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American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 2002

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Freedom papers save money by sharing once-local content

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     

The Orange County Register proudly announced in a blurb that Craig Outhier "joined" the paper as movie critic on April 5. He had four debut reviews, each topped by his name and the credit line "The Orange County Register."

But Outhier wasn't in Orange County when he wrote those reviews. He wasn't even in California. Outhier is based in Arizona and has been movie reviewer for the Mesa-based East Valley Tribune since 1998. Now, under an agreement between three newspapers owned by Freedom Newspapers, he's also reviewer for the Register and Colorado Springs' Gazette.

It's called content-sharing. Not a brand-new concept--newspapers have shared Washington or foreign correspondents or pooled resources for event coverage for years. But Freedom's new approach goes further. According to Ken Brusic, Freedom's senior vice president for content and business transformation, the newspapers will work together on whole sections year-round, maintaining separate corrals of reporters who will effectively work for three publications.

"I think the staffs will benefit a great deal," Brusic says. "A lot of time, newspapers do something week after week without thinking why they're doing them or critiquing them on an ongoing basis. We've found the focus is much sharper now that there are three groups of eyes reading. Everyone wants to wind up looking good in this process. It's elevated the game."

Freedom executives first had to decide which jobs could be the most easily shared. The movie job was an easy target, with joint reviews hitting the stands in early April. Outhier became the ber-critic, longtime Register critic Henry Sheehan was let go, and the duties of Gazette critic Warren Epstein were reshuffled to exclude reviews and include more coverage of arts and entertainment. Gazette readers learned of the change if they read Outhier's April 5 review of "High Crimes." At the end, under the heading, "WHERE'S WARREN?" a textbox explained the shift, acknowledging that Outhier was the film critic for the Tribune but would also review movies for the Gazette.

Next came food and travel. The Gazette would be home to the main food writer. The shared travel writer would be based in Orange County. The swapping was to debut in late May.

Jim Ripley, executive editor at the Tribune, says since his paper never had a full-time travel writer, it relied on freelancers and wire copy. But now it has a whole section with content geared to readers in all three areas. "I'm getting a lot out of this," Ripley says. "It really enhances the coverage we're giving our readers."

The food section is trickier. At the Tribune, about half the food section used to be wire copy, says Food Editor Amanda Kingsbury. Though with editors at the three newspapers combining resources, she expects to tap the wire less. Each paper was allowed to keep its own reader favorites, like a feature called "Take five" from the Register that allows readers to send in recipes with five ingredients or less. Kingsbury is adding the feature to her arsenal, but has to make sure each ingredient is available in her region first. For cover stories, like one featuring gourmet hot dogs, the writers are encouraged to quote food experts from all three regions, if possible.

But there's going to be a time when Colorado readers are ready for soup and the more southern readers will still be working on their tans. That, Kingsbury admits, will be challenging, but doable. "You look at magazines like Sunset and Martha Stewart Living and they all seem to work for markets across the country for whatever reason. We hope we'll look at things we have in common while not ignoring our own local elements," she says.

Even the movie market can differ from state to state. The Poynter Institute's Roy Peter Clark says he has no doubt a movie critic in one state can write good reviews for readers elsewhere, but he wonders what effect the critics' geographical limitations will have. Will certain movies not be reviewed because they're released in one area but not the others? Will other beat stories, say about theater quality, be ignored?

"The bigger question I always ask in cases like this is do these kinds of changes improve the quality of public service or do they undercut the effort to serve a particular community," says Clark. "I don't have much patience for business leaders in journalism and news organizations who rationalize cost-cutting by framing it as better service. I'm not saying that's happening here, but I'd be paying close attention."

Others already are. When Outhier's work appeared in the Register, the OC Weekly criticized the changing of the guard. One piece, written by an OC Weekly writer but "signed" by Tonnie Katz, the editor of the Register, said the newspaper was aiming "to become a local newspaper composed entirely of wire reports." Mesa, "located in the middle of nothing but dirt and more dirt," might seem very different from Orange County, but in fact the two were very similar, the article read. "What does it matter if Mr. Outhier isn't worthy of pouring the butter on Henry Sheehan's popcorn? He'll do just fine."

Brusic says he understands if people question the decision to have a film critic based in Arizona when the Register sits in Hollywood's backyard. But the company has to divvy up responsibilities, he says, and "the publishers made a business decision and businesses do that all the time. In truth, I don't think anyone's really suffered. No one's called us up and said we're not getting our money's worth."

As for the initial blurb that made it seem as if Outhier was working on the Pacific Coast, Brusic says people can quibble with the wording--which implied Outhier was physically in California, having "joined" the Register--but the intent wasn't to deceive. The former critic, Sheehan, didn't spend much time in the Register's newsroom, he says, and Outhier, "is the same phone call or e-mail away."



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