Share and Share Alike  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2009

Share and Share Alike   

Once considered unthinkable, content-sharing arrangements are proliferating rapidly, often uniting newspapers long seen as bitter rivals.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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L ike many in the news business, Alan Mutter was surprised when he learned that South Florida's three major dailies the highly competitive Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel had struck a deal to share stories in an effort to save money. The former newspaper editor quickly pounded out a blog post, warning that such "skinflint journalism" could come at a high price.

Mutter predicted the move would degrade coverage at each newspaper, making each one less relevant to readers as their special identities were watered down by collaboration. A day after the Florida experiment was launched on September 1, he posted an entry on his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, calling the move "journalistically and commercially dangerous."

The outspoken critic of the Florida venture understands newsroom competition. From 1984 to 1988, Mutter served as deputy editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and before that was city editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, both newspapers that butted heads with rivals. His blog deals with technological advances challenging traditional media.

"I think what [the Florida papers] are doing is stupid," Mutter said in an interview. "Where there are multiple reporters covering the same beat or same event, you're going to get multiple views and everybody is going to try harder to go to a higher level of reporting. It's a fact of human nature that competition inspires better work."

A decade or so ago, news managers might have agreed that competition was the bedrock of quality journalism. But the loss of readers and advertising dollars to the Internet, coupled with a crippling recession, have forced dramatic shifts in newsroom mentalities and priorities. What once was unthinkable is now seen as a way to survive in a rapidly transforming media environment. Yes, shared copy means fewer versions of some important stories. But is that an acceptable price to pay if it helps keep the news outlets that publish those versions alive?

Newspapers across America are cutting information-sharing deals on an unprecedented level, leaving skeptics like Mutter shaking their heads about potential consequences, the most obvious being loss of diversity in the news. From Texas to Maine, journalists have been swallowing professional pride and teaming up with once-staunch rivals. Many of the consortia were formed as newsrooms were gutted by layoffs in 2008. The transitions haven't always been easy.

"Nobody would have considered some of these arrangements a few years back, but times have changed and essentially almost everything is on the table. We may see more of this to come," says Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute. "It's not like there's a fault line where quality papers won't have anything to do with this. There are pretty respectable papers participating."

As the content-sharing trend gains momentum, editors offer a positive spin about a new spirit of cooperation in tough times and an opportunity to expand and improve news menus by swapping stories and photos. For some, concern over the cost of Associated Press content has made pooling resources more palatable.

Case in point: In March, eight of Ohio's largest newspapers agreed to share content on a private Web site after publicly opposing a new AP rate structure. The move was not about cutting back, says Columbus Dispatch Editor Benjamin J. Marrison. "We were determined to figure out how we could help each other maintain and improve quality for our readers with less. We were going to be willing to fail, but we were going to try," says the editor, who has been a driving force behind the cooperative. "So far, it has worked extremely well."

The Ohio Newspaper Organization, or OHNO, was an outgrowth of the collaboration among the Dispatch, the Akron Beacon Journal, Cleveland's Plain Dealer, Toledo's Blade, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Dayton Daily News, Youngstown's Vindicator and Canton's Repository. OHNO tested the approach by sponsoring three statewide presidential polls during the 2008 campaign. Cost was based on each newspaper's circulation and, according to editors, the experiment turned out to be a win-win situation.

"Could we afford to do this alone? No, we couldn't," says Bruce Winges, editor of the Beacon Journal. "The reader wins here."

On April 20, Ted Diadiun, reader representative for the Plain Dealer, posted a column explaining why his paper was joining forces with seven others. His words would resonate in many newsrooms: "It took a bit of doing because the competitive instinct is in every good journalist's DNA," he wrote. "And most of us would swallow our notebooks before we'd share what's in them with another reporter."

Among the ground rules: The papers would post stories from their front pages, metro covers and business fronts to share. Each newspaper would get credit for its own work. Budgets also would be posted so each member could know what the other was doing that day. A question arose early in the process: Could editors take an idea someone else posted and do their own version of the story?

"We agreed we could withhold any story we wanted. That hasn't happened often, or it would defeat the purpose," Marrison says. "Or we could call and say, 'I've got a story you want, but I'm not posting it unless you promise you're not going to chase it.' "

At first, editors were purposefully vague with the budgets they shared. "Early on we held things back. Now, we're not holding anything back, at least not anything I can think of," Marrison says. There are plans to expand the trading to include features material, such as food and travel content.

According to Winges, Ohio's geography facilitates sharing; most of the newspapers are not in direct competition. Toledo and Youngstown are at opposite ends of the state. Those like the Repository, Beacon Journal and Plain Dealer, which are in close proximity, can choose not to share daily content with one another.

It is a different story in Florida and Texas, where fierce rivalries involving the papers now sharing content have been a hallmark of the newspaper scene for decades. Dallas Morning News Editor Bob Mong and his counterpart at the nearby Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Jim Witt, have been charged with creating a collaborative arrangement that saves money but doesn't dilute the identities of the two newspapers, which both have strong sports departments and claims to the Dallas Cowboys. Sometimes, avoiding bruised egos is part of the juggling act.

"Eighty percent of the people in our market care about the Cowboys," Mong says. "The Star-Telegram has an outstanding sports department, too, so we're taking it a little slower. Both sports editors are quite good and take a lot of pride in their coverage." The papers will share photos of Cowboys games, but each continues to do its own reporting.

The swapping began in November with photographs and arts and entertainment reviews. The two papers sometimes run the same reviews of cultural events. McClatchy's Star-Telegram doesn't have a classical music critic on staff, but the Belo-owned Morning News does. In visual arts, it is the reverse: The Morning News lacks a staff critic, while the Star-Telegram has one.

Figuring out what is to be shared from other beats, such as business news, features and police reporting, is "at a delicate stage. This is not something that historically we have done. We're easing into it," says Mong, who wrote a note to his staff outlining the reasons for the collaboration. He listed saving money and freeing valuable resources in each newsroom as chief reasons and promised the move would not dilute the paper's "powerful brand."

"Reactions were mixed," Mong says. "I wouldn't say people were jumping up and down about this. Some can see it makes sense; some are skeptical and ask good questions... We're trying to do it in a way that respects the cultures of the two newspapers."

G eorge Bennett, the Palm Beach Post's preeminent political writer, says it felt "strange and odd" the first time he saw his byline in the rival Sun-Sentinel. His December 4 report covered the GOP snubbing the son of an ex-Ku Klux Klan wizard who had been elected to a local party post. According to the content-sharing agreement among the three South Florida papers, that kind of news story is fair game. Bennett's high-profile political insider's column is off-limits.

Bennett says not much surprises him anymore. "I have experienced more changes in these 12 months or so than in all the previous years I have been a reporter, so it's like change has become the norm," says the journalist, who has worked at the Cox-owned Palm Beach Post for 16 years.

Deciding what will or won't be shared is a challenging part of the collaborative process. Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of McClatchy's Miami Herald, says he would not like to wake up one morning and see his popular humor columnist, Dave Barry, in the Sun-Sentinel. There are rules in place to prevent that.

"We're not picking up franchise material. That's the understanding we had. If it defines the paper's personality, then that's not supposed to be part of this," Gyllenhaal says. To preserve that competition, the three papers have agreed not to take stories from one another's Web sites and post them on their own immediately after the story debuts, except in cases in which they have agreed to share material.

However, they can run the story in the paper the next day and post it on their Web sites after it appears in the print product. A coordinator at each newspaper oversees the process. Fair game for sharing: local news, courts, government affairs, political reporting and entertainment. The Spanish versions of each paper are also part of the exchange. Off-limits: investigative series, other major enterprise stories and columns.

"We're very respectful of each other, so it has worked very well," Gyllenhaal says.

The shift in mentality did not come overnight for three papers that have been trying to scoop one another for the better part of a century. "It's pretty hard then to turn around and say, 'How can we help you? How can we give you our stuff?'" Gyllenhaal says. "The question is: How do we remain competitors but also support one another at a time when we are looking for all the ways to extend our reach?"

So far, swapping among the three papers has mostly involved routine stories that end up inside, not on page one. With staffs shrinking, freeing up reporters to work on enterprise and investigative reports was part of the rationale for collaboration. Earl Maucker, editor of the Tribune Co.-owned Sun-Sentinel, sees a greater opportunity to trade photographs and reviews. "We are doing some of that, but we could be doing more," he says.

Selling some of his journalists on information-sharing has been a challenge. During a newsroom meeting in December, one reporter told the group he feared the newspaper was going down a slippery slope. How does Maucker deal with the discontent? "Some of the staff don't like it at all," he says. "We tell them about the reality of what we're faced with. In this economic climate, isn't it smarter to look for ways to better use our resources than to give up coverage? They need to be mindful of how we can best serve the readers."

Post Editor John Bartosek doesn't view the Sun-Sentinel and Herald as his main competitors; rather, he sees newspapers going up against Web sites and other entities that eat up readers' time. The financial challenges have "given all of us a new appreciation for the benefits and flexibility of sharing copy," he says. "Even if the economic situation does improve, I don't think it would spell the end of this. It's ultimately good."

While news managers at the South Florida papers still are ironing out the kinks, five New Hampshire dailies are participating in a swap of statewide news that began in 1993. Back then, technology was so limited that stories literally had to be retyped from one paper to another. "We're still not very sophisticated," says David Solomon, vice president for news at the Telegraph in Nashua, a 27,000-circulation paper that led the pioneering effort. "We just e-mail our newsroom budgets back and forth every day. It's different for us than the Florida papers we are not in direct competition with each other."

Solomon says the arrangement came about because the papers wanted to improve the quality and breadth of their state reporting. The group includes five of the state's seven dailies: the Telegraph, the Concord Monitor, the Portsmouth Herald, the Valley News in West Lebanon and the Keene Sentinel.

Like some of the others who have joined in content sharing, the Telegraph is in the process of terminating its AP contract, which will save about $131,000 per year. "The price does not correlate with the amount of syndicated material we actually use. We have gone to an intensely local model at our news-paper," Solomon says. "I don't think [content sharing] is a big part of the roadway to the future. It's just a modest way to enhance state coverage and keep costs down."

Greater emphasis on local news also was a factor when Maine's five largest dailies joined forces in September. It was a matter of triage, says Rex Rhoades, executive editor of Lewiston's Sun Journal, circulation 30,000. Others in the group include Augusta's Kennebec Journal, the Bangor Daily News, the Portland Press Herald/Sunday Telegram and Waterville's Morning Sentinel.

"I found myself wondering why I was laying off reporters and paying $136,000 a year to AP. We are a small market; I could hire three or four reporters for that," says Rhoades, who has given the AP the required two years' cancellation notice. "We feel we are getting better and more timely stories from around Maine by sharing what we produce ourselves."

I t's not hard to understand why news managers like Rhoades find story-sharing arrangements a blessing in troubled times. But not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. Some media experts view cutting back on competition as an affront to a time-honored journalistic concept: the free marketplace of ideas. Is the public well served when the multiplicity of voices is curbed, especially in highly competitive media markets? Some readers already have expressed concern.

In November, Florida State Sen. Dan Gelber was taken aback when he saw a story by two St. Petersburg Times reporters about the governor's plan to increase tuition at state colleges on the front page of the Miami Herald. The story marked the consolidation of the Tallahassee bureaus for the two newspapers, another revenue-saving strategy.

Gelber posted a commentary on his blog under the title " Birth of an uber-bureau" and noted that it is even more important to have a dynamic and competitive press in difficult times.

"We do need more eyes looking over our shoulders as we cut billions from our state's budget. Remember, governance and civic responsibility are shortchanged when the public lacks sufficient information to allow them to properly engage these issues," wrote Gelber, a Democrat. The senator ended his piece by stressing the importance of keeping an eye on how this experiment unfolds "because keeping a vibrant press corps in our state's capitol is crucial."

When the Dallas and Fort Worth papers announced collaboration on culture and the arts, Jerry Russell, director of a Fort Worth theater group, argued that reviewers can't eliminate their personal bias from what they write and that a single voice wasn't good enough. "None of us want the newspapers to fold, but to narrow things to one viewpoint, that's deadly," Russell was quoted as saying on artandseek.org.

Media analyst Mutter expresses similar concerns. In his view, a newspaper's primary value is the unique coverage, analysis, context and perspective it provides. "If you take that away, it's just a compilation of yesterday's news printed tomorrow," Mutter says. "It concerns me that the number of feet on the ground is being reduced, that there are fewer eyes and ears. If you have one person covering the zoning board and they don't spot a story, nobody will know about it."

First Amendment expert Paul McMasters takes the debate a step further. He doesn't see how the credibility of the press can avoid being hurt when sharing replaces competition. "Those [kinds of issues] have dire consequences for the quality of our democracy," says McMasters, a former newspaper editor and former First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum.

He worries that newsroom buyouts and layoffs could reduce "in a very frightening way" the ability of the media to provide the public information it needs to make informed decisions. "An uninformed public cannot effectively exercise its First Amendment rights," McMasters warns.

Charles D. Tobin, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who specializes in First Amendment issues, reasons that desperate times call for creative measures. And while there could be a constriction in the marketplace of ideas for a time, "If that happens, we hope it's temporary. The First Amendment is served best by a multiplicity of voices," Tobin says. But at the moment, "If we can keep as many speakers as possible in business by combining their voices, then the public is best served."

Poynter's Edmonds recalls a more profitable era, when the three South Florida papers invaded one another's territory and duked it out for circulation and advertising revenue. He predicts that a year or two from now more papers will be sharing an even broader range of content. "It's no longer going to be that we have to put our stamp on it and have [copy] 100 percent originated in-house," he says.

It's exactly that thought that worries Boca Raton News Editor John Johnston, who fears being swallowed up by larger newspapers joining forces in his bailiwick.

Johnston felt so strongly about the collusion among the three South Florida dailies that he considered bringing it to the attention of federal antitrust regulators. When he called the Newspaper Association of America for advice, he was referred to the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, passed by Congress to authorize formation of joint operating agreements among competing newspapers within the same market. Some of the goals sound familiar: preserving multiple editorial voices and helping the survival of daily newspapers in the face of declining circulation.

Johnston argues that in Florida, "This has gone so far beyond JOAs. I don't think this is what the writers of those rules had in mind." He believes the agreement among the three newspapers has created an information monopoly that could stifle media competition in that part of the state.

NAA chief legal officer Rene Milam says such cases are complicated. Whether there is an antitrust violation would depend on the nature of the content-sharing agreement, she says, adding, "It really depends on how the agreement was structured. I am sure [the newspapers] vetted this through their lawyers."

To prove a point about the diluted media market in his area, Johnston described his shock at learning that the byline of the Palm Beach Post's Bennett appeared on a story in Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel. "That is the equivalent of Walter Cronkite sitting next to David Brinkley or Babe Ruth playing for the Dodgers," he says. "The name Palm Beach Post and George Bennett are synonymous."

Johnston worries that in the effort to save larger news-papers, smaller ones such as the Boca Raton News won't be able to hang on. He has turned to hyperlocal news that otherwise might go uncovered, such as the activities of civic, social and fraternal organizations, nonprofits and philanthropic efforts. The paper also has what Johnston describes as a "vibrant" society section.

"Companies that don't know how to reinvent themselves die," he says. "That's the state the media industry is in right now."

A nd that's exactly what editors are doing today scrambling to find new models of collecting and delivering information that grab the public's interest and make money. Some are looking for alternatives to the AP to save money, such as the New York Times News Service or Politico, a Web site that provides politics content in exchange for the right to sell ads that accompany it. Politico and the newspaper split the profits.

Across the country, newspapers are uniting to survive.

In November, the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times announced the combination of their highly competitive Tallahassee staffs into a single bureau to expand coverage of Florida government, politics and issues of statewide importance. The bureau chiefs from each paper take turns being in charge. Times Executive Editor Neil Brown called it a move to "create a journalistic powerhouse."

In December, the Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, the Post and Florida International University announced the creation of South Florida News Service, with articles to be produced by FIU journalism students under the direction of their professors. The move would boost local coverage without affecting budgets.

In a column for the October 2008 edition of the New England Press Association Bulletin, Nashua Editor Solomon suggested the region's large dailies pool their professional sports coverage and syndicate it for smaller players. "It won't be easy, and there are many unanswered questions, but life is possible without the Associated Press, and the potential savings are too good to overlook as journalism retools in the digital age," wrote Solomon.

Dean Miller, executive editor of the Post Register, an independently owned, 25,000-circulation daily in Idaho Falls, Idaho, has given notice that the paper plans to drop the AP, which consumes $112,000 of his $1.4 million annual budget. He's trying to work out content sharing with other papers, such as the Lewiston Morning Tribune, and the Coeur d'Alene Press, to fill the gap for statewide news. "We are in the talking stage," he says.

In late December, the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, longtime rivals in covering Maryland news, announced they would begin trading stories and photos to conserve resources. In a December 24 Baltimore Sun story, editors stressed that they would still compete on coverage of state government and other topics, such as University of Maryland sports. But the papers will share some suburban, national and foreign stories.

Even investigative reporting is not off-limits. After McClatchy, which already owned Raleigh's News & Observer, acquired the Charlotte Observer in 2006, the state's two largest and most competitive dailies merged their capital bureaus and sports staffs and began running each other's top investigative reports.

Gary Schwab, who for seven years directed the Charlotte Observer's investigative reporting, wrote a piece for the Fall 2008 Nieman Reports exploring what happens when fierce competitors join the same team. The psychological switch did not come easily for Schwab and his counterpart at the Raleigh paper, Steve Riley. Telling each other what they were working on "was like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox exchanging strategies for an upcoming three-game series in the midst of a heated pennant race," Schwab wrote.

From the beginning, there were steadfast rules: When one paper hears what the other is working on, it can't go out and do its own two-day version of the story. Each newspaper must run the investigative pieces as prominently as if their own staff produced them.

In February 2008, the Charlotte paper produced a six-part series, "The Cruelest Cuts," examining the human cost of bringing poultry to the dinner table. It showed how one large North Carolina company masked the extent of workplace injuries.

That month, the N&O began a five-part series on the state's failure to reform mental health services, wasting at least $400 million on ill-conceived and poorly executed plans. The two papers showcased both series.

Schwab concluded that readers were better served when one newspaper handles an assignment for both. "This arrangement frees other reporters' time for other enterprise and watchdog work," he wrote in the Nieman piece. Legislators vowed reform in response to both investigative series. U.S. Senate and House committees held hearings to focus on work safety in response to the poultry stories.

Schwab points out that the papers don't always agree on reporting standards. In the poultry series, Raleigh editors decided not to run some information the Charlotte paper published and attributed to unnamed sources. In a Raleigh series on the University of Duke lacrosse rape allegations (see "Justice Delayed," August/September 2007), the Charlotte paper chose not to include some graphic details of the investigation.

When Schwab asked News & Observer Executive Editor John Drescher about the advantages of the papers collaborating, Drescher admitted that at first it seemed strange, but then a heavy dose of reality sunk in. "Faced with the thought of cooperating with The Charlotte Observer, a lot of the staff really recoiled. But I think our folks realized that The Charlotte Observer isn't the competitor anymore," Drescher responded. "Our competitors are everybody else... We're not going to lose this game to The Charlotte Observer. If we're going to lose, it's to some upstart Web site."

Senior contributing editor Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) wrote about coverage of the war in Afghanistan in AJR's October/November issue.

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