Don't look for ABC to start injecting opinions into its reporting, but quality journalism alone won't be enough to win an asymmetric war for news hearts and minds against a host of cable and online adversaries.
That was the message from ABC News president David Westin, according to prepared remarks from his keynote speech at a Media Institute Awards dinner in Washington Thursday night.
"One of the things I hear most often is that we need to start injecting opinion into our reporting. People say that we're being left behind by Jon Stewart or Fox News," he said. "But to interlace our factual reporting with our opinions on what we're covering is for me both wrong and ultimately ineffective."
He said there was a place for opinion, and that it was on the op-ed pages. "If we are to speak at one moment about the truth as we've found it and the next about how we think things ought to be, why should those listening believe the former any more than the latter? Our reporting should never be mistaken for simply another point of view, rather than the result of painstaking work and checking and revision."
But he also said that just getting the story right isn't enough any more. "[W]e still need to pursue quality in our journalism. But is it enough in today's world? If we provide accurate reporting on the same events as, not one or two, but hundreds or thousands of competitors are providing, can we continue to attract large audiences?"
His answer was no.
Westin said the key was to differentiate that news product from a raft of competitors including cable news, Internet sites and bloggers, fighting what he called the news business' version of "asymmetric warfare."
"We have to go from a world in which we try to do a better job of covering the same news as everyone else to a world where we're bringing our audiences news that no one else is," he said.
Westin said that differentiation can come from enterprise reporting; or from specialization. He cited ESPN for sports news or CNBC for business as examples, or an emphasis on health information, national security, or "faith and spirituality."
He also said differentiation can come from having a "unique voice." He cited as examples Nightline, 60 Minutes, or documentaries that cover subjects others aren't.
"If we succeed in giving our audiences something they value and others are not giving them, then the economics will follow," he said. "If we do not , then it doesn't matter how good the business model is, we will fail."
Westin said the reports of the mainstream media's death were overrated--"mainstream media seems to fall somewhere between dinosaur and pariah in many people's minds"--but that the apocalyptic talk was driven by a focus on that business model rather than the journalism model. "We're told that the fundamental problem is that we rely too much on advertising for our revenues," he said. "That people are increasingly turning to the Internet for their news but that those same people aren't willing to pay for their news online. We need to figure out how to monetize our product."
He said that when the question was framed that way, "all the proposed solutions turn into business school questions." He said he did not have the answers, but asked: "Could it be that our concern for how we get paid for our work may keep us from thinking hard about the work itself?"
In doing his own hard thinking, Westin came to the conclusion that one of ABC's competitors is ABC, or at least a version of ABC co-opted and repurposed.
"Each of us has ended up competing against even ourselves," he said. "Aggregators and search engines patrol the Internet, looking for bits and pieces of our reporting to post in short form on their sites. Some of the small ones simply take our reporting and reproduce it - at least until they're discovered and forced to take it down. The largest and most reputable provide links to our websites that can, indeed, generate traffic for our own sites. But let's face it, most of us rely for much of our information on brief summaries, just the way most of us read much of a newspaper by looking at the headlines and perhaps skimming the first paragraph. So, in a very real sense, one of the strongest competitors for us at ABC News is ABC News itself."
Westin was the scheduled keynoter, but he also shared the stage with some familiar names.
At the banquet, the Media Institute honored Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro with its Horizon award for "promoting the vitality and independence of American media and communications" and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) with its Freedom of Speech award for his championing of a federal shield law.
That bill continues to be held up in the Senate over Obama administration concerns about the discretion it gives judges to decide what would qualify for exemptions from the shield.
The Media Institute event also kicked off National Freedom of Speech Week (Oct. 19-25).