Osama bin Laden, Libya, Japan Crises Push Media Spending To The Brink

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Lumbering news outlets have pulled out the stops for Libya, the Japan tsunami, and Osama bin Laden’s death. But in this week’s Newsweek, Howard Kurtz wonders whether such big spending might ultimately cripple them. ABC’s Martha Raddatz was minutes from taking off for Afghanistan when her BlackBerry buzzed with a colleague’s message that Osama bin Laden might be dead. She dragged her luggage off the plane, sat down on the floor of Dulles airport in her stocking feet, and started making calls.

It was 9:45 p.m. on May 1 as the veteran correspondent, a phone in each hand, learned details—they had bin Laden’s body!—that she provided on the air from Terminal C. She drove to the office at 3 a.m. and kept on working.

The network had run more than a dozen drills for precisely this moment. “News is the ultimate defibrillator for an organisation,” says ABC News President Ben Sherwood. “We get shocked to life and go right into action.” The problem: After the Tucson shootings, Egypt and Libya uprisings, Japanese nuclear catastrophe, and now the death of the mastermind of 9/11, ABC has blown through most of its multimillion-dollar emergency fund set aside for unexpected events. That is rare and could force the network to ask the Disney bosses for more, though an executive says there is “no blank check.”

Big media organisations pull out the stops for game-changing stories, but they may be bleeding themselves to death in the process. The lumbering old news dinosaurs have slashed their staffs and watched online rivals eat their lunch as ratings and circulation inexorably slide downward. There are fewer ambitious projects, reduced scrutiny of government, more journalistic recycling.

Brian Williams was in a J. Crew shirt and jeans that Sunday night, watching television in his Connecticut kitchen, when White House spokesman Jay Carney called to say he should get to the chair.

“Close hold: we got bin Laden. Tell no one,” Carney said.

Williams had planned to do two loads of laundry—from his trip to London for the royal wedding, which he aborted right after landing to chase killer tornadoes in Alabama. Instead, he threw on a suit, wiring up his earpiece to save time while his wife, Jane, tossed bottled water into the Chevy SUV. Williams raced to Manhattan, shaving with an electric razor on the way, listening on satellite radio as cable news anchors speculated about what Barack Obama would announce. He made it before the president gave the nation the news and stayed on the air till 3 a.m.

“People went to established brand names and they knew we would deliver,” Williams says. “I’ve got to be there. That’s a contract.”

But it’s an expensive contract, and financially stretched news outlets (including Newsweek) don’t get a bump in advertising by spending heavily on war or disaster. ABC scored exclusive video from inside the bin Laden compound because its reporter Nick Schiffren is based in Pakistan, beating all comers. But in a brutally tough business, the network cut a quarter of its staff last year. It’s hard to measure the scoops you don’t get.

When New York Times reporter Helene Cooper, at home in pajamas, heard the bin Laden rumour, she pinged a slew of administration officials before reaching one by phone. “Killed, not caught,” he told her. But even as Cooper hit the send button, she asked herself: “What if you’re wrong? This is it, I’ll be fired.” Only after Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet called to ask her source did the paper stop the presses, just like in the movies. Yet even the Times, a mighty global machine, has had to cut 8 per cent of its staff and mortgage its headquarters.

Much of the time, the media wallow in frivolity. Television, especially cable news, has a fatal weakness for the superficial and the shiny. Covering Charlie Sheen is cheap; covering Afghanistan is expensive. Boots-on-the-ground reporting may win awards, but that doesn’t pay the bills.

Some of what the media do is pageantry (did we really need 12,000 journalists to cover William and Kate?) and some is food fight (did we really need to snipe about whether George W. Bush or Obama deserved more credit for bin Laden’s demise?) Although chatter about Osama’s possible death erupted on Twitter, 56 million people turned to the networks late at night to make sure it was true.

All news organisations keep an eye on expenses these days. NBC says it has no emergency fund and that despite “eye-popping” expenses this year, as an insider put it, the network will spend what it takes and go back for more if necessary. When Williams headed back to the London airport shortly after landing to chase a twister in Tuscaloosa, he was making a statement: “It was being true to who we are.”

Now these media outlets are ramping up for a presidential campaign, cost-cutting is the new normal. Many will travel less, pontificate more, push reporters to blog and shoot their own video, buy (or just copy) material from other organisations. Nonprofits and citizens with mobile phone cameras may fill the vacuum left by once-proud newspapers that now stick to their home turf and networks with hollowed-out staffs. Bin Laden’s death reminds us that journalism matters, but in the end you go to war with the media you have.

This post originally appeared at The Daily Beast.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN’s weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.