Alan D. Mutter Reflections of a Newsosaur
Musings (and occasional urgent warnings) of a veteran media executive, who fears our news-gathering companies are stumbling to extinction
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.