minute news-feature reports they’d most like to see. The two top choices are broadcast later in the show, leaving the losers to air on another CNN program or be shelved permanently.
”We like to think of it as the democratization of the newsroom,” explains Joshua Loory, Newsnight‘s 32-year-old executive producer, as he paces around the cramped control room inside CNN Center in Atlanta. ”We’re trying to foster more interest in our newscast, trying to keep people watching longer. And this is a way to pull people in, to make them feel more a part of the program.”
One recent interactive segment is typical of how the process works. After newscasters Patrick Emory and Donna Kelley rattle off the main headlines of the day — Iraqi troops mass on the Saudi border, Congress passes new civil- rights legislation, President Bush’s pet pooch Millie is suffering from lead poisoning — a menu of six ”B-section” stories is unveiled on the screen: inner- city kids who attend private school, teenagers who get face-lifts, celebrities who have been terrorized by death threats, the perils of poison oak, VCRs in nursing homes, and Cuba’s war on drugs. ”Call in!” Emory barks in his voice-over announcement. ”Vote for the story you want to see!”
In the next five minutes, nearly 1,000 CNN viewers dial Newsnight‘s 900 number and listen to Emory’s or Kelley’s recorded voice telling them to cast their ballots by punching the appropriate Touch-Tone buttons. In the control room, Loory has a phone pressed to his ear, waiting as an AT&T technician in Omaha, Neb., tabulates the votes. ”I usually have a pretty good idea of what the viewers are going to choose,” he says. ”I’m right at least half of the time.” On this particular night, for instance, ”they’ll probably pick the Cuban drug story. People really love drug stories. Although…” he rubs his nose thoughtfully, ”we may have a dark horse with this teenage plastic surgery thing.”
CNN isn’t the first network to experiment with the ”Have It Your Way” approach to broadcasting. In 1982, NBC’s Saturday Night Live tried a similar idea with its ”Larry the Lobster” segment, in which a live lobster was dangled over a boiling pot and viewers phoned in to vote on whether it should be spared (more than a half-million called, saving Larry by a margin of 12,748 votes). In 1988, Fox tried interactive TV as well, airing a Jack the Ripper 100th-anniversary special in which viewers cast telephone ballots on who the Ripper actually was (he was never caught).
But Newsnight‘s interactive menu marks the first time TV news has gotten in on the act, and, not surprisingly, it’s raising a ruckus in traditional journalistic circles. ”A journalist is supposed to tell people the news they need to know, not the news they want to know,” says Peter M. Herford, director of the Benton Fellowships in Journalism at the University of Chicago (and author of a recent New York Times column that railed against Newsnight). ”That’s the reason we have a First Amendment, so journalists will have the right to make hard choices about what stories to cover. This interactive program gives away that editorial prerogative. It takes away the journalist’s ability to make choices.”
Former NBC News president Reuven Frank has been an even tougher critic: ”It’s a crappy idea,” he told Entertainment Weekly. ”The responsibility of a professional news editor is to choose the most important information to put on the air. That’s what they’re paid to do, that’s what they’re trained to do. This is an abdication of that responsibility. It turns the newscast into a ratings gimmick.”
The folks at CNN, however, don’t seem terribly bothered. ”I’m not interested in what our critics have to say,” Emory says in his Ted Baxter-like baritone. ”People criticize everything. So what?” Emory’s co-anchor (and wife), Donna Kelley, has a bit more to say on the issue: ”The viewers aren’t choosing our lead story. They’re not acting as our news director. We cover the hard news, then we give them a choice on some of the softer features. It’s just one more way to get the viewers involved.”
Loory adds: ”It’s not like we’re offering a choice between stories on the Iraq invasion and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We’re the ones who select the menu choices, so we’re still in control of what’s going on the air. It’s still our broadcast. We haven’t opened up the gates and let the yahoos run wild.”
How do the ”yahoos” feel? The ratings seem to answer that: Since Newsnight introduced its interactive menu, the show’s audience has jumped from 275,000 households per night to about 350,000. Some of the increase could be attributed to CNN’s coverage of the Iraqi crisis (which has periodically pre-empted the interactive portion of Newsnight). But if the numbers hold up, Loory says, the call-in menu will become a permanent part of the program (which will soon be renamed Newscene).
”This could be the precursor to a whole new era in TV,” he says. ”Someday in the future, people will be able to sit down at a keyboard, punch in what they want to see, and program their own TV newscasts. The technology will be available for news on demand. It’ll make this show look like a dinosaur.”
Loory may be right: The Nintendo-ization of the airwaves could mean a future in which every viewer is the master of his own news network, a brave new world of do-it-yourself television.
Then again, Loory has been wrong before: On this night, the viewers turned thumbs down on both the Cuban drug story and the one on teenage face-lifts.
Their first choice: the piece on poison oak.