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Journalism’s Future May Start in Tampa

Times Staff Writer

In this sunny Gulf Coast city, photographers for the Tampa Tribune lug both still and video camera equipment to all assignments. That’s because they’re also working for a local TV station, WFLA Channel 8.

Extra sweat notwithstanding, the arrangement usually pans out -- though a newspaper photographer once didn’t have time to switch cameras while shooting TV footage of a bank robbery in which a police officer was killed, and the paper was left with only a grainy video frame shot of the scene on Page 1.

So the journalistic future is still ironing out the kinks, even as the Federal Communications Commission considers a rules change that could make such collaborations routine.

The Tampa paper hasn’t won a Pulitzer Prize in nearly 40 years, has a relatively modest circulation of 238,176 and often scrambles to keep up with a bigger rival across the bay. But by pushing the “convergence” envelope, it has become one of the world’s most closely watched publications.

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A steady stream of law- makers, professors, regulators and media executives pours through its slick concrete-and-glass newsroom each week, to glimpse a world in which the oil and water of television and print journalism are thoroughly mixed.

Three years ago, Richmond, Va.-based Media General Inc., the Tribune’s parent, spent $50 million on a bold experiment to combine its Tampa paper with WFLA, its local TV station. The marriage, permitted under a regulatory exemption, marked the first attempt to put a co-owned newspaper and station under one roof.

As the FCC reviews a 1975 rule that usually prevents companies from owning a newspaper and TV station in the same market, the Tribune-WFLA combination has emerged as a test of what may become the media industry’s next wave of mergers. The FCC is expected to vote June 2 on this and other media ownership rules. The agency’s three majority Republican commissioners, two of whom have toured the Tampa facility, favor permitting newspaper-television matchups in all but the smallest U.S. markets, sources said.

The deregulation is likely to spur a race by owners of newspapers and TV stations, including New York Times Co., Belo Corp., Hearst-Argyle Television Inc. and Gannett Co., to buy one another or make strategic trades, enabling them to follow Tampa’s example in search of greater cost efficiencies, advantages with advertisers or even new journalistic forms.

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“That’s going to open the door for more combinations,” said newspaper analyst John Morton. “But the idea of TV and newspapers collaborating is still a recent phenomenon. We don’t know how it will work.”

In Tampa and other cities, co-ownership has been allowed because a single company already held a station and newspaper when the ban was imposed.

In Los Angeles, Chicago-based Tribune Co. owns both the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV Channel 5 -- which share resources on a fairly limited basis -- under an arrangement that is permitted until the station’s next license renewal in 2006.

The Chicago company has been lobbying to end the co-ownership ban.

“The rule is an impediment to our growth,” said Tribune lobbyist Shaun Sheehan, who contends that the company needs cross-ownership to remain competitive. “There’s a migration of audience away from the traditional media of print and broadcast. We are trying to refocus our thinking.”

So far, the Tampa experiment promises less than a revolution. To the chagrin of numbers crunchers, the combination hasn’t yielded big savings: Budgets and staffing levels for the paper and TV station are about the same as before, executives said. And cross-platform advertising deals added just 2% to the Tribune’s revenue last year.

At the same time, dreams of creating a new-style “multimedia reporter,” adept at both television and newspapers, have fallen flat. After three years, only one print reporter regularly produces stories for the TV station, the top-rated in the market.

Tampa Tribune managers point to pluses for their paper.

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“Being with TV, you have to move faster. We’re quicker. We’re more visual,” said Tribune Executive Editor Gil Thelen, whom many credit with deftly navigating the experiment. “We moved from being a mediocre paper to one that is good.”

Yet media watchdogs are nervous.

“Convergence may be good for media companies, but it’s bad for journalism,” said Robert Haiman, president emeritus of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, who has been a Tampa Tribune consultant and was once executive editor of the rival St. Petersburg Times.

Without the cross-ownership ban, experts worry that newspapers would fall under the influence of large TV station groups or media conglomerates, such as AOL Time Warner Inc., Viacom Inc. or News Corp., which might emphasize entertainment and profit over journalism and community service.

Haiman says newspapers and TV stations have long had distinct work cultures and warns that mergers would distract newspapers from their journalistic rigor and investigative work.

“It may help the TV station, but the newspaper is diminished,” he said.

Local journalism professors say they see little change in the Tribune, for better or worse.

“They put some things in motion in the beginning, but they’ve had to slow down a lot,” said Ken Killebrew, a University of South Florida journalism professor who is writing a book on convergence.

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Indeed, the Tribune’s circulation is about the same as it was when the experiment began in February 2000, while the St. Petersburg Times -- which is skeptical of convergence -- widened its lead by more than 11,000 to 354,869 during the same period, according to figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

“I’m quite a doubter on the advantages” of joint ownership, said Andrew Barnes, chairman of the St. Petersburg paper. “We find we can keep our people fully occupied just tracking down the news and writing it well.”

Over in Tampa, Tribune journalists describe an experience that has been by turns exhilarating, frustrating and occasionally troubling -- as when TV writer Walt Belcher was told to stop writing about local TV news immediately after his newspaper moved in with WFLA, to avoid perceived conflicts. Belcher has resumed coverage but acknowledges softening his criticism of other stations lest he seem to be favoring WFLA. “It’s self-censorship,” he said.

Inside the print-broadcast facility, a central hub is the convergence desk, which includes staff from the newspaper, TV station and a jointly run Web site. All three send representatives to one another’s daily meetings.

When the consolidated newsroom opened, convergence advocates predicted that the setup would allow the TV station and newspaper to team on stories, each covering different angles and then swapping work so both got twice as much.

Critics feared the real agenda was eventually to send just one reporter and lay off the other.

In fact, neither appears to have occurred. Frequently, editors have found that the newspaper and station simply aren’t interested in the same stories. And when big stories break, each side still sends its own reporter.

“We quickly learned that you can’t just use the same story on TV and in the newspaper,” said Allyn Divito, a photo editor who is now part of a growing infrastructure of editors and managers devoted entirely to making convergence work.

One area, sports, is now being managed jointly. Tribune Sports Editor Rick “Duke” Maas was recently appointed to also oversee WFLA’s sports coverage, creating one of the country’s first newspaper-TV editing jobs.

By and large, however, the newsroom matchup has meant sharing tips and story ideas, cross-promoting each other’s product and featuring the newspaper’s reporters on TV.

Only a few reporters produce stories that cross boundaries. The TV station’s weatherman, for instance, provides a map for the paper, and its consumer watchdog writes a column. The newspaper’s business reporters routinely tape a one-minute summary of their top stories.

Despite training sessions, many print reporters found themselves sweating, stuttering and freezing before the camera.

“It was a disaster,” said Keith Morelli, the paper’s police reporter. “They tell you, ‘Don’t worry. It’s only a two-minute interview.’ Well, it’s a long two minutes.”

Many reporters resent not being paid extra for TV work and say even a quick TV interview detracts from reporting time.

“In the beginning, it took me 20 hours to produce a two-minute segment,” said Michelle Bearden, the Tribune’s religion writer and the only newspaper reporter who regularly produces TV stories. “But now, of course, it’s second nature.”

The writer has been pleased with her experience overall. She says that TV work has forced her to meet sources in person and that the wider exposure has meant more story tips.

“It’s re-energized me as a journalist,” Bearden said.

Most Tribune staffers, in fact, talk less of radical changes than of simple pros and cons. Morelli says he no longer remains chained to the police scanner because the TV station agreed to monitor it. But he resented having to share his exclusive interview with the parents of a serial killer when WFLA saw his story on a shared list and scooped him on the evening news.

Also, Morelli says, the paper seems to be running more “TV stories,” such as big traffic jams or car wrecks -- a shift he attributes to the partnership.

Indeed, some in the newsroom worry that the TV hookup has threatened the paper’s reputation for seriousness. Tribune journalists were embarrassed by WFLA’s launch of “Daytime Show,” an advertising program that features plugs from product sponsors and car dealers, presented in an interview format. The paper resisted attempts to put its writers on the show.

For some, the experiment proved too much. Former Tribune Assistant Managing Editor Patti Breckenridge is a believer in convergence, but she quit two years ago after concluding that the paper was losing its commitment to readers.

“Convergence is like the atom,” said Breckenridge, now a recruiter at a supermarket chain. “You can turn it into nuclear power or you can turn it into a bomb. That’s what scares me.”

Many point to Canada, with its different regulatory landscape, for examples of TV-newspaper combinations gone bad. In 2001, for instance, TV station giant CanWest Global Communications bought one of the nation’s largest newspaper chains and started imposing rules that required all papers to carry the same editorials. The company backed down after several top-level editors resigned in protest and complained that the new owners were meddling in local coverage.

The Tampa Tribune’s Thelen, who will soon add duties as acting publisher, has been praised for avoiding a similar journalistic meltdown.

“In Tampa, they’ve been light-handed when it comes to cracking the whip,” said Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the watchdog Consumers Union. “What I worry about is what happens after the rule goes away and nobody’s watching anymore.”

Thelen maintains that convergence will actually make for better newspapers. Yet even he concedes that the potential for abuse is real.

“This requires hard, patient work,” he said. “If you’re looking for shortcuts, you’re going to get lousy journalism.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Dual ownership

Here is a sampling of markets in which one company owns both a newspaper and a TV station (listed alphabetically):

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Atlanta

Company: Cox Enterprises

Newspaper: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

TV station: WSB (ABC)

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Chicago

Company: Tribune

Newspaper: Chicago Tribune

TV station: WGN (WB)

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Dallas

Company: Belo

Newspaper: Dallas Morning News

TV station: WFAA (ABC)

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Fargo, N.D.

Company: Forum Communications

Newspaper: Fargo Forum

TV station: WDAY (ABC)

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Hartford, Conn.

Company: Tribune

Newspaper: Hartford Courant

TV stations: WTIC (Fox) and WTXX (WB)

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Los Angeles

Company: Tribune

Newspaper: Los Angeles Times

TV station: KTLA (WB)

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Milwaukee

Company: Journal Communications

Newspaper: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

TV station: WTMJ (NBC)

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New York

Company: News Corp.

Newspaper: New York Post

TV station: WNYW (Fox)

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Phoenix

Company: Gannett

Newspaper: Arizona Republic

TV station: KPNX (NBC)

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Tampa, Fla.

Company: Media General

Newspaper: Tampa Tribune

TV station: WFLA (NBC)

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Source: Times research


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