Collaborate or Die?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    BROADCAST VIEWS    
From AJR,   February/March 2009

Collaborate or Die?   

Local TV stations are joining forces to cover the news.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     


It's grim out there. So many people have lost their jobs in television newsrooms that it's a wonder any news gets on the air. Everyone's working harder and trying to do more with less, but if stations are going to keep cranking out as many newscasts as they do now, something else has to give. One answer may be a new trend toward collaboration that's already changing how local news is produced.

The worsening recession put most TV stations in a terrible bind. They slashed payrolls by dumping staff, from highly paid veteran anchors to recently hired reporters, photojournalists and producers. But very few decided to drop newscasts, because the loss of commercial inventory would be devastating. Even in a downturn, news program advertising generates most of a local station's income.

So as staffs shrank, the number of local newscasts actually went up slightly, according to the latest RTNDA/Hofstra University survey of television news managers. That leaves many stations trying to produce more news with fewer full-time people.

"I suspect that most stations are going to get by rerunning material [and using] heavy overtime and a lot of freelancers," says Hofstra's Bob Papper, author of the annual survey. "We'll see how long that can last."

That's not the only option. Fox and NBC already partners at Hulu.com, the free online video service that features hit TV shows are now joining forces in local news. Their owned-and-operated stations in Philadelphia are sharing video, and the companies expect to put a similar arrangement in place this year in five other markets where both own stations New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Washington.

The Philadelphia news service is staffed by Fox and NBC employees but operates independently, covering scheduled events and breaking news. Instead of each station sending a crew to a news conference or a house fire, the news service sends one crew to feed the same video to both stations.

Obviously it's cheaper, although the companies won't say how much money they hope to save. It may also be safer to have just one news service helicopter hovering over a murder scene. In Phoenix in 2007, a midair collision between two TV news choppers tracking a police chase killed both pilots and the two photojournalists on board.

What does the audience gain? "Cutting redundant expenses at each station will help make our product more robust," says Sharri Berg, senior vice president of news operations for Fox Television Stations. "Our people will be out covering specialized content."

If pooling resources for routine stories will allow more enterprise reporting, the result could be more distinctive newscasts, but only if there are enough experienced journalists left on staff to cover stories in depth.

Two other station groups are trying an even more radical approach to cut costs. In St. Louis and Denver, Tribune Co. and Local TV LLC/Oak Hill Capital will combine their newsrooms while continuing to serve separate channels.

The Tribune station in St. Louis, a CW affiliate, moved its evening newscast to 7 p.m. to avoid competing with its new partner, a Fox affiliate with news at 9. In Denver, the stations still go head-to-head in the morning. "Both of the stations have strong, loyal viewers," Dennis Leonard, general manager of the Denver stations, said in a press release. "We will take the best of both newscasts and repackage it for each station."

Repackaged news isn't just a local TV product. It's cropping up at the networks, too, as they look for ways to get more bang for the buck. CBS News plans to expand its partnership with BusinessWeek, which produced five health-related stories last year, in essence repackaging the same content for television and the magazine. CBS President Sean McManus touted the deal as an opportunity "to offer even greater depth and breadth" on the air, but it's bound to be a money-saver, too.

These collaborations are springing up as TV-newspaper convergence, a growing trend a few years ago, appears to be fading. (Content sharing among newspapers, however, is on the rise. See "Share and Share Alike," page 28.) According to a recent survey of newspaper editors, the number of cross-media partnerships has grown only slightly since 2004.

That's largely because of the Web, says study coauthor Larry Dailey of the University of Nevada, Reno. Most news-papers now shoot their own video and post it online. "If they see partnerships as only about learning each other's technology, you have to question the need to have the partnership continue," Dailey says.

It's an even bet whether any of the new collaborations will be more successful in the long term, but they do have a few things in their favor. Video sharing has been practiced for decades at the networks, so there's no reason to believe it won't work at the local level. And merged television newsrooms will at least understand one another better than they ever could a print partner.

These new alliances may not save local TV news, but they could keep some newsrooms afloat long enough to reinvent what they do and how they do it.

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