July 17, 2000
Terence Smith takes a look at the new synergy in newsrooms around the country.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
JIM LEHRER: Media Correspondent Terence Smith takes a look at the new togetherness in newsrooms across the country.
NEIL JOHNSON: They'll set up cones, markers, change traffic patterns. You see, most roads handle two-way traffic, obviously.
TERENCE SMITH: Neil Johnson is the environmental reporter for the Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida.
SPOKESPERSON: Are you okay?
NEIL JOHNSON: Yeah, I'm okay.
SPOKESPERSON: Well, you've just got to loosen up. You're fine.
NEIL JOHNSON: Yeah. I'm loose when I'm writing a newspaper story.
|In print, on television and online|
TERENCE SMITH: Johnson has only been on television live once before. He's far more comfortable in front of a computer, where he's been writing for the Tribune for almost 20 years. But today, his work is distributed across three media platforms: Print, television, and the Internet. He and his paper are in the vanguard of a revolution in the news business that some call "convergence." For example, this special hurricane guide, much of it written by Johnson, appeared that same week in a more detailed version on the online site. TV viewers could also tune in to Neil Johnson talking about evacuation routes on a 30-minute hurricane special broadcast on WFLA-TV. Johnson admits that being piped into people's living rooms in living color takes some getting used to. Do you find yourself at ease in front of the camera?
NEIL JOHNSON: Except for the part where my hands sweat, yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: And they do?
NEIL JOHNSON: Oh, yes, definitely.
TERENCE SMITH: There are lots of sweaty palms in this Tampa newsroom, where the Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV, Channel 8, and their online sites have decided to converge. That convergence took place in March, when all three moved in under one glass roof. This $40 million temple to convergence was built by Media General, a Richmond, Virginia based company that owns all three outlets. Dubbed the "Newscenter," the newspaper, broadcast, and online operations are on separate floors, connected by a central atrium. The nerve center is this super desk, where a staffer from each operation sits along with a multimedia editor to bring it all together. They share information and, most importantly, reporters.
GAYLE SIERENS: It was a nightmare. It was a nightmare because it's not what I do.
TERENCE SMITH: Anchorwoman Gayle Sierens' convergence nightmare came when she taped an exclusive interview with a murder suspect. But when her interview was bumped from the broadcast that night, she was asked to break the story instead in the newspaper the next morning.
GAYLE SIERENS: I'd never in my life felt like I scooped myself, but I scooped myself that day. Someone else had my story before I did, in my mind. But then I had to remember that someone else is now us.
|Convergence, the new buzzword|
TERENCE SMITH: "Convergence" is the buzzword in the news business these days. Here in Tampa and across the country, dozens of newspapers, television stations, and cable systems are cooperating rather than competing. They see it as a hedge against declining viewers and readership, and as a way to position themselves for a technological future that they only dimly perceive.
AL TOMPKINS, The Poynter Institute: Television stations look over at their newspaper partners and they say, wow, look at all that content we could have. Let's go get it. Let's do what we have to do so that we can have access to all that content.
TERENCE SMITH: Al Tompkins, a former local television news director, is with the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school and research center for journalists in St. Petersburg.
AL TOMPKINS: One of the secrets of local television is that even a large market, a top ten, top 15 market television station -- which includes substantial cities across America -- it's not uncommon for there only to be eight or ten general assignment reporters out on the street covering the news of the day, eight or ten. In a newspaper of a comparable size city, it wouldn't be uncommon to have 110, 115 reporters on the street.
TERENCE SMITH: The newspaper gains access to television's bigger audience and its cross-promotion.
SPOKESMAN: And don't forget tomorrow's Tampa Tribune.
SPOKESPERSON: Right. Great information in there.
TERENCE SMITH: That's the commercial motivation behind the biggest convergence deal so far, the Tribune Company's recent $6 billion acquisition of the Times Mirror Company. That merger marries 11 newspapers with a circulation of 3.6 million with 22 broadcast TV stations reaching 27% of the country. In smaller markets, the urge to merge is just as great. Denver's KUSA-TV and the Denver Post have hooked up. In Orlando, the Orlando Sentinel and Time Warner's cable channel, Central Florida News, have joined forces. And the list goes on. Besides economics, merger-mania has also been fostered by regulatory changes. In the mid 70's, concerned that media organizations were concentrating too much power in too few hands, the federal government restricted companies from owning the major newspaper and television outlet in the same town. But today, in the age of the Internet, those rules are being relaxed.
AL TOMPKINS: I think that we're going to see a total relaxation almost within the next year of this kind of ownership, because the Internet allows anyone with a $19 Internet connection and a $500/$600 computer, you know, to be a publisher. It used to be you had to have a big giant printing press that cost millions of dollars.
|Drawbacks of media convergence|
TERENCE SMITH: But there are some who worry about the implications of the new trend.
BOB HAIMAN, The Freedom Forum: I actually think that convergence may end up being good for media companies. My fear is that it's going to end up being bad for journalism.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Haiman is a fellow at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center and the former executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times.
BOB HAIMAN: When newspapers and television and the Internet converge, there is going to be a tremendous clash of values -- the journalism values of newspapers, the entertainment values of television, and the no-holds-barred, raw, unedited, anarchic values of the Internet. I worry about which of those three value sets is going to prevail.
TERENCE SMITH: Are you concerned that this will produce a dumbing down of the newspaper and a dulling down of the television product?
GIL THELEN: If we do this badly, that could happen.
TERENCE SMITH: Gil Thelen, the executive editor of the Tampa Tribune, stresses that they are very early on into this experiment.
GIL THELEN: What we're trying to do is follow our readers and viewers who are well in front of us in terms of how they use information. They use radio, they use television, they use online, they use wireless, and we're trying to catch up with them.
TERENCE SMITH: Haiman cautions that by substituting cooperation for competition, convergence could threaten the diversity of media voices.
BOB HAIMAN: You don't have to get very far beyond Political Science 101 to know that a multiplicity of voices always best serves a democracy and an informed public, and these converged companies may intend, they may swear an oath to try to maintain separate, independent reporting energies in the market, but inevitably, I think that's going to be corroded. And it's going to be one operation doing work for all of the various outlets and platforms. That can't be a winner for good journalism.
REPORTER: They are not evacuating homes...
TERENCE SMITH: But better journalism on the broadcast is something assignment editor Doug Anderson says has resulted from WFLA's partnership with the newspaper.
DOUG ANDERSON, Assignment Editor, WFLA-TV: The best thing is research, when we'll be working some, you know, fatal train accident, and they'll quietly come up and say, do you know that there's been three fatal accidents at this intersection since 1996? And we're like, oh, my God, it's a huge story now, it's not just a VO bite. We are so far ahead of our competition with the way we're set up now that it's going to take them a long time to catch up, if they ever can.
TERENCE SMITH: And that set-up came into play during a recent fire in downtown Tampa.
CORRESPONDENT: They're telling us we have Jose Patino of the Tampa Tribune on the line right now. Jose, are you there?
JOSE PATINO: Yes, I am.
CORRESPONDENT: Where are you, and what are you looking at?
JOSE PATINO: Yeah, I'm at the corner of palm avenue and 21st street.
TERENCE SMITH: In addition to their own reporters, WFLA-TV had five Tampa Tribune reporters calling in to give live reports from different locations on the scene.
GIL THELEN: I will tell Chris that we need to modify that language.
TERENCE SMITH: Executive Editor Thelen says the newspaper has also benefited.
GIL THELEN: The newspaper is quicker and more urgent. Because of the energy in this building, because of the lightning reflexes of our partners, we get places faster, get positioned better.
TERENCE SMITH: Thelen says the journalist of the future will be able to work across many media platforms.
GIL THELEN: Being a wonderful storyteller, that's not going to change, but I think that we're going to be attracting and looking for people who really want to learn multiple skills.
TERENCE SMITH: But Bob Haiman cautions against hiring reporters who are more telegenic than substantive.
BOB HAIMAN: Sometimes, though, you have to make a choice, don't you? And if you've got a pretty good reportorial candidate who also looks good and speaks well, and you've got a terrific reportorial candidate, maybe the next David Broder, except his hairline doesn't look very good, I'm afraid they're going to make the wrong choice.
GIL THELEN: What we don't want to do is end up doing mediocre everything; that you end up with multimedia journalists who are middle of the road in print, middle of the road in broadcast, and middle of the road in online. I think that would be a real danger.
TERENCE SMITH: Adrian Phillips, who works in the online arm of this converged Newscenter, is 24 years old and fresh out of journalism school. He provides a glimpse of the convergent future.
ADRIAN PHILLIPS, TBO.com: For me to go from, you know, when I'll do on-air stuff and I'll have to write something in an on-air style, and then to take something that was on air and write it for the print, I mean, it doesn't seem that difficult for me. And I don't know if that's just, you know, our minds are more spongier when we're younger. I don't know what it is.
TERENCE SMITH: Phillips does a regular segment for the morning news called "8:00 On Your Site." And WFLA puts him on the air for chats with the anchors if there's a big computer or Internet story.
ADRIAN PHILLIPS: All right, see if you can find some more information on this.
TERENCE SMITH: And he regularly files stories on the Newscenter's Web sites. The Tampa experiment is being watched closely by other media outlets. Al Tompkins says the jury is still out on the Tampa operation.
AL TOMPKINS: Does this improve journalism, or does this just improve the promotion? Will we be able to see the context that the print reporters will be able to bring to the broadcast, or will we keep seeing, you know, the same kind of drive-by news that television has made its stock and trade? You know, I think there's some evidence that they're trying to get more content in through their newscast, but you almost have to have dog ears to hear the difference right now.
STEVE DeGREGORIO, Multimedia Editor, The Tampa Tribune: Do you have a book that talks about chemicals of any kind?
TERENCE SMITH: Multimedia editor Steve DeGregorio says that is a serious concern.
STEVE DeGREGORIO: The big picture is, we have to find an answer to where we want to go, because otherwise, we're basically cross-promoting each other. How we are going to create new kinds of journalism that impact or serve our communities in ways that we can't do alone?
TERENCE SMITH: Several months into the experiment, management sees signs that convergence may be paying off. WFLA has enjoyed a substantial increase in ratings. The number of visitors to the Web sites has spiked sharply when there's a breaking news story. And the Tampa Tribune's circulation is holding steady.
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