COLLABORATE OR DIE?
Local TV stations are joining forces to cover the news
It’s grim out there. So many people have lost their
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 fulltime 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
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—NewYork, 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
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
how much money they hope to save. It may also be safer to
have 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. Otherwise, the news service just
becomes a cheaper way to feed the beast.
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
strong, loyal viewers,” Dennis Leonard, general manager of
Denver stations, said in a press release. “We will take the
of both newscasts and repackage it for each station.”
Repackaged news isn’t just a local TV product. It’s
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 that 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
These new collaborations are springing up as the appeal of
TV-newspaper convergence, a growing trend a few years ago,
appears to be fading. 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 newspapers
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
work at the local level. And merged television newsrooms
will at least understand each other 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.
Originally published in American
Journalism Review, February-March 2009