In Depth

Combined Newsrooms a Sign of the Times

By Hillary Atkin

It’s a sign of the constantly shifting media landscape — television and print newsrooms in several major markets are being combined, led by Tribune Co., with merger operations either under way or scheduled soon in Los Angeles; Chicago; Hartford, Conn.; and Miami/Fort Lauderdale.

It’s the beginning of a new business model. Even as some stations across the country are shuttering their news departments entirely, many others are adding even more news. The average network television affiliate has on about 4.5 hours of news a day, even as station revenue is down 20 percent to 30 percent this year due to the severe reduction of advertising dollars.

At the same time, even with staff cutbacks, stations are beefing up their Web sites to become 24/7 sources of news. Something’s got to give, and for Tribune, which owns highly respected papers like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as local stations KTLA-TV and WGN-TV in those markets, the answer is fusing its newsrooms.

In Chicago, there’s a breaking news desk in the Chicago Tribune that serves WGN Radio, WGN-TV, CLTV and the newspaper. It’s a shared assignment desk and shared Web sites, with the entities starting to combine reporting talent, and very much acting as one newsroom.

“They are not economic decisions. These are decisions to be a smart content provider, and to continue to reinvent how we deliver our content,” said Steve Charlier, senior VP of news and operations for Tribune Broadcasting.

“If you have multiple properties in a market turning variations of stories, why not get together and share information to provide it in the best way? I have content that belongs on the iPhone, on cable or an over-the-air channel or in a newspaper, and I have content that belongs on your laptop,” Charlier said. “You take a great in-depth newspaper story combined with video so it’s not limited to the person getting it on their front porch. It hits five or six delivery methods. It’s ridiculous not to work together to provide content.”

Although many critics and academics argue that the merger decisions are based on the simple economics of doing more with less and surviving in a bad economy, some do see benefits — and that it makes sense for newspapers to collaborate with TV stations rather than trying to start their own video units from scratch.

“One upside of merged newsrooms is those print journalists who do what they do best can now collaborate with those on the broadcast side, and pool the talents of their newsroom to do multiplatform journalism,” said Geneva Overholser, director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism in Los Angeles. “Merging enables everyone to do what they do best and tell stories in a lot of different ways, with photos, video and sound. You bring talent together and tell one story, using talent who have deep expertise.”

Tribune properties have been sharing content for about five years now, with endeavors such as L.A. Times reporters appearing on KTLA’s news, but physically having one newsroom for TV, print and online — as Tribune did with Fort Lauderdale’s WSFL-TV moving into its South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper offices — is what’s new.

WSFL, a CW affiliate, did not have a news department, but now it has four hours of morning news a day. The newspaper’s columnists and reporters appear on the program, either on set or on location, or from home by Web cam. The paper’s 11 photographers were trained to shoot video.

“For the TV station, it’s a treasure trove of reporting being done by newspaper people,” said Bob Gremillion, who, as Tribune’s executive vice president for publishing, oversees the operation. "There are more than 100 people, with a huge archive at our fingertips that provides a great source of information in ways other than extra video and reporting. As a TV station we could never afford to do this without being integrated into the Sun-Sentinel.”

Depending on the success and growth of its morning show — which launched in April and is doing well but faces stiff competition in the market from Univision, Telemundo and the network affiliates — an evening newscast may be added.

The operation’s sales team sells integrated advertising packages across media platforms. “Clients want solutions, and return on investment, and we’ve been able to offer that in a way no one in the market can,” said Howard Greenberg, Sun-Sentinel president and publisher and WSFL’s general manager. “We bring in new money by offering the opportunity to mix platform sales in one package. It’s all about package selling, not rates, not spot buys.”

“Whenever we talk about a change in media, it’s not always about cost-cutting,” Charlier said. “We have to stop thinking about that and that the industry is changing and consumers are changing. There’s been more change in the past two years than the past two decades.”

In another sign of the times, Cox Enterprises recently restructured its radio, television and newspaper division into a single unit, now called Cox Media Group. “Sharing expertise and best practices across all of our media properties allows us to better serve consumers and advertisers in our changing environment,” said Sandy Schwartz, president of Cox Media Group.