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Newspapers and TV Stations Try Cross-Pollination

Some news outfits find strength in symbiosis 7/22/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

WBIR Knoxville, Tenn., got a tip that a local animal crematorium was dumping dogs in rural Virginia, and News Director Bill Shory knew his station was on to a hot May-sweeps story. The local paper, The News-Sentinel, was chasing the story, too, but Shory wasn’t worried about getting scooped. WBIR is partnered with the News-Sentinel, and the newsrooms pooled their resources to attack the story.

Such cooperation is the norm for Gannett-owned WBIR and the News-Sentinel. Reporters collaborate on four big projects a year, newspaper editors appear regularly on the station’s newscasts, and managers are in daily contact.

“It is one of the best things we have going,” Shory explains. “We work together on editorial, sales, community events and co-promotion.”

More than 100 stations have newspaper partners, according to a new survey by Ball State University, but not all are as developed as WBIR and the News-Sentinel. Among news directors surveyed, more than half say they never share their complete daily lineup with newspaper partners, and a third say they do not share physical resources, such as bureaus or helicopters.

“Journalistic cross-pollination”

“Some relationships are cross-promotion and not a whole lot more, but others have genuine journalistic cross-pollination. Those seem to have more value,” says Bruce Northcott, a partner in TV-consulting firm Crawford, Johnson & Northcott.

At a time when newspapers and TV stations are seeing their audiences decline, industry executives believe that local media need to find ways to grow their share. Tapping into each other’s audience, they say, can create new consumers.

The timing is crucial: Daily newspaper readership fell from 58.6% of adults in 1998 to 52.8% in 2004, according to the Newspaper Association of America. From May 1997 to May 2004, the average audience share for TV stations’ early-evening news dropped 18%, while late news slipped 16%, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism and BIA Financial.

Banding together, news directors say, strengthens both products. “We get the power of 250 newspaper reporters,” says Shannon High-Bassalik, VP of news for Viacom’s WFOR Miami, which partners with The Miami Herald. Says news consultant Valerie Hyman, “As a general rule, TV newsrooms have too few reporters doing too many stories a day. Any additional editorial input is good.”

Together, stations and newspapers can also mine new ventures, such as special projects and Web sites. WPEC West Palm Beach, Fla., works with The Palm Beach Post on editorial and promotion. In one recent collaboration, they produced a hurricane guide, and WPEC aired a prime time special on hurricane preparedness; then they split the ad revenue.

Although these alliances look good on paper, they can be difficult to execute. A major obstacle, news directors say, is the culture clash between newsrooms. Newspaper reporters often see their TV colleagues as lacking depth, an attitude that makes TV reporters resentful.

“The rank and file are suspicious,” responded one TV news director to the Ball State survey. “It may be like a shotgun marriage.”

Competition also inhibits cooperation, Northcott says: “It seems like it always comes down to who gets the story out first.”

An unusual arrangement

To work, both sides need to be invested, says Rob Krier, VP/general manager for KWTV Oklahoma City. Five years ago, his station and The Oklahoman formed a pact including a joint Web site, NewsOK.com, unusual because they have different owners. At first, Krier says, both newsrooms were reluctant, but management forged ahead.

“They have 300 reporters, and it opens up a whole new realm for us,” says Krier. NewsOK.com gets more than 20 million page views a month; advertisers can buy space on all three entities, and reporters regularly work together on stories.

Some of the best-executed partnerships exist in markets where the newspaper and TV station share a corporate parent. In Tampa, Fla., for instance, Media General owns The Tampa Tribune, top-rated WFLA and Web site TBO.com. All three entities share a facility, along with content and advertising. A car dealer, for example, can buy newspaper ads, online banners and TV spots in one transaction. Gannett is equally aggressive in Arizona, where it owns KPNX Mesa and The Arizona Republic. They collaborate on AZ­Central.com, featuring content from both organizations.

While Belo Corp’s WFAA Dallas and Dallas Morning News share a facility and routinely work together on stories, both maintain separate Web sites. “Both are very strong brands, and it made more sense for us to keep them separated,” says Dave Muscari, WFAA VP of strategic alliances.

Across the country, TV stations and newspapers are giving renewed attention to the Web. While both sides give up autonomy and some revenue with a joint site, they also get the chance to grow audience share—particularly with younger demographics—and expand ad sales. The Atlanta Journal Constitution works with its Cox-owned sister station WSB but often scores its own online video. Last year, the paper purchased four video cameras so that its reporters can shoot video for its Web site.

Online and on-air, marketing is a major component of these alliances, with both parties broadening exposure by plugging each other. TV meteorologists, for example, are often pictured on the newspaper’s weather page. On the late news, anchors will preview stories in the next day’s newspaper. More than 80% of news directors say their partner’s logo appears on their newscast at least weekly, and half regularly plug print stories, according to the Ball State study.

A slow dance

But not every outlet can find a suitable mate. Very small markets may have a local paper but no TV station. More often, the obstacle is that the major newspaper is aligned with a rival TV affiliate.

Sometimes, that leaves a TV outlet to cobble together alliances with specialty publications or suburban papers. With co-owned Chicago Tribune and WGN in the market, NBC’s WMAQ Chicago assembled a network of regional partners, including The Gary Times and The Daily Herald.

Going forward, news directors say they want to work with their newspapers on more long-term projects and find better ways to integrate talent.

But it can be a slow dance. WCAU Philadelphia News Director Chris Blackman is navigating a new partnership with The Philadelphia Inquirer. So far, he has installed a remote camera in the paper’s newsroom, and reporters regularly share information. Eventually, Blackman would like the assignment desks to speak twice daily and delve into joint investigations.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” he says. “But it will take some time to get our people used to this.”

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