The Great Split Over Convergence
Joint print and broadcast newsrooms were supposed to be the wave of the future. Then why is the merged model falling out of favor?
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/9/2012 12:01:00 AM
The hot media trend of the past decade has been convergence— broadcast, print and Web in the same market, with the same owner, beating all rivals with a massive joint newsroom. But the two Schurz local news outlets sit about five miles apart along South Bend Avenue. They are linked through technological connectors such as instant messaging and video conferencing, but the newsrooms remain distinct operations.
Kerry Oslund, Schurz vice president of digital, isn’t saying the two will never merge. But for the foreseeable future, he believes distinct newsrooms for print and television ultimately serve those individual audiences better. “In a lot of combined newsrooms, journalists do everything on every platform,” Oslund said. “But the different platforms require different skill sets and different deadlines. You need specialists, instead of generalists, to deliver a great experience on every platform.”
Oslund and Schurz are not alone. While joint broadcastprint newsrooms continue to exist, and 25% of stations nationwide partner with a newspaper in their market, a number of cases suggest that the almighty concept of convergence—crosstrained reporters serving up content to any and all platforms, with unified sales out! ts hawking bundled media packages— has seen better days.
The relationship between Scripps’ WPTV West Palm Beach (Fla.) and the company’s Treasure Coast newspapers, for one, bene! ts both parties. But full-contact, silo-busting convergence, according to Rich Boehne, Scripps president and CEO, is often overemphasized by people running media companies. And economics—once a force driving companies to work together—has since created a working atmosphere often better suited to a split.
“We’re much more focused on building great products for our platforms, and ! nding success on individual platforms,” Boehne said. “We’re past convergence, and into success in divergence.”
The Dizzy Dotcom Era
If the Nineties was the decade of synergy, the Aughts was the decade of convergence. The age kicked off in 2000, when tech stocks were skyrocketing, AOL and Time Warner were beaming newlyweds— and Media General’s glittering $40 million “News Center” convergence cathedral opened in Tampa.
The concrete monolith housed WFLA, The Tampa Tribune and TBO.com staffers and facilitated cooperation in content, marketing and sales. “The [Tribune’s] ability to cover and know about things that we don’t have the resources for is unlimited,” Dan Bradley, then WFLA news director, told trade publication Editor & Publisher at the time. “We cover a lot of the same stuff, but we can be more immediate, and they can take it more in-depth.” A dozen years onward, after a brutal Florida recession and severe times for newspapers that few had foreseen, the convergence strategy has been showing some cracks. Last November, Media General replaced the three top execs in its Tampa outfit. On the same day in late February, Media General christened a new general manager for WFLA and announced it was “exploring the potential sale” of its newspapers. WFLA had been overseen by a Media General group president and then an interim general manager, but Brad Moses became its ! rst true GM in close to a year. Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans reported WFLA staffers being told about “disentangling much of [Media General’s] convergence connections” in Tampa.
A Media General representative said that characterization is incorrect. Yet former Media General employees in Tampa say the meshing never really happened the way the company envisioned. The former staffers would not comment publicly, but they spoke of print people with an aversion to TV and WFLA employees who felt they were propping up an ailing newspaper division. One Tampa TV vet said a combined photography unit has been divided into broadcast and print; the Media General representative said “print photographers still shoot for the TV station, and vice versa.”
John Schauss, Media General vice president of market operations, said the company remains committed to newspaper-station- Web synergies in markets where it owns TV and print properties. Regarding WFLA’s new GM, Schauss said it’s key to have someone pushing the local TV operation 24/7. “As with any business, you need one individual whose focus and responsibility is on the strategy and vision,” Schauss said, “so by the time they wake up, they should be concerned about that business itself—in conjunction with a converged operation.”
The decision to co-locate print and broadcast is as much about cutting costs as about enriching local content, said Bob Papper, Hofstra University professor and author of the annual RTDNA/ Hofstra survey of local news operations. In fall 2010, Salt Lake City’s Deseret News laid off 43% of its staff, according to published reports, and moved remaining employees into the KSL TV newsroom (both properties are owned by the Mormon Church). On the heels of consolidation announcements in Chicago (WGN and CLTV) and Fort Lauderdale (WSFL Tampa and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel), Tribune Co. announced a combination in Hartford in 2009, with WTIC and WCCT moving into the Hartford Courant’s digs. In each case, a manager was assigned to oversee joint operations.
“This is the future of media,” said Tribune’s then-COO, Randy Michaels. “Whether in print, over the air, or online—the delivery mechanism isn’t as important as the unique, rich nature of the content provided. Bringing these media properties together will enable us to bring more resources to our news coverage.”
But Tribune’s South Florida operation recently took signi! cant steps to unwind the convergence there. During the February sweeps, WSFL rebranded with a new logo that plays up its entertainment attributes. The station also did away with the unified branding it shared with its print and Web siblings in the market (all had a common capital ‘S’), and spun off a stand-alone SFLTV.com site. After WSFL scrapped a morning newscast produced by Sun-Sentinel staffers, the station did not have much use for the paper’s news chops anymore.
“We wanted the look and the brand to match what we are,” Howard Greenberg, Sun-Sentinel president and publisher and WSFL GM, told B&C. “We’d tried to tie it all together—print, online, broadcast. But in retrospect, print is a little too serious for [us].”
A Tribune representative said the Miami-Fort Lauderdale operation is a unique situation and that Tribune remains committed to its converged operations elsewhere.
Yet no media outfit seems to have grabbed the holy grail of convergence quite yet. Often the relationship can feel forced, with different cultures and deadlines. “TV stations are a noisy place,” said Papper. “Newspapers are quiet. The TV people drove the newspaper people crazy in Tampa.”
Bruce Northcott, founder of media consultancy CJ&N, likens the sometimes awkward sight of stammering newspaper vets on television, and TV talent’s less than sterling prose popping up in print, as the clumsy steps of kids at a junior-high dance. “It sounds like [convergence] should and will work,” Northcott said. “But I think the jury is still out as to if it’s really happened to the degree we had all talked about.”
Black and White and Red (Ink) All Over
Newspaper-station relationships, both under the same owners and with different ones, peaked in 2005 with about 50% of TV stations partnering with print, according to Papper. Now it’s about half that number. “It hasn’t disappeared, but it’s been mostly steadily downhill ever since,” he said.
With seemingly no bottom in sight for the newspaper industry, media companies owning print and broadcast properties in the same market have to consider their options if and when it no longer makes business sense to print newspapers. Media General’s Feb. 22 announcement about potentially selling its newspapers said the company “has received inquiries from several third parties regarding the potential purchase of certain of its print assets.” A few weeks later, it was reported that Freedom Communications, which spent eight months in bankruptcy in 2009-10, was considering divesting most of its 24 dailies.
Tribune, meanwhile, continues to search for a way out of its threeyear- long bankruptcy tenure.
A recent study from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) does not portend well for print media’s future. Print advertising revenue for newspapers was down $2.1 billion in 2011, or 9.2%. While papers’ online advertising grew 6.8% to $207 million, print’s ad losses outweighed the digital gains by roughly 10 to 1.
That newspapers are increasingly putting their fortunes on digital deepens the divide between print and broadcast, as the two media compete directly online. With as many as 100 newspapers expected to erect online pay walls in the coming months, according to the NAA study, it stands to reason that newspapers will continue to be less amenable to sharing with TV, where the breaking news, sports and investigative content is free. “It’s the Web that’s the problem in this,” said Papper.
More Resources, More Ratings, More Revenue
To be sure, many media companies swear by the synergies of their co-located media assets. Gannett Co.’s KPNX Phoenix and The Arizona Republic recently marked their oneyear anniversary in the same facility. John Misner, COO of the properties, told B&C after last year’s shootings of Gabrielle Giffords and others that “the quantity and quality of the coverage we had would not have been possible without the cooperation.”
Family-owned News-Press & Gazette Co. this spring is launching a Fox affiliate in St. Joseph, Mo., that will share space with sibling St. Joseph News-Press, with the newspaper providing much of the news content. Scripps’ WPTV, for its part, keeps four reporters in the newsroom of its sibling papers in southeastern Florida. “We’ve had a very good relationship with them, and it continues to grow,” said Jeff Brogan, Scripps senior director of news strategy and operations and former WPTV news director.
Meanwhile, Schurz’s " agship paper and TV station in the South Bend market, not to mention radio as well, continue to enrich each other’s content. But Oslund believes the 13-minute drive from the The South Bend Tribune’s local headquarters to WSBT’s digs in Mishawaka, Ind., will continue to exist. “People thought, with the tool sets available you could push to multiple platforms as easy as one,” Oslund said. “But it never quite worked out that way.”
E-mail comments to email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone
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