5 Things I Learned About TV News Watching ‘Fargo’

By Mark Joyella 

FARGO -- Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo -- CR: FX/Matthias Clamer

If you watched FX’s violent, hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable drama “Fargo”, you were no doubt captivated by the character Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton. A hired killer, he had both some of the season’s most violent moments—and also some of its most amusing. And throughout, he had the best lines of anyone.

Reflecting on the season—especially with word the show, albeit without the first-season cast, will return—I noticed that Malvo’s life lessons, shared with strangers, victims, and associates, carry some value for those of us in TV news.

So let me share with you five things I learned about TV News while watching “Fargo”:

1. There Are No Rules

In the very first episode, Malvo drops this piece of wisdom: “Your problem is you’ve spent your whole life thinking their are rules. There aren’t. We used to be gorillas.”

That could easily be said to just about anyone toiling in the trenches of local television. There are no rules anymore. Everything we thought were ironclad rules of the medium are no longer true. The news is something that airs on television at 6 and 11 p.m.? Obviously that’s done.
The most important newscast anywhere in America is the network evening news at 6:30. I’d venture to say that’s as untrue as ever.

So what’s the life lesson? Forget the rules and learn how to adapt—even if your boss doesn’t accept the fact that the old rules have been overruled. Think about what’s best for building your brand—and making your career the strongest it can be. Will that be by following rules set down decades ago and still held on to by a newsroom that resists, rather than embraces change?

Or do you adapt in any way possible? Thing about it. Do you get the sense that BuzzFeed follows a lot of pre-existing rules? Hell no. Even Mashable, a respected and reliable blog devoted to technology and social media, has evolved. It won’t survive by sticking to the pigeon hole it’s been assigned to. So recently, Mashable’s earned accolades for its international news coverage—at times beating out established legacy news brands on major stories like the downing of MH17. And all of that happening under the guidance of another rule-ignoring pro, Jim Roberts, who’s bringing a wealth of experience learned at The New York Times to his new, digital newsroom.

Is your newsroom adapting like that? Or is it still holding firm to the models that were born in the 1950’s? If so, think about what you can do to make sure you don’t go down with that ship. Advocate for change inside your shop, and if that fails, find your way out.

2. There Be Dragons

In another memorable exchange, Malvo, urging a cop to simply walk away and let the hired hit man simply drive away, says “there are some roads you shouldn’t go down.” Malvo adds, “Because maps used to say, ‘There be dragons here.’ Now they don’t. But that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there.”

Again, I think it’s a worthwhile reminder for people in broadcast news. Our trusted maps may not be reliably labeled to the dangers that exist in the waters around us—often very close to us.

You think it’s still safe to ignore the local newspaper—since, after all, newspaper is dying faster than television, and as we’ve always been taught, that’s print and we’re TV. That sounds like a sailor sailing to meet his doom at the hands of dragons.

Newspapers may be dying—in the print sense—but they are also rapidly evolving in a digital sense. If the newspaper in your town isn’t already sending out reporters with video cameras, consider yourself lucky. But they will be coming. And some “papers” do video with a freshness—a rule-breaking kind of creativity—that makes that content unique and different.

Just how much have the packages in your newsroom changed since, say, the 1990’s? Sure, now you shoot them on a card. But beyond that. Anything? Has the storytelling structure changed in any way at all?

Watch out for dragons. To part of your audience, finding video clips in a Facebook news feed or a Twitter timeline, it starts to become much less relevant which established news brand produced the story. It’s about which one feels like something people might want to watch. The same old local news package? Or something that feels new? I’d argue these dragons could eat your lunch—and use video cameras (your stock and trade, according to the aforementioned “rules”)—to do so.

3. Buy the Cow

Today, a career in news no longer means finding a person who will pay you, or sign you to a great four-year contract. But as Malvo said, “It’s like my mama always said. Boys, if you like the milk, buy the freakin’ cow.”

That’s happening more than ever. Journalists who might have spent a long, satisfying career serving a legacy media company, are deciding to strike out on their own, creating startups and mobile news products that are truly nothing like what’s been done before. They’re taking risks, but this is a time to take risks. If you find create a news app that takes off, or a news product that helps newsrooms evolve and become more competitive in a digital world, you could hit gold.

Or, perhaps you just specialize in doing the kind of news you like, and find a way to own the entire product.

4. Shades of Green

Malvo makes several references to the human eye in the series, asking at one point, “did you know the human eye can see more shades of green than any other color?”

He presented it as a riddle—one solved by another character who ties it to the evolution of humans from monkeys, who lived in jungles and needed to be able to discern, in an environment filled with shades of green, where predators might be hiding.

Malvo wanted us all to know as much as things change, some things don’t. Like the human that’s still equipped to spot potential threats in the jungle, we will carry our hard-wired talents as broadcast journalists into this digital future—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a secret weapon. All those decades of learning visual storytelling inside and out—and knowing at a cellular level how best to interview people for video, how to write to video, and how to produce compelling video stories, often while the chaos of breaking news swirls around us, well that’s all very valuable no matter what our day-to-day newsroom looks like.

Learn to adapt, but remember the survival skills journalists had to know to make it years ago. There were threats then, as there will be threats going forward. Predators remain everywhere, and you’ve got to do what you have to do to survive—including adapt. Your alternative, of course, is to end up as somebody’s lunch.

5. Highly Irregular

If you truly take to heart what Lorne Malvo is trying to teach you, you may become an evangelist for breaking rules and trying new things—for dragging an aging medium into a new, digital age. You may also find yourself criticized, misunderstood, and accused of rocking a boat that still—it must be said—makes money.

So take Malvo’s last bit of advice with you, should an idea of yours ever be knocked for being “too new” or “too different”, or, as it was with Malvo in one episode of “Fargo”, “highly irregular.”

Just tell them no. It’s not. And then try these memorable words from Lorne Malvo: “Highly irregular is the time I found a human foot in a toaster oven. This is just odd.”