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Chris Jones

TV Veterans Call Network News Model 'dead'

20 April 2005

The message wasn't half as shocking as the man who delivered it, but there sat Sam Donaldson early Tuesday, telling a Las Vegas audience his longtime profession has no long-term future.

The traditional network news model, the 36-year ABC News veteran said, "is dead," a victim of changing audience demands fueled by rapid developments in media technology.Advertisement

The era of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, he added, has already lost substantial ground to 24-hour cable news channels, streaming Internet feeds and Web logs, or "blogs." And that ground won't ever be recovered, Donaldson added.

"We're going to go out of the network news business," Donaldson told his audience at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, which runs through Thursday at the Las Vegas Convention Center and Las Vegas Hilton. "The old days ... are going thanks to changing technology."

Despite that opinion, Donaldson and two other veteran journalists were hardly pessimistic about the future of broadcast news, be it on television or the radio. Instead, they believe old-school distribution methods will continue to be supplemented, and in some cases replaced, by newer, more-personalized media outlets available on a 24-hour basis.

"Back in the days of Watergate, the network news would end and the next thing you had was the morning paper," said Jeff Greenfield, a senior analyst with CNN who shared a panel with Donaldson and CBS News' Charles Osgood. "Can you imagine Watergate today? Or for that matter, the Cuban missile crisis?"

Osgood, who has anchored CBS News Sunday Morning since 1994 in addition to his work with The Osgood File, a daily news commentary broadcast on the CBS Radio Network, has long been considered one of journalism's top storytellers. Not surprisingly, he said making sure stories connect with the audience remains critical to broadcast news' future.

"Television news is part news, but it's also part television," Osgood said. "It's still a storytelling business."

The panelists weren't as uniform in their opinion of blogs, a form of online diary that's become a news gathering tool used by millions of Americans.

Greenfield said blogs are changing journalism for the better because they offer the public a quick and often large-scale method of discussing stories covered by traditional news outlets.

"Knowing that there are these people out there watching ... you know you're being held to a higher standard," Greenfield said.

But Donaldson cautioned that many bloggers tend to mix their own beliefs with facts, and Osgood said they often complicate the public's ability to sort through information.

"Who do you trust? What can you believe that comes off of those things?" Osgood asked.

Separately, each of the panelists spoke in favor of so-called "shield laws" that can prevent the courts from forcing journalists to name sources who seek to remain anonymous. Without such protection, Greenfield said fear could cut off the public flow of information.

"Most people have to work for a living and are not going to jeopardize their career by (openly) saying, 'Something is wrong where I work,'" Greenfield said.

Those calls were personally supported Tuesday by Jim Taricani, a Providence, R.I.-based television journalist who was recently fined $85,000 and sentenced to jail for refusing to tell a judge who leaked a videotape that showed a Providence city official accepting a $1,000 bribe.

"Everyone in the country ought to be concerned," Osgood said of cases like Taricani's, who served four months of a six month jail term. His fine was repaid by WJAR-TV, the NBC affiliate that aired the tape in question.

NAB President and Chief Executive Eddie Fritts moderated the panel.