Tampas media trioMedia General's experiment in convergence brings together the Tampa Tribune,'wfla and an online news site-all under one roof 4/09/2000 08:00:00 PM Eastern
The week before WFLA-TV boxed up 45 years of history, filling the old tin-roofed newsroom that once served as the station's prop room and carpenter shop, someone taped a sign to a newsroom door: "No one can limit your dreams, so don't be afraid to dream large. The Big Move 2000."
Indeed, wfla's big move last month is a dream for the station in Tampa, the nation's 13th-largest TV market. But it involves more than just relocating to its new four-story, concrete-and-glass, fully digital "news center" overlooking the scenic Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa. The "news center" is also the new home of wfla's corporate siblings, the Media General-owned Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Online (TBO).
Together the three news organizations have launched a new kind of "converged journalism." No doubt other newspapers and television groups across the country are watching this media marriage to see if a large-scale multimedia cooperative can capture greater audiences, strengthen its brands, and slow the steady loss of TV-news viewers and newspaper circulation.
Dozens of television stations and cable operations have launched partnerships with newspapers that involve occasional joint ventures on special projects or community service efforts. (See story on page 50 for combinations in other markets.) But the Media General convergence in Tampa is significantly different in its nature and size.
Wfla News Director Dan Bradley says the television station, the Tampa Tribune and TBO will share their journalism minute-to-minute, 24 hours a day, every day. They share space on what has been dubbed the "superdesk," which coordinates crews, provides news research and tracks news developments. The move also signals a change in the way journalists at all three media organizations will work. Reporters, who once filed stories just for television or just for print, may find themselves working on a TV story, writing a newspaper article and producing an online version as well.
The convergence works in other areas too. Newspaper photojournalists will carry still and video cameras on assignments. Video journalists are learning what newspaper photo editors look for, since their pictures may be used in the paper, on TV, online or for all three.
"It boggles my mind," says wfla Managing Editor Susan DeFraties. "On a typical day right now, I have eight or nine reporters I can send out on daily news assignments. With the convergence, I have access to more than 100 Tribune reporters who are out there gathering news."
Media General's goal is simple, says DeFraties: to become the information powerhouse in this market. "We want to have it all-if the public wants to be told about it, read it in depth, or if they want to get online quickly to check it out."
For the Tampa Tribune, the convergence resembles a moth's attraction to light. The newspaper's staff wants to bask in TV's glow but fears being changed by it.
The attraction is understandable. Television offers a much larger potential audience for the newspaper. The Tribune's 1999 circulation was more than 235,000 daily and 327,000 for the Sunday edition. But the Tampa television market includes 1,485,980 households, and wfla is the longtime market news leader. With convergence, the Tribune stands to reach thousands of new potential readers. The online site, TBO, benefits from television's reach and the newspaper's reputation and content.
"The single greatest challenge we have is to overcome our [work] cultural differences," Bradley says.
The three sides tried to bridge that gap during more than five months of "pre-nup talks." In those discussions, the issues began to surface about the deep-seated problems that a converged newsroom would face. However, new opportunities grew out of those meetings. The newspaper, TV and online groups launched a series of joint projects, one exploring whether schools should require children to wear uniforms.
Later, the new Tampa media alliance undertook an investigative project they called "Prisoners in Their Own Homes," which looked into how judges sentenced those convicted to serve jail time under house arrest. Wfla's story found that people under house arrest were not, in fact, at home. They were often out committing other crimes. And Tampa Bay Online built an extensive database that allowed Internet users to pinpoint anyone who was under house arrest in a particular neighborhood. The project was a dress rehearsal for the kind of convergent news story that the three teamed up to report last Dec. 30.
That morning, wfla was sitting on a huge story. Station anchor Gayle Sierens landed an exclusive interview with Dewey Brandon, a man police suspected had killed his wife and two young daughters. Four months after the murders, police cleared Brandon, and Sierens was the only journalist that Brandon wanted to talk to after he was cleared.
"The newspaper wants the story," Multimedia Editor Steve DeGregorio told wfla's News Director Bradley in a hurried speakerphone conversation. "They would like the story before you run it on TV." Bradley agreed.
Sierens wrote an in-depth newspaper article that included many details she had to leave out of her TV story because of time restrictions. The Tribune later played the story on the front page of the metro section. The same day the newspaper and TV story ran, TBO streamed long segments of the exclusive interview that did not air on television.
At the afternoon editorial meeting that December day, everyone agreed the Sierens interview was the lead story for the evening's newscast. But by 3:10 p.m., a Tampa hotel worker walked into the Radisson Bay Harbor Hotel and shot four people to death, injuring three others. The gunman shot another person to death while attempting to steal a getaway car. The station and the newspaper instantly began working on the story, sharing information. Tribune reporter Peter Howard phoned in a television report. And at 6 p.m., wfla aired a live interview with Tribune photojournalist Dave Kadlubowski, who was among the first reporters at the scene.
A day that began with the newspaper's asking to break a TV story ended with the TV station's benefiting from the newspaper's presence at a major, breaking news story. The online coverage took in information from both broadcast and newspaper journalists.
"We are merging the collection and dissemination of information," says wfla's Bradley. "But we are not merging newsrooms. There may be some stories we choose not to share. But I think that will be rare," he adds. "We will each have to make our own editorial decisions. There may be times when we disagree. We have to stay independent, but I think we can do that and share our information."
After five months of dialogue at the management and staff levels, the marriage is settling into something of a routine. Wfla consumer reporter Steve Overton and health reporter Irene Maher file weekly newspaper columns. The Tampa Tribune's religion reporter, Michelle Bearden, files newspaper stories on Wednesdays that also mention the story that she will cover on TV. Four days a week, the Tribune's business editor Bernie Kohn files business briefs on wfla's early-morning newscast.
The three groups-Internet, television and print-are so serious about making this marriage work that they built their new $30 million, 121,000-square-foot facility specifically to allow and, in some ways, encourage the staffs to interact.
The first floor of the building is the television studio space. The television and online newsrooms fill the second floor, and the newspaper's newsroom is on the third floor. The television management and sales staff occupy the fourth floor. The newspaper publisher's office, printing press and business offices will remain in an adjacent building that is the Tribune's former home.
This arrangement will force the converged newsrooms to share more than news stories. "The television and newspaper newsrooms share the same air," Bradley says, looking skyward from his desk. The television newsroom has an atrium that opens into the newspaper newsroom one floor above it.
"It gets interesting," he adds, "when, at 4 o'clock, the television newsroom is getting loud and the noise is spilling into the newspaper newsroom. Have you ever been in a newspaper newsroom? They are quiet as libraries."
Like any marriage, this one has some rough spots to work through. Newspaper reporters complained the TV folks were making constant use of the building-wide paging system, a common practice in boisterous TV stations but unheard of in newspaper newsrooms. The TV staff was asked to attend telephone etiquette classes to learn how to stay off the loudspeaker system.
As staff began to work more closely, they discovered a disparity in the pay levels between television reporters and newspaper reporters. Religion writer Bearden used to get extra pay for filing TV stories in addition to her newspaper stories. With convergence, the extra pay will dry up. Tribune managers say they know they will have to address the pay issue if newspaper staffers routinely appear on television.
And then there is the issue of workload. Reporters and photojournalists worry the marriage will mean more work without more money.
"The last newspaper story I wrote, I wrote on my own time," says veteran wfla reporter Lance Williams. "But the fun part of it is, there are no restrictions on my story. It is hard to write a minute and thirty-second story. But writing for the newspaper is freeing. Compared to writing for TV, when you write for newspaper it seems like you can write forever."
"Right now, it is novel," Williams says. "But if two or three times a week they are asking me to turn in a TV story and a newspaper story, then I will have a problem. I worry what happens to the quality of the story. When would we have time to go out and report?"
"No one will be asked to work one hour longer without pay," the Tribune's Assistant Managing Editor for Organizational Development Patti Breckenridge insists. "One worry among the newspaper folks is that they will be forced to appear on TV. We have said nobody is going to have to do extensive on-air work without training."
But future hires at the newspaper will be brought aboard with the understanding that they will work as television and online reporters, too. Breckenridge says that recent applicants have been attracted to the newspaper expressly because of the convergence.
"The point is, more people will see our stuff than before. I don't think people will see a story in the newspaper, then see it on TV and say that TV story was better than the newspaper version. They just don't see news that way," wfla reporter Williams says.
The Tampa partnership model could become more common if the Federal Communications Commission relaxes its dual ownership rule, as many media observers believe it will. This year, the Newspaper Association of America is asking the FCC to repeal the 1975 rule barring ownership of a major daily newspaper and a local television station in the same city, with at least three NAA-supported bills pending in Congress to repeal the dual ownership ban.
Management at top newspapers and television stations has been careful not to claim this convergence will save any money for the company. In fact, Tribune Executive Editor Gil Thelen wrote in an article for the newspaper that the three media will enter this year larger and stronger than in 1999. "The combined staffs will add 10 people this year," he noted. "If convergence leads to fewer journalists reporting, producing and editing weaker journalism, we deserve to lose customers and public trust."
The newspaper expects it will get a higher visibility in the community by appearing nightly on wfla's market-leading newscasts. Wfla's anchors recently held up a special section of the Tribune on camera and told viewers to check out a story that was reported and written by Tribune senior reporter Patty Ryan. Almost immediately Ryan saw television's effect.
"I heard from people I hadn't heard from because they had seen it on TV," Ryan says. She even got e-mail from viewers outside Tampa because of the broadcast. That kind of exposure excites newspaper executives, who recognize the relative marketing impact compared with their television colleagues.
But the benefits of such exposure come with a host of challenges for print media, which, for the most part, is unaccustomed to the bright lights, hot mikes and the need for compelling visual images.
"The very nature of going on TV is intimidating for those of us hiding behind the anonymity of the byline," says Ryan. Television made her realize her work would be judged on two elements that hadn't mattered to her before: personal appearance and being able to think on your feet.
"I like to put a lot of thought into what I write. So thinking quickly [on the air] concerns me," Ryan says. "A talk back,'in its purest form, is live. If I screw up, I can't backspace. The whole world hears it."
Although wfla had been informally offering their newspaper siblings some guidance on working in the television environment, the Tribune also arranged for more-formal training at the University of South Florida. Now Tribune reporters can get help from an adjunct professor who has worked as a television reporter.
The Tampa convergence project may produce many intangible results. TV reporters may also get a credibility boost by having their bylines appear in print. And print reporters may get more news tips because people see them on TV. The Tampa Bay Online site will benefit the most from the credibility, content and promotion it receives from being associated with the newspaper and TV station. But other media companies will be looking for more solid proof that convergence is worth the effort and investment, namely higher television ratings, increased newspaper circulation and more online traffic.
However, whatever happens, the Tampa convergence experience raises at least two concerns. If journalists spend time contributing to each other's media, when will they have time to gather news? And more important, will similar media convergence mean that fewer independent voices produce the news or, perhaps, some voices will be lost?
To Bradley, wfla's news director, the most significant aspect of convergence is that it puts the viewer, reader or Web user in control of when and how they want to see the news.
"The information we gather doesn't belong to us. It is the readers', the viewers', the users'information. We have an obligation to get it out there on as many platforms as we can."
This series of stories about the Media General Tampa news facility was produced for Broadcasting & Cable by The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. The project was reported by Poynter faculty members Al Tompkins, Aly Colón, Kenny Irby, Nora Paul and Bill Mitchell, editor of Poynter.org. The stories were edited by Chip Scanlan, group leader of Poynter's reporting, writing and editing program.