April 24, 2006

Charles Gibson’s Paul White Award Speech

Gibson, host of ABC’s Good Morning America, gave this speech at the RTNDA convention in Las Vegas upon receiving the Paul White Award on April 24, 2006.

I am truly honored, and considerably humbled, to receive this Paul White Award, coming as it does from an organization that I respect, and which represents a group of people whom I believe are so critical to the national discourse.

Just a personal note: My philosophy of life, to the extent I have one, is that we spend our lives trying to prove to our parents that we’re worth a damn. Both my mom and dad were news junkies. Dad and I watched Huntley-Brinkley together every night. Dinner table conversation was the front page of the Washington Post. When it came time to consider a career as I approached college graduation, I went to the college library and got out the Broadcasting Yearbook. Listed were the names of the correspondents from the three networks. I remember there were approximately 45 from NBC, 40 from CBS, 35 from ABC. It occurred to me I was going to spend my life trying to get one in a universe of only 120 jobs. But it was my dream.

Beyond dreaming was that I’d get to work with the extraordinary people I’ve known at ABC. News broadcasting is a collaborative effort, and if a man is truly known by the company he keeps, then I stand in good stead. We all grumble, we gripe, but all of us, I suspect, love this business to the core of our being. And we are blessed to work in it.

Also way beyond dreaming was that I would some day be given an award like this one. I am grateful.

Now, lest I get a swelled head, I am conscious of a few things.

First, that you’re giving this award to someone who has a kitchen on the set of his broadcast. Paul White may be turning over in his grave.

Second, in the “don’t get too puffed up, buddy” category. When I went on the Internet to check the list of past winners, there was my name and picture right at the top. “The winner of the 2006 Paul White Award..” And then right under that it said, “Click if you want to read more about Osgood’s life and career.”

The day after Barbara Cochran called me to tell me I was being given this award, I went to the movies. “Good Night,and Good Luck.” A movie built around a speech made by Edward R. Murrow to this very organization. I sat there thinking, “Oh great, they’re going to expect me to give a talk that will inspire a movie.”

Would that I were capable of doing such.

Speeches from this podium in past years ―and I went back and read many ―have tended ―in quite general terms ―to scold our industry, lament slackened standards, or even suggest our industry’s demise.

In some cases, among them the Murrow speech, they have been a call to arms for our industry.

I, however, am going to try and talk to you in far more practical, direct and nitty-gritty terms.

The average tenure in your jobs —the average tenure of a news director at a local television station —is about two years. Two years!

I want to change that. I want you to be able to set down roots in your community. Put your kids in school and be confident they can graduate high school in that same city.

What I want to say to you tonight ―and here’s the topic sentence ―is that what you do is important. Truly important. All too often, I fear, that very basic point gets lost.

More Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source. You’ve heard that. But in truth, more Americans get their news from local newscasts than from any other source. More Americans get their news from you, than from any other source.

Pew Research tells me that 59 percent of people in this country say they regularly turn to local newscasts. That’s a higher percentage than say they read newspapers, watch cable or network news.

Tip O’Neill…perhaps the most colorful character I ever covered…used to say all politics is local. Well…the most important news is local.

What truly matters to people are their local schools…garbage collection…road repair…water quality…hometown healthcare. Those things are much more important to people than our regular fare on Good Morning America or World News Tonight.

So why don’t you cover those things? Why do you lead night after night with crime and fire? You do, you know ―and in a moment I’m going to tell you how often you do ―and I suspect it will embarrass you. You think that’s what gets you ratings. But I can tell you right now ―with some pretty powerful evidence to back me up ―that you’re wrong. And if you do cover those things I mentioned, the things that are truly important to a community and to your viewers, you’ll be in your jobs longer than two years.

I know you all love the minute-by-minutes. They’re like news director crack. Seductive and addictive. But the reputation and eventually the ratings of your newscasts don’t depend on a minute.

They depend on the weeks…and the months…and the years of good solid civic coverage of your city.

More Americans get their news from local newscasts than from any other source. And that makes what you do important.

Many of you ABC news directors have passed through GMA’s Times Square Studios over the last seven years. I like to ask about your news department. Every single answer almost without exception has started with the words, “Well, in our last book…”

No. No-no.

Tell me how your department is regarded in the city. Tell me about your reporters and your anchors. If you must tell me about ratings, tell me about cumulative ratings for the past three years.

As a wise old boss of mine used to say, “If you live by the book, you’ll die by the book.” And I would add that the book is fickle.

Let me start with questions.

Why do you cede so much control of your broadcast to consultants? If you are as smart as I think you are, and if you’re truly worthy of promotion to a job as important as being a news director, why do you let someone else tell you what to do?

Modern politicians have come to rely on consultants, and look what we’re getting. Politicians have been homogenized and don’t ever tell you what they really think. The consultants feed them a steady diet of polls. If all they do is follow what the polls tell them constituents are thinking, they’re not leaders, they’re followers.

Well, news directors who rely on consultants wind up producing newscasts that look like every other newscast around, and if they read the minute-by-minutes and program merely what they think people want to watch, and what the consultants tell them works in other cities, they’re not directing anything, they’re being directed.

Why do you hire anchors whose previous station (which may have been 10 states away) happened to have ratings that went up a few points “in the last book?”

Why don’t you promote your best reporter who happens to know your city like the back of his or her hand?

One of the best local anchors I ever saw owned his town of Buffalo for 25 years. He was born in Buffalo. He reported on Buffalo. Then he anchored in Buffalo. But if you lined him up with 99 other guys and said, “One of these guys is a TV anchor,” you’d probably have picked him last.

Instead what I see are anchors who come to town looking like they’ve come out of a cookie cutter and it appears as if they have to be told how to pronounce the names of your suburbs.

How many reporters do you have who have the trust and thus the phone numbers of your local city councilmen? How many reporters do you have who can pick up the phone and get through to the local business leaders who really know what’s going on economically in your city? Who on your staff really knows the school board’s master plan for the next five years?

How many of you hire reporters by looking at tapes? Please, I beg you, if you’ve got a reporter’s job open, ask applicants to send you a list of the stories they’re most proud of, then look at how they wrote those stories. Pick out the best three candidates. And, THEN, and not until then, look at their tapes.

How many of you run promos about the reportorial strengths of your news department, as opposed to promoting the friendliness and compatibility of your anchors or the number of your microwave vans?

The audience is smart, smarter than we are in many respects. They watch, and they really hear. They’re intuitive.

Tell them night after night you’ve got a story they can’t afford to miss, and they’ll know they can miss it. Use the words “shocking or “explosive,” “terrifying” or “scandalous” night after night, and those words will become white noise. Is has already happened to “exclusive.”

And don’t insult them during sweeps. They know stories on iced teas that kill aren’t truly worth their time.

I don’t want to sound overly negative here.

We had a transit strike in New York City a couple of months ago. I watched four days of local news, almost non-stop. The stations, and I’m pleased to say I thought WABC was in the forefront, did a spectacular job. But I could tell which reporters really knew the players —the negotiators, the lawyers —pretty quickly.

New Orleans stations were nothing short of heroic during Katrina. I saw a good bit of what they got on the air in the most difficult of conditions. Same for Houston when Rita approached. Local reporters saw the futility and contradictions of the evacuation plans with greater clarity than did local officials.

Your people are capable of some pretty terrific work.

More Americans get their news from local newscasts than from any other source. And that makes what all of you do important.

I fear that some of you right now are thinking, “Gibson is just one of those ivory tower network types who doesn’t have a clue about my problems.”

“I work in television or radio (you’re saying to yourself) not newspapers. All my bosses care about is the last book. Pictures are the key to ratings —and good looking anchors. If Gibson had my job he’d be third in the market before he found the bathroom and he wouldn’t even get two years.”

Well, I want to tell you about a book that I just read in galley form that’s coming out this fall. It’s called “We Interrupt This Newscast” and it’s put together by the Committee of Concerned Journalists from information compiled by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

It is a project that grew out of this very convention nine years ago.

They conducted the most extensive study ever undertaken of local television news.

From 1998 to 2002 —five years —they watched, catalogued and analyzed the content of more than 2,400 newscasts from 154 stations in more than 50 markets large and small.

Then they compared the story analysis with those minute-by-minutes you all love, and correlated that with overall ratings. They adjusted for popularity of lead-in and pre-existing ratings strength of the station

Even the authors seemed a bit surprised by their results.

Let me quote just a couple: “We prove that many of the best known bits of conventional wisdom are demonstrably false,” including “the idea that it is more important to hook and hold an audience than to cultivate one.” In other words, no more “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Further quoting: “Newscasts that exhibited high-quality television journalism (and I would inject here that they have a rigorous definition of what constitutes quality) have higher ratings, higher share numbers and more attractive demographics than stations that produce lower-quality newscasts.”

One-by-one they debunk the consultant myths by which, I suspect, many of your producers format their newscasts.

Examples: of the 2,400 newscasts they analyzed, 61 percent, almost two thirds, led with a crime, accident or disaster story. 61 percent. In half of those programs that led with crime, accident or disaster, the first three stories were all from those categories.

Government or politics led just one in 12 programs. Education once in every 41 broadcasts. Health once in every 67 newscasts.

Crime stories —and the authors of this study analyzed 8,000 crime stories —were watched by almost a tenth-of-a-rating point fewer viewers in the prime demographic than stories on other topics. Of the 4,300 stories that dealt with ideas, issues and policy? A tenth of a rating point higher.

Lead stories on health, political malfeasance or local economics all did a better job of holding the lead-in than crime, accident or disaster.

Bottom line, the data indicates that so-called “newspaper stories,” if covered well and when well-written, actually attract and hold viewers better than crime etc.

The book again is “We Interrupt This Newscast.” It will be published this fall by Cambridge University Press. Get it. Read it. And maybe, most important, buy a copy for your boss.

I do realize that the overall audience for our product is getting smaller. Newspapers face the problem. Networks face the problem. Your stations face the problem. We’ve all got to find new ways to deliver our product to a technically ever-more-savvy audience. Investing in these new technologies is, I’m sure, yet another drain on your newsgathering resources. We’ll all probably head up some blind alleys and make some false starts. But I believe that what I have been talking about this evening are ways you can do better vis-à-vis your competition —putting on the news broadcasts that I know in your heart you want to put on.

As for the new means of delivery we’ve got to find, I’ll let future winners of this award, who will no doubt be more technically proficient than I, talk about them in similar speeches in years to come.

I just want to say that the appetite for news —for information, good information —will not diminish. We need to get that information to the audience. Educate them. Get them to think. Be the first draft of history in your town, not just the police and fire blotter. Set the public agenda. Be a real factor in your community. Recognize that you are a vital force for good in our democracy.

More Americans get their news from local newscasts than from any other source. And that’s why what you do — you ladies and gentlemen who are news directors —i s so very, very important.