10 Questions for Mike James

by Terry Heaton
Mike JamesThe Wayback Machine contains many old friends, and Mike James is one of them. We grew up in the business at the same time, and while he left local television long before I did (or perhaps the business left him), he went on to a storied career as a writer for magazines and newspapers. His wife Mona was an anchor for stations in Cleveland and Columbus before retiring in 1998.

That's the year that Mike launched his controversial daily newsletter for the local television industry, NewsBlues. It's controversial for many reasons, and readers either love Mike or they hate him. But read him, they do, and that's just fine with Mike. NewsBlues speaks on behalf of the street, and Mike considers himself the voice of those without a voice in an industry that is tightly controlled. The negative tone of the newsletter reflects not only Mike's bias, but the general reality that news people tend to be, by nature, curious, cynical, suspicious and resistant to authority.

NewsBlues logoA journalistic purist at heart, Mike is quick to critcize what he views as the dumbing down of TV news. Critics of his, however, say that by publishing rumors and unsubstantiated "facts," he often violates the very standards he purports to uphold. This is a matter of opinion, of course, but James takes great pride in his work and wraps himself around the persona of "the surly editor," which encourages the animosity between himself and many in the industry.

The purpose of the following ten questions isn't to justify or judge his message or his persona. As a professional observer of the industry for the past ten years, however, his views on the industry as a whole are worth noting. Here now are ten questions for the surly editor himself, Mike James:

Mike, what's the short-form story of NewsBlues? Why that name, and why did you decide to do what you do?

In 1998, I told my wife that no one complained more than TV news people. They hated their bosses. They hated where the industry was headed. They hated the small-minded managers who followed formulas and faulty research rather than news instinct. Most of all, they hated what their work environments had become. The reverse discrimination. The unhealthy emphasis on image over ability. The unending live-shots and 30-second packages. They despised where they were and where they were headed, yet they felt trapped because they feared they had no other choice, no other marketable skills. NewsBlues simply tells their stories.

Your identity is that of The Surly Editor. Since I know that's largely a persona, why did you choose that as your public identity?

Everyone who has ever worked in a newsroom...newspaper or television....has had to deal with a surly editor, who asks tough questions, demands too much, and won't accept laziness. I aspire to that.

You take a lot of flack from industry circles for not being very nice. Again, I know you to be a rather fine individual, so why are you so critical, especially of the owners and managers of the television industry?

TV news, and those who draw paychecks from it, have become lazy, sloppy, and too willing to trust consultants rather than their own instincts. The industry no longer delivers news. It falls back on formulas. Content has become predictable. It takes the easy way out. It tries to fill an ever-increasing news hole with artificial preservatives.

If I am criticized, it is because the people who take issue with NewsBlues are the same people who are booking 1 p.m. lunches and 3 p.m. tee times. The industry has been good to them. They haven't anchored ten consecutive Thanksgivings or worked a week of 18-hour days covering a hurricane or a wildfire. They haven't heard the alarm clock at 2 a.m. or the telephone at midnight. They haven't had to connect with their community while spending an entire adult life trapped within the confines of a windowless newsroom.

Regardless of your persona, you've been leaning back and observing television for many years. What are your thoughts about what's happened to the business?

Someone needs to clean the kitchen, discard the spoiled meat and rancid vegetables, scour the cupboard, expel the vermin, hose down the joint, and chug a big jolt of reality. TV news has lost its way. Forget the excuses. No one cares that your bosses are asking you to fill more time with fewer resources. The business is contaminated. The content is fetid and foul, shallow and pointless. Get a job selling time share. Drive a bus in Reno. Do anything but continue foisting polluted, noxious news feces on the superficial American public.

Television news (if you believe it is a form of journalism) has the ability...the responsibility...to capture and preserve the moments, the events, that pass through our daily lives. Instead, it has fallen back on trivial weepies and frothy feel-goods, on medical "studies" and video news releases, or political spin and opinionated shoutfests, hypothesis, rumor, and supposition. TV news is no longer in charge of itself. It deserves to be shot at sunrise.

Downsizing is a real part of people's lives these days. What are your thoughts about that? Have you seen this coming, and is there anything people can do to protect themselves from it?

Decades of arrogance have put newspapers at death's doorstep. Newspapers have blamed television for their pending demise....the internet for their pending demise. Arrogance will eventually pull the trigger...arrogance and the inability to accept change.

Television news is sliding down the same futile slope.

Have your thoughts about bloggers and the prosumer movement changed at all over the last few years?

Bloggers are banging at the door of reality. But there are too many of them. They are unfocused. Too wild-eyed. Too unconsidered. And they fade away with time. The internet is generations away from fulfilling its promise. Bloggers have found limited success only because mass media has failed so miserably.

Who do you admire in the industry and why?

ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz. She's a pure newsie who gets it.

New York Times writer Brian Stelter. He is preternatural in his bloodless ability to observe and report on the sad demise of a once-thriving, now-cancerous and hollow industry. With age, and experience, he will be a force.

Ed Bark, longtime toothless TV writer for Belo's Dallas Morning News, who was throttled back for decades by his corporate puppet-masters, until he "retired" and found his real bite as a blogger critic.

Who's your biggest foil and why?

The clock and its unwillingness to stop and listen to reason.

Katie Couric is a pretty visible target for your barbs, but does she really deserve it?

Katie Couric represents the cancer that has eaten away the marrow of news integrity. She is a celebrity journalist. Her work is empty, superficial. Those around her are struggling to fill the vacuum she creates. Her failure as a network news anchor has little to do with sex and everything to do with failed marketing and branding. As a news anchor, she would be hard pressed to remain employed in a top 50 TV market. She belongs on the morning shift, where entertainment and a bright smile are more valued than preparation and brains.

We recently aired a segment of Couric, on location, in the 20 minutes leading up to her network newscast. Not once. NOT ONCE....did she review her script or talk with the writers or consult her producers. Instead, she combed her hair, adjusted her makeup, complained about the lighting, complained about the camera position, worried about her clothing, and generally wasted 20 minutes of frivolous, pointless "me" time.

This is what TV news has become. It is an industry of "me's."

I don't blame Couric. I blame the people who tried to market her as a hard news anchor when she, quite obviously, is not. I'd take the money and run, too. Wouldn't you?

What advice do you have for beginners or mid-career news people? What can they do to ensure they have a future?

Get a law degree. Represent minorities. Sue for discrimination. It's the only remaining growth sector of our business.