A cadre of younger ABC News correspondents and producers who have covered wars, natural disasters and presidential campaigns for the network's signature newscast, World News, is now filing stories for ABC that you'll never see on the air. Stories you never could see on the air, in fact.
One questioned whether flight attendants should be once again forced to dress like models. Another bemoaned how tough it is for parents of young children to arrange for what Borat called "sexytime."
They're part of a daily Web-video feature called The Quick Fix — an effort by the network to appeal to an audience that seeks its news online or on mobile devices. There are some internal birthing pains at ABC over the edgier tone.
Paul Slavin, senior vice president for digital news, says the network's journalists have to be allowed to "take the time, the energy and the experimentation to try to find different ways to tell stories and different ways to talk to the audience that we happen to be talking to."
ABC's second-place World News still gets about 8 million viewers a night, but the audiences for all network newscasts are shrinking, and they're fairly old. Slavin's giving the Quick Fix team some running room to attract new audiences in the so-called digital space — with content on ABCNews.com, and through mobile applications for the iPhone, the BlackBerry and the like — even though that younger audience is measured in the tens of thousands.
A Different (And More Personal) Approach To News
Take Good Morning America Weekend co-anchor Bill Weir's piece on the people at ground zero who sell posters and other memorabilia with photos of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. He is noticeably angry at them; he calls one a "surly bootleg vendor."
And Weir asks viewers this question: "Would we tolerate someone selling souvenir programs in the parking lot of Columbine High? Or postcards outside Auschwitz?"
Weir tells NPR that his online stories are the only place where he can take such a personalized approach.
"If I had done that story for World News — well, you have to play it absolutely down the middle," Weir says. But online it's a different story.
"Right at the top I say, 'I hate this; this drives me crazy, and now it's time to go confront them and figure out their side of it.' "
The Quick Fix was devised by Weir's boss, Andrew Morse, the 35-year-old executive producer of Good Morning America Weekend, while he was immersing himself in a yearlong seminar called The Punch Sulzberger Executive News Media Leadership Program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Morse says he wants his colleagues to present the kind of lively stories they tell one another off-screen — and in that more conversational manner.
One more thing: Morse says he wants to prove he can make $1 million a year for the network from The Quick Fix. He says it's a realistic goal. "It's a drop in the bucket for ABC News as a whole," he says. "But it's a million dollars that can be poured into our investigative news coverage — or it's a million dollars that can be poured into our foreign bureaus — or our general news coverage operation."
Mocking The Bean Counters, And Slugging Your Co-Anchor
The Quick Fix pieces themselves range widely in tone and approach, from home videos with the kids to Andy Rooney-style rants (though with a more contemporary sensibility).
I recently talked to the whole Quick Fix team — save ESPN sports anchor John Anderson, who is based at the cable giant's headquarters in Bristol, Conn. — in Morse's Manhattan office. Correspondent John Berman recalled a segment in which he took aim at an online commercial for razors made for men who want to shave their privates. But he says he raised far more hackles with a piece making fun of his employer's software.
"I suggested my 1982-era Atari would be a better device to handle our expenses better than the multizillion-dollar expense program that ABC uses," Berman recalled. "There were a lot of people in this building who sign my paychecks who were very, very unhappy."
Amid a serious exploration of language usage, Weir cartoonishly slugged co-anchor Kate Snow for indulging in Valley Girl talk. That caused some heartburn in corner offices, as ABC correspondent Juju Chang pointed out. "There was some question as to whether you, Bill Weir, should be seen punching a woman," Chang says.
A compromise was struck. "The lawyers got involved — and I think they did the math," Weir recalled. "As long she can punch me back within a certain allotted time, that's okay."
Weir says anchor Charles Gibson raised objections, too.
"I think Charlie's bristling comes from a pure, fatherly place. He's looking out for me," Weir says. "He doesn't want me to torpedo my own career by doing something untoward on the Internet that's going to live forever. And that's a good instinct."
Yet ABC News President David Westin liked the piece so much he sent it to his daughter's English teacher. And Weir suggests ultimately the network has more to lose by playing it safe. "Honestly — the people that I socialize with — the people I'm friends with — I don't know that they watch the evening news anymore," Weir says. "And they certainly wouldn't watch my pieces on the evening news."
Morse says that's the challenge that makes The Quick Fix worth fighting for.
"There are days when I feel great about it, and there are days when I want to crawl under my desk," Morse says. "If we weren't from time to time ruffling feathers and if we weren't from time to time making people a little bit nervous, then this wouldn't be worth doing."