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TV news as we know it/knew it/fear it might become (with a little self-analysis, too)

ABC News has big changes planned. Your friendly content provider, pictured at last year's 25th annual TV Critics Association awards, has long-adapted to the digital age. But are you being well-served?

ABC News president David Westin recently rocked his world -- and gave rivals plenty to ponder -- with his declaration of a "fundamental transformation that will ultimately affect every corner of the enterprise."

The specifics of what he said are in this earlier post. Basically, though, what Westin is aiming at is a big reduction in his work force and a digital age transition in which freelancers and so-called "backpack journalism" increasingly will be the norm, not the exception.

His goal, a frightening one to many veterans of the news business, is to "make ABC News the place to work in the digital age. We won't just be preparing people for the new world; we will be living in it."

Owned-and-operated ABC stations obviously will be affected as well. And Dallas-based WFAA8 on the surface at least seems lucky to be on its own in a market where Fox4, NBC5, CBS11 and CW33 all are owned from afar by their increasingly intrusive corporate masters.

WFAA8 carries ABC's programs, but otherwise answers to Belo Corporation, whose main offices are located across the street in downtown Dallas. It's the largest ABC affiliate not owned by the network. President and general manager Mike Devlin, responding via email, says he's not all that concerned at the moment with how ABC News handles its affairs.

"I just don't think it will affect WFAA," he says, "unless the level of news programming drops so significantly that it is noticed by the (D-FW) audience."

Devlin adds, though, that what's going on at ABC News "is a transformation all of us are going to be making given the advances in technology and the impact of the financial climate."

He also points out the disparate economics of broadcast vs. cable news networks: "Certainly the broadcasting news departments are at a disadvantage. You get relatively small audiences watching Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN. But it is not really important to them since they get monthly fees from subscribers, even those who don't watch those channels. ABC only has the ability to monetize the audience that actually watches."

That's a basically accurate assessment. And it's no doubt a troubling one to veteran local and national TV journalists with both considerable experience and salaries. The specter of "backpack journalism" looms over them, and it's generally seen as the province of younger, less experienced reporters who will work for cheap while shooting, editing and narrating their reports. That leaves photographers and editors on the cutting room floor, which is what ABC's Westin is getting at when he says, "We will eliminate redundancies wherever possible."

In the D-FW viewing area, CW33 is continuing to expand its news hours without increasing its staff. The station's Nielsen ratings remain tiny at best. But the news room overhead is low, too. And the news gatherers include two backpackers, Dan X. McGraw and Holly Yan, who were hired last May after being laid off by The Dallas Morning News.

Both McGraw and Yan have been learning the TV news ropes ever since. You don't see them on camera, but you do hear them narrating the stories they also shoot and edit. Neither is a rube, though. Both worked at the DMN for several years as metro reporters, gaining experience on a variety of beats. If you're going to go the backpack route, you could do far worse than these two.

That brings us to the grizzled old prospector pictured above. Some readers have noted that I'm a backpacker, too, although certainly no Cub Scout anymore. After more than a quarter-century at the DMN, I launched unclebarky.com on Sept. 17, 2006.

My stepson, Carl Morgan, set up this website using basic Internet materials that were second nature to him, but virtually a complete puzzlement to me. Eventually I had to swim on my own, learning the mechanisms of publishing, pasting in pictures, linking to other websites, etc. The far easier parts, in the early going at least, were writing stories and reviews, adding headlines to them and captioning pictures.

So am I spread too thin? Can I "focus" while also answering emails, policing the "Comments" sections and so on.

Yes, I can, although playing The Solitary Man can be a little unhealthily isolating at times. But I no longer have to commute back and forth to downtown Dallas, answer to editors, navigate office politics or rant about the continued Belo ban on critiquing local TV news. And my deadlines are of my own making.

Backpacking in the world of TV news isn't quite as easy as sitting at a computer, though. Yeah, I still venture out with a hand-held tape recorder and digital camera to interview people for extended pieces on unclebarky.com. But CW33's McGraw and Yan are hitting the streets every work day. And with their station's limited staff -- and concurrent expansion of newscasts -- there isn't much time to put together much more than their assigned spot news story or stories of the day. From scratch, of course, with McGraw and Yan supplying all of the ingredients.

WFAA8's Devlin indicates in his comments that this is how it's going to be in the near future of TV news. It won't all be for the worse. But it's still hard to imagine how most of it can possibly be for the better.

WFAA8 and CBS11 aren't yet in the "shared content" business, but Fox4, NBC5 and CW33 have been business partners since last spring as part of a Local News Service that's also taken hold in many other markets. News homogenization seems to run hand-in-hand with those aforementioned corporate tentacles. So do mandated downsizing and further consolidation. Is true autonomy becoming yesterday's news? That's pretty self-evident.

As for me, I'll remain an untethered independent. It's the way I started out and the way I'd like to finish up. This is just a wee voice in the very large scheme of things. Someday soon perhaps, I'll have to fire myself and move on. But at least it'll be my call.