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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

A Promising New Venue   

TV stations and their digital outlets may play a more prominent role in investigative reporting. Mon., August 27, 2012.


By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

When a newspaper opens the drain in its newsroom, where does the journalism talent go? In some cases, it might resurface on the newscasts and digital outlets of TV stations.

While the digital revolution has been disruptive to all forms of traditional media, local broadcasters have generally fared better than newspapers, with many expanding their coverage while the print newshole shrinks.

That appears to be happening in New Orleans, where the iconic Times-Picayune in May announced the layoff of nearly half of its newsroom employees effective September 30. The 84 newsroom layoffs were part of a deep strategic restructuring that will cut the newspaper's print schedule to three days per week and shift its emphasis to online publishing.

Rather than waiting to see how that future unfolds, several journalists chose to move on. Among them were award-winning reporters David Hammer and Brendan McCarthy, who decided to join the investigative team at New Orleans' CBS affiliate, WWL-TV. The station's investigative unit is led by Mike Perlstein, who reported for the Times-Picayune from 1986 to 2006.

Many TV stations have proud histories of investigative journalism and watchdog reporting, but the fundamental differences between print and broadcast storytelling formats have not exactly encouraged crossover. A local TV station hiring three veteran newspaper journalists known for long-form investigative reporting is an intriguing sign of the times.

"In many media markets, and in New Orleans in particular, investigative journalism has become a very competitive arena," Perlstein says. "That's one reason we decided to go after Hammer and McCarthy. Both of them were offered jobs to remain at the paper, but they decided to join me on TV."

It's not clear how many newspaper journalists have been recruited by or defected to TV stations, but there are enough examples to be noticed. In August, Pulitzer-winning Detroit Free Press reporter M.L. Elrick announced his decision to join local Fox affiliate WJBK as an investigative reporter. Elrick will be the second Pulitzer-winning reporter on WJBK's team, joining former New York Times and Detroit News reporter Charlie LeDuff.

TV newsrooms around the country are growing. In 2011, average TV news staffing levels reached a record high, with more growth expected in 2012, according to a survey of 1,200 television stations by the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University. Total newspaper newsroom employment, meanwhile, is at an all-time low, according to the American Society of News Editors. (There are still 40,600 people in newspaper newsrooms compared with 27,700 in TV newsrooms but one figure is rising as the other falls.)

TV stations are using the additional head count to create more news. The same RTDNA/Hofstra University survey reported that a typical local TV station aired 5.5 hours of local news heading into 2012, compared with 4.5 hours in 2009.

As their staffs and capabilities grow, TV stations have the opportunity to use their Web and mobile platforms to cover news differently than they have in the past. High-caliber print reporters on the staffs of TV stations could take that concept of multiplatform reporting to a whole new level given the time and resources to do what they do best.

David Hammer "will bring groundbreaking long-form journalism to our website, while providing informative and innovative reports on our newscasts," said News Director Bill Siegel in a story announcing Hammer's hire on WWLTV.com.

"A news organization's Web site is a critical part of the overall operation," Perlstein says. "When I have a big story, I will write a long Web version in addition to the broadcast story, and will use Twitter, Facebook and other social media to promote all versions of my story before and after publication."

Chip Mahaney, senior director of local operations in the digital department of the E.W. Scripps Co., which owns TV stations in 13 markets plus 14 newspapers across the country, emphasizes original journalism and multiplatform storytelling as winning strategies for his organization. "From a TV perspective, we need to get beyond the 90-second package.... Our immediate opportunities come from better-written and more in-depth text stories, more creative uses of video, embracing still photography and from choosing to cover stories of importance and interest that our competitors won't cover."

Nobody thinks the gutting of the Times-Picayune is good for New Orleans. Nor is it realistic to expect that any amount of shifting and expanding on the part of the city's other traditional and independent news outlets will completely fill the void.

But the old model of local journalism, with a newspaper at the center and other media outlets orbiting around it, is changing. It's encouraging to consider that some of the quality journalism being drained from print newsrooms might reappear perhaps in a slightly different form in other places.