Journalists love to give and receive awards for their craft, and no big-time broadcast career is complete without a litany of Emmys, Peabodys, duPonts and Murrow Awards. This doesn't count the Pulitzers or National Magazine Awards for print and the myriad local journalism organizations that also give awards.
In great economic times for TV and newspapers, there was a self-aggrandizing aspect to all of this, but now that most journalistic institutions themselves are under pressure, the awards shows have taken on different meaning. Suddenly, it's not just a celebration of great work; it's pretty much the only place where great capital-J journalistic work gets any attention at all.
Once, network rivalries were overt; now, the prevailing subtext is different: Will any of us be here next year?
The Radio and Television News Director's Association, founded in 1946 soon after Edward R. Murrow's historic dispatches from Europe, gave its Murrow Awards last week. And what stands out is not that NBC would win for Richard Engell's warzone work (it did) or that CBS's "60 Minutes" helped free an innocent man after 27 years in prison (it did), but that really enterprising work is also happening where the economics are toughest.
Take the brutal treatment of unwanted horses trucked to Mexico for slaughter, uncovered by KOLD-TV in Tucson, or the KOAA-TV hidden-camera investigation of a Colorado Springs DA who drinks a case of beer during his work day.
Despite all the good work, local TV and radio has been buried and eulogized by Wall Street and the business press. Indeed, it may be replaced by a new generation of local blogs and local sites or by outlets with better economics such as local cable, which has subscriber revenue in addition to advertising. Another $15 billion in local ad dollars is expected to shift from offline to online by 2013, according to Borrell Associates.
Economics have taken a toll on the awards organizations themselves. RTDNA Executive Director Jane Nassiri said the number of entries are down 35% to 2,397 from the high-water mark in 2006, when there were 3,723 entries.
"If they entered 10 last year, they entered eight this year," she said. "We haven't raised our prices. Everybody's discretionary budgets are being slashed."
Another trend: About 50% of all the entries this year were paid for by the journalists themselves. Anecdotally, Nassiri hears some TV and radio stations agree to reimburse -- but only if they win.
The question that has to be asked is whether the advertising community still sees local news and information as an important vehicle for delivering commercial messages. Do awards help? Not really, said former OMD and Carat exec Ray Warren, now chief revenue officer for Comcast Sports Group.
"It's not about awards, because you've got to stay connected to the customer and the community. Awards are a byproduct of doing a great job," he said.
And without advertising revenue, the Murrow Awards -- and the quality they represent -- will continue to dwindle. Certainly parts of it will be replaced by some of the new, nascent, online models. The RTNDA has recognized online journalism for several years, and even has a category for outlets not affiliated with a broadcast station.
Along with giving out its awards last week, the organization changed its name to the Radio Television Digital News Association (yep, RTDNA).
But as the mass media -- online and offline -- increasingly panders for the ratings point and the page view, it's worth remembering that before CBS sent -- actually, allowed -- Edward R. Murrow to go to Europe and report on the annexation of Austria by the Nazis, there was no such thing as "network news."
"Someone has to stick up for some very important rights," said CBS News Radio executive producer Charlie Kaye. "Among them: a free and vibrant press that serves as a check and balance on the abuse of power not only by government [but] by the private sector and lots of other folks."