Searching for TV-Newspaper Convergence

Studies show little cooperation in station-newspaper partnerships

When Media General’s Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV announced plans to tightly coordinate news gathering activities in 2000, many students of the news business thought a new era of convergence had begun. Today, although patterns of news gathering and distribution are certainly changing in the Internet age, TV/newspaper partnerships seem almost incidental to it. Instead of getting video content for their websites from TV partners, many newspapers have cross-trained print reporters to shoot them themselves.

“We see a little bit of cross-promotion going on” between TV and newspaper organizations, says Mary Spillman, a BallStateUniversity professor who studies patterns of media convergence. “What we do not see, as much as you might expect, is true convergence.”

Still, there remains enough interest in the potential of TV/newspaper partnerships that several new ones have been announced this year. For example, the Tribune Company, which enjoys a long-running partnership between the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV, announced a partnership between the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and WSFL, the CW station it owns in the same market, which included relocating the broadcast studio into the Sun-Sentinel building. 

WSFL subsequently dropped its 10 p.m. newscast but promised to come back in 2009 with a 5-9 a.m. program that will feature contributions from the Sun-Sentinel’s staff. Tribune’s Baltimore Sun also announced a partnership with WJZ-TV, a CBS owned and operated station, to share content for the web and work together on news projects. Meanwhile, Media General is still trying to drive deeper convergence between the Tampa paper and TV station, as well as with the website, partly to stretch resources at a time of newsroom cutbacks.

Spillman’s belief that most such partnerships are relatively shallow comes from a study she and co-authors Larry Dailey (now at University of Nevada, Reno) and Lori Demo published in 2005, and then updated this year, true convergence was envisioned as an integrated multimedia news organization that would make story assignments to a common news gathering staff and steer material to whichever medium was best for telling the story. At the other extreme in this model were partnerships that were strictly promotional. For example, some newspapers run a weather report that feature a partner station’s logo and a photo of the local weather personality. In between are stages such as “cloning,” or republishing a partner’s content with little editorial interaction, “coopetition,” where the news organizations see each other as both competitors and collaborators (but share resources only selectively because of competitive instincts), and “content sharing,” where distrust begins to abate, content is shared more freely, and the relationship starts to become more collaborative.

The 2005 study was based on a survey of both TV news directors and newspaper editors, while the 2008 update survey was of newspaper editors only. Both showed that most partnerships are closer to the cross-promotion end of the spectrum than true convergence. The number of newspapers who reported having a partnership with a television station rose to 34.6%, compared with 29% in the earlier study. But another 13% of the editors said they had tried working with a TV station but subsequently dropped the partnership

The 2008 paper also raised the question of whether the impetus for TV and print news organizations has faded, now that both are more focused on convergence with the web than with each other. Both the newspapers who did and did not have television partnerships said in about equal numbers that they were producing their own video, suggesting to the authors “that the future of newspaper-television partnerships could be vulnerable.” Specifically, 59.4% of the editors said they had offered video training to reporters in the last 6 months, 74.5% had offered it to their photographers, and 30.9% said they had hired a photographer specifically for web video.

“I think we’re moving a bit toward newspapers wanting to produce TV-style material for their websites but be in control of it themselves,” Spillman said.

Cultural differences and a tradition of competition between newspapers and TV stations in the same market are one reason these partnerships often don’t work, even though they make sense in theory.

“Where there’s limited money, we’re going to have to find the right way to spend it, and that’s going to drive a lot of interesting decision-making,” said Owen Youngman, senior vice president of strategy and development for the Chicago Tribune. “In cases of common ownership, we are going to look for ways to eliminate redundancies and send one camera to an event instead of three. If we can send one camera and have it produce streaming for the web, a still for the paper, and a 20-second clip for the cable channel, we are going to be in better shape.”

Youngman says there are always going to be people on opposite sides of the TV-newspaper divide who have bad attitudes about each other. On the other hand, they share a common passion for “finding out about something first and telling lots of people about it,” so the best remedy for those bad attitudes is for them to see how the relationship works at its best.

The cooperative efforts caught the attention of Debora Halpern Wenger, a VirginiaCommonwealthUniversity journalism professor whose resume includes a stint as assistant news director at Tampa’s WFLA.

She decided to find out what makes these partnerships work when they do and why they so often fall apart. She hasn’t entirely figured out the answer to that question.

“I would stay that maybe five or six years ago was when a lot of these partnerships began to fizzle,” Wenger said. “Newspapers who were trying to boost their web sites started asking, ‘What do we really want from the TV stations? Video.’ While the TV stations were saying, ‘We don’t really need a printing press; we’ve got this online site.’”

“I would like to believe folks who are embarking on new partnerships are saying that, yes, if you can make this work, it could truly be phenomenal,” Wenger said. “The newspaper puts many more feet on the street than the local TV station, whereas the quality of the video content from the weakest TV station is far and away better than the stuff most newspapers produce. If we do this right, we could leverage the strength of each platform.’”