Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Next big thing? TV-newspaper staff mergers

Newspaper and TV newsroom mergers could become the next big thing as profit-pressed publishers and broadcasters seek to cut costs and strengthen their digital presence.

But will hybrid newsrooms live up the promises of producing better journalism? The performance of the longest-running major newsroom merger – the combination 10 years ago of the Tampa Tribune and WFLA – is far from encouraging.

The latest cross-media merger was announced yesterday in Salt Lake City, where the Deseret News said it planned to shed 43% of its staff and move into the newsroom of the KSL-TV, an NBC affiliate that also operates AM and FM news radio stations. All four properties are owned by Deseret Media Companies, which in turn is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.

The draconian effort to save some semblance of the News comes in spite of the fact that it long has participated in another supposedly advantageous partnership.

Since 1952, the newspaper has been in a joint operating agreement with the Salt Lake Tribune, where the jointly owned Newspaper Agency Co. handles ad sales, production and delivery for both properties. MediaNews Group owns the Tribune and the two publishers split the profits from an operation that is more efficient than would be possible if each paper maintained its own sales and production infrastructure.

But times have been tough for even JOAs, as witness the shutdowns last year of the Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Tucson Citizen.

At a time when increasingly scarce local advertising revenues are pinching the once-enviable profits produced by newspapers and broadcasters, the arguments for merging newsrooms are clear:

You cut duplicative coverage, headcount and expenses by sending a single reporter to a press conference or a solo cameraperson to a car wreck. You enrich your web and mobile offerings with better video from the TV operation and deeper content from the print side. With any luck, seamless cross-media promotion will build audience in print, on the air, on the web and on the many proliferating mobile platforms. The combined reach and efficiency should be a major selling point with advertisers, too.

The cost-savings are so appealing to broadcasters that no less than 224 television stations in the country today get their news from another station, according to Bob Papper, the chairman of journalism and media studies at Hofstra University, who conducts an annual newsroom census for the Radio and Television News Directors Association.

Although few newspaper publishers to date actually have acted to pool resources with a local TV station, it happened last year in Hartford and a decade ago in Tampa. If newspaper revenues don’t begin to stabilize soon, a growing number of publishers may begin to take this idea as seriously as hundreds of broadcasters already have.

While hybrid newsrooms undoubtedly save money on everything from reporters to real estate, the journalistic improvements promised by Media General a decade ago are not evident at the combined news operation of the Tampa Tribune and WFLA, an NBC affiliate.

As advertised when the Florida newsrooms merged, print reporters indeed learned to work on camera and TV personalities began to contribute to the newspaper. But those efforts, which are presented today for the world to behold at TBO.Com, are, in a word, underwhelming.

Instead of combining the assets of the newspaper and TV station in a single, dynamic website, TBO.Com is primarily a compendium of cheesy police news and out-of-market AP stories. If you follow the breadcrumbs on the website to the separate pages for the TV station and newspaper, you get nothing more than the sort of shovelware that populates the website of a mediocre broadcaster or publisher in a mid-sized market.

At this writing, the lead story and video on the TV site is a cheapie about a man who killed his cousin in a dispute over a necklace. If stories from today’s paper are on the web, they were impossible to find. Neither the newspaper, the TV station nor the website has an iPhone app, although the competing ABC and Fox affiliates in the market do.

The weak execution is understandable in light of the steep cuts Media General has made in staffing at the Tampa properties since they first were combined. Half of the 1,326 people working at the newspaper, TV station and website were cut in 2008 and subsequent layoffs and reorganizations have claimed more positions since then.

The gruel at this newsroom of the future is way too thin to woo discerning readers and advertisers.

7 Comments:

Blogger edward allen said...

The Chicago Tribune tried this very aggressively, merging the Washington bureau of the newspaper with its cable TV operation before the recent bankruptcy. It didn't work because they were competing empires and executives of TV and newspaper operations spent most of their time fighting with one another. It doesn't seem to exist any more. Also the experiment showed not all print reporters carry over well to TV and there are few Walter Cronkites who can make the transition easily. I see the dream, and I understand the savings involved, but I foresee trouble. Another newspaper that experimented with merging newspapers and TV operations is the Christian Science Monitor, which lost almost half of its endowment on the scheme before giving up.
Another hurdle to be surmounted is the Federal Communications Commission, which has in the past been reluctant to allow news monopolies in American cities. This could be a big issue in Salt Lake City, given the Mormon church is underwriting this new scheme.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Kansan said...

Perhaps a small market has advantages. Perhaps single ownership of print and video presents easier management opportunities. But in Lawrence, Kansas, we believe a combined news operation is working well and serving our community.
--Ralph Gage

6:28 AM  
Blogger james said...

Alan,one poorly managed media property merged with another results in a new enterprise that still won't compete adequately in the new landscape. Its just re-arranging the deck furniture. Its about talent, talent and talent. Merging two clueless organizations accomplishes nothing, except more layoffs.Until new media leadership and management emerges you're just shuffling the deck and wasting time.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Stenar said...

I was wondering if combining news rooms would run afoul of any FCC regulations. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

12:37 PM  
Blogger laptite said...

The New York Times also dabbled, but ultimately got out of taking a lead role in TV.

News media needs an image makeover that exceeds distribution concerns. Socio-political vilification of mass media and intellectualism is being ignored as a source of consumer disinterest in News as a value-added product. News leaders need to do a better job at providing quality news that more effectively balances credibility, human interest and entertainment.

News leaders of all kinds would provide better service by correcting inaccurate stories of all sources instead of joining the ranks.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Randy Covington said...

A very insightful post. Just because past efforts did not work or were not done well does not mean an integrated print/broadcast newsroom is a bad idea. I find this alternative vastly preferable to the painful reality that I see so many places of dwindling profits and dwindling resources. In most U.S. cities, combining the newspaper with a successful TV station would create a pretty good business. The challenge is figuring out what that business will be in the future. For me, the most difficult question is whether traditional media organizations, print or broadcast, are creative, nimble and entrepreneurial enough to produce the products and services that our readers will value in the years ahead.
Randy Covington

11:25 AM  
Blogger Randy Covington said...

A very insightful post. Just because past efforts did not work or were not done well does not mean an integrated print/broadcast newsroom is a bad idea. I find this alternative vastly preferable to the painful reality that I see so many places of dwindling profits and dwindling resources. In most U.S. cities, combining the newspaper with a successful TV station would create a pretty good business. The challenge is figuring out what that business will be in the future. For me, the most difficult question is whether traditional media organizations, print or broadcast, are creative, nimble and entrepreneurial enough to produce the products and services that our readers will value in the years ahead.
Randy Covington

11:27 AM  

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