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2008 | Media

Fey drilled Palin, Couric got cred, and papers saw red

Her interview with Sarah Palin (far left) restored Katie Couric's reputation for hard news. Her interview with Sarah Palin (far left) restored Katie Couric's reputation for hard news. (CBS News)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / December 28, 2008
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The long, fascinating presidential campaign defined the media landscape this year. For the most part, that was good news for the news business - and the big winners included the cable news networks, the online political outfits, "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric, and the many news-spoofers of late-night TV. But despite record readership online, the picture was far more bleak for newspapers, which faced the sharpest drop in advertising revenue since the Great Depression. Here's a look at some of the biggest media stories of the year:

Big views for the news
This year proved that politics can be as compelling - or more so - than scripted TV. The three cable news networks drew bigger-than-"American Idol" audiences for debates and election nights, and expanded their political coverage to meet audience demands. Online outfits such as Politico.com, founded by two former Washington Post reporters, became major players during the race. And the day after Barack Obama was elected president, single copy sales of newspapers soared.

Oh, but that business model
Faced with a failing business model, newspapers continued to slash staff through buyouts and layoffs. Some, like the Los Angeles Times, dismantled their Washington bureaus. Others threatened to shut down entirely. The irony: Rising online traffic suggests that newspapers are still vital and well-read. They just need to figure out how to get people to pay for their content. Perhaps in 2009?

Tribune files for bankruptcy
It was the biggest newspaper failure story in the country. Less than two years after real estate magnate Sam Zell bought the newspaper chain - which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and The Baltimore Sun - soaring debt forced him to file for bankruptcy protection. The news coincided with proof of the Tribune's importance as a local institution: Indicted Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was accused of trying to pressure the paper to fire editorial board members who were critical of him.

Papers stop printing
Desperate for savings, determined to think radically, some papers decided to stop spending money on paper and ink. The Christian Science Monitor has plans to go online-only in 2009. And this month, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News announced that they will halt most days of print-edition home delivery, bringing papers to subscribers' doorsteps only on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday - though selling print editions at newsstands seven days a week.

Tim Russert dies
In the midst of the sort of political story he loved to cover best, the veteran NBC Washington bureau chief and host of the influential "Meet the Press" died suddenly of a heart attack last summer. Shortly after his death, NBC gave Russert's son, Luke, a job covering youth issues. And while Tom Brokaw filled in as "Meet the Press" host for the duration of the campaign, NBC this month gave the permanent job to David Gregory.

MSNBC veers left
The election year brought a change of identity for third-rated cable news channel MSNBC. Executives have denied it, but observers seemed to agree: During a notably partisan campaign, the network forged a new identity - and drew a notably larger audience - by giving its nightly programming a decidedly leftward slant. "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann has positioned himself as the liberal antidote to Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. Left-wing commentator Rachel Maddow got her own show in September. Even "Hardball" host Chris Matthews was widely quoted saying he felt a "thrill going up my leg" when he heard Barack Obama speak.

Couric gets cred
ABC's Charlie Gibson won the first big interview with GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. But Katie Couric's subsequent sit-down made a bigger mark on the pop cultural landscape, in part because it was viewed widely on YouTube and spoofed sharply on "Saturday Night Live." It was bad for Palin but great for Couric, who restored her reputation as a hard-edged interviewer.

Right-wing radio loses its battles
First, they pulled hard for GOP candidate Mitt Romney over John McCain. Then they begged listeners to choose McCain over Obama. But right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh and his many imitators didn't manage to sway voters this time. Some hosts say that wasn't their goal anyway: They're gunning for ratings, not influence. At any rate, they'll start the new year with a Democratic president and Congress to kick around.

Gadgets and gimmicks
The election season brought out the technophiles among TV programmers, who loaded broadcasts with sometimes-bizarre high-tech trimmings. CNN led the pack, between its interactive map (also spoofed ably on "Saturday Night Live") and its election-night decision to turn some reporters and interviewees into holograms.

Late-night comedy makes its mark
Even more than in previous campaigns, the satirists of late-night television wielded considerable influence over perceptions of the candidates. Hillary Clinton referred to a "Saturday Night Live" sketch during a debate. McCain genuflected to David Letterman. And Tina Fey's "SNL" parody of Palin ("I can see Russia from my house!") was devastating - to the candidate, at least.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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