Av Westin: Infotainment in news is on downward spiral

According to Av Westin, executive of ABC News, the problem with journalism today is that men and women received their training in the last decade based on the bottom line. It seems all that the television journalism business is worried about is making money and making it fast.

“Their journalistic training has been formed by this bottom line mindset, and its very sad, I don’t see it changing,” Westin said.

Starting his career as a CBS radio-copy boy and later moving to 20/20 and then the ABC evening news, Westin has seen the transformation of television journalism through the years.

“I believe (television news) is on a downward spiral from which there will be no recovery,” Westin said.

According to Westin, TV journalism has become more of a form of entertainment than an actual way of informing the public. News stations want to add something that will draw an audience and keep them watching. As Westin puts it, many TV journalists have gone down market, trying every tactic on the news to keep the ratings up, the public entertained and the money rolling in.

“In 1970, something very peculiar happened,” Westin said. “In Sue City, a news channel received maximum ratings. It was found out that the local news was so satisfactory to the citizens that they stayed tuned in all night long.”

Westin said that directly preceding this, news stations got the idea that they could make more money that way and so began to reduce the number of staffs and concentrate on making the news more appealing.

“Ratings are important,” Westin said. “How do you raise ratings? Go down market. If the public likes Michael Jackson, put him on forever.”

Station after station has gone down market and the bottom line or profit has trumped editorial line every time it occurred.

Westin’s role as an executive is to decide what goes on the air, in what order and for how long. Westin said that at this time when all news stations were rushing down market, the only magazine company on the air was 60 Minutes. Westin said that most people favored 60 Minutes at that time.

“People would think, ‘I haven’t read a book all week or turned on the television, but if I watch 60 Minutes, oh, Lord! I am informed,'” Westin said.

After a while, 60 minutes had begun to move downward and not many people continued to watch it., Westin said.

“I was told to do something about it,” Westin said. “I don’t like to say I went down market, but I did go to entertainment. It was the first broadcast station that paid attention as news to the world of entertainment,” he added.

According to Westin, it was successful, it worked and the ratings went up.

“It was indeed entertainment,” Westin said. Although Westin reverted to amusing the public, he still remained grounded in what he thought was newsworthy entertainment.

“One criteria was there had to be content in the stories we did, but if we were going to get an audience to watch us, we had to give the audience candy,” Westin said.

According to Westin, the best type of TV news coverage are stories. If someone can find a good story and tell it well, he or she will be a good TV journalist and will succeed in entertaining their audience.

“Find some entity you can tell about,” Westin said. “I think you will find it to be useful and practical.”

Westin said that the consistent problem he continues to witness in news is the inability of young men and women to put ideas together logically. Westin’s advice to young journalists on this matter is, “I urge you all to read, fiction particularly, because sometimes you will be covering a story and something will be triggered in the back of your mind,” Westin said. “Your job is then to put those ideas in a coherent manner so the viewer at home will walk away feeling like they learned something,” he added.

“If you want to be on camera, for heaven’s sake, you have to know how to write and tell me a story,” Westin said. “I would clearly say go into the business. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Get your training here and bring some intellect to the news.”

According to Westin, as TV news continues to move in this downward position, more and more people will turn to other sources for news if they haven’t already.

“As Internet penetration continues, you will see more and more people getting info off the Internet, because you don’t have to sit in front of the TV or turn on the radio,” Westin said.

One cannot overcome what the news has become, but no matter how bad the business becomes, if a person can look past that, the benefits are very rewarding,Westin added.