Quiz question. What's Fox? A news network? A regional sports broadcaster? An entertainment network? A reality show company?
Of course, it's all of the above, and therein lies the rub.
David Carr's Monday The Media Equation column, in the New York Times, told the story of Fox's hook-up with Phoenix' notorious mayor Joe Arpaio. The shtick: The Sheriff tells Fox which bad guys he wants hoodwinked out of their hiding, and Fox artfully turns it into watchable TV.
Carr explains how the show got on the air:
Carr makes the point well that the media's partnership with the over-the-line, lock-'em-sheriff poses a bunch of questions.
One question not posed lingered with me though: Since Fox is both a news channel with pretensions of journalistic authority and credibility and an anything-goes entertainment provider, we see how it is getting harder and harder to separate out real journalism from everything else.
Sure Fox Reality has different standards from Fox News, I'm sure. And Fox's entertainment division sounds like it has different ones that Fox Reality. But who's to know, even in the industry. For the public, you've got to believe one Fox is just like another -- otherwise why did they give it the same name?
This isn't an issue just for Fox. The reason it is going to be harder to separate out real journalism from everything else is that journalism operations will increasingly be housed in companies doing journalism and everything else.
Consider NBC, whose brands include NBC News itself, local stations, Bravo, Chiller, SCI FI Channel, Sleuth, Telemundo, USA Network and CNBC and MSNBC. (And recall the dust-up during the Presidential campaign as NBC News pulled back Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert from MSNBC when Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews crossed a line?) Far-flung Disney owns ABC; CNN's part of behemoth Time Warner. These big "broadcasters" are busy recasting themselves for the web age, like Fox, and they have the deep pockets to do it.
Sure, traditional newspaper publishers seem less potentially conflicted or brand-confusing. Standalone journalistic companies, though, are getting to be the exception, where once they were the rule. Knight Ridder prided itself on being a newspaper pure play, and that's where the New York Times, Media News, McClatchy, Lee and others find themselves today. It's not a good place to be. While all ad- and circulation-based consumer media are having a tough time of it, newspapers are by far having the worst. So it helps -- financially -- if newspapers are part of a larger company, with other revenue streams.
News Corp, parent of both Fox and the Wall Street Journal, only gets a little more than 20% of its revenue from newspapers; which explains why the Journal has not suffered the cutbacks other papers have. The Washington Post drew a lucky straw with education company Kaplan, which now represents more than 50% of its profits.
We can, in fact, expect that if journalism is going to be well-funded going forward, it may be as part of larger, entertainment-oriented companies, companies that see that "content" widely distributed and over multiple platforms can be profitable. If that's the case, then Fox's little reality problem becomes a bigger one for journalism more generally. We know that journalism is different from the entertainment trades; without fear or favor is not a phrase you hear a lot in Hollywood. So, to the current mix of challenges, add this one: how do journalists call out their work in some easily noticeable way (especially online) to distinguish it from ... everything else?