Wednesday, August 5, 2009

As Local Sharing Progresses, New Concerns Emerge

By Hillary Atkin
TV Week

New. Experimental. Here to Stay?

That would be the tease for the rapidly spreading practice of fiercely competitive television stations joining to pool their resources as a way to reduce costs and expand coverage.

The pooling of broadcast news video, also known as local news sharing (LNS), is a concept that has caught fire in recent months—but not without controversy—and is under way in several dozen markets, including all five of the nation’s largest DMAs.

“In these challenging economic times, we began discussions on how to be more efficient,” said Sharri Berg, senior VP of news operations for Fox Television Stations, which has 12 of its stations participating with local competitors in news-pooling arrangements. “The result was not only cost efficiency, but this gave us flexibility in directing our own unilateral resources. If we’re covering a local news conference, if a station wants to send a reporter, it’s their choice. LNS in no way constrains or dictates, but in fact gives stations more options.”

Many major station groups are taking part, including stations affiliated with and/or owned by the NBC Television Network, Tribune Broadcasting, Gannett Broadcasting, CBS Broadcasting, Scripps Television Station Group, McGraw-Hill Broadcasting and Sinclair Broadcast Group.

The practice is not without critics, however, who argue that it decreases competition, costs jobs, blurs the individuality of stations and limits the ability to cover stories.

There’s no question about the financial benefits, however. “We’ve got to be smarter businessmen,” said Steve Charlier, senior VP of news and operations at Tribune Broadcasting stations. “Our goal was to operate efficiently and improve content, and be able to grow, to put more bodies in the street, and have more content.”

The practice of pooling broadcast video is not a new one, and has long gone on in courtrooms, at concerts and sporting events, and in other controlled or restricted situations where multiple cameras might create havoc. It’s also similar to in-house broadcast network feeds, which have existed for decades.

“Production sharing is going to become increasingly common,” said Richard Hanley, assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. “It happened with newspapers, who forged joint operating agreements and shared printing facilities. So this is not unusual for media companies to share production costs, and television news is no different. It’s a reality of the moment and the future. As long as there are still separate reporters, I don’t think it’s a fatal issue to media.”

Philadelphia was the first market to begin the LNS venture in January 2009, after an agreement was announced between Fox and NBC Local Media for WCAU-NBC 10 and WTXF-FOX 29 to share video, following a trial run between the two news departments that began the previous summer.

While individually retaining all other aspects of their news-gathering operations, the stations went to work gathering and distributing general market video coverage through a separate LNS entity staffed with 19 experienced assignment editors, photographers and management. Meanwhile, each station pursued the goal of using its own resources to focus on other specialized reporting.

The arrangement has evolved from pooling video obtained at basic bread-and-butter daily news events like press conferences, speeches and court hearings.

“It really has exceeded our expectations in terms of coverage,” said Kingsley Smith, VP and news director of WTXF-TV. “We have 6½ hours of news on every day. The LNS shoots 25 to 45 stories a day and plays a big part in helping with coverage we have not been able to get. It is a content provider that picks up a lot of community stuff and good local flavor. It’s evolved to where the LNS has enterprised its own stories and pitched them to the stations.”

Yet even as costs have gone down—although no one is yet specifying how much—and story count has gone up (an estimated 20 percent at some stations), media watchdogs have questioned how such arrangements affect coverage and impact the viewing audience’s favorable feelings for local stations.

Jill Geisler, faculty member at the Poynter Institute, is concerned about what she called the hazards of pooling, including diluted coverage, missing contacts and stories in the halls of power, the potential proliferation of staged events, the fact that pooling may save money but not jobs—and that non-pool players may escape all these hazards. In a June article for PoynterOnline, she called on news directors to exercise leadership and evaluate these risks to prove that pool coverage can make sense economically and journalistically.

While news-pooling arrangements are fast becoming standard operating procedure, many local news leaders—including ABC O&Os in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago—are choosing not to participate. News executives at some of those stations have said that going it alone makes them stronger and more unique in the marketplace. Behind the scenes they have been concerned that jumping into the pool would prop up their weakest competitors.

After a six-week trial run in the news pool, Meredith Corp.’s Atlanta station, WGCL-TV, recently took its toes out of the water it had shared with Fox O&O WAGA-TV and Gannett’s WXIA-TV, saying the pool limited its ability to cover different stories. Yet Meredith said it remains committed to the concept—its Phoenix station is on board—and Fox executives are circumspect about the pullout.

“With anything new you have to give it time and become comfortable with the concept and expectations,” said Berg. “You have to be committed to make it work. If you believe in the concept it will work. It depends on the market; each market is different. Some LNSes cover more breaking news, some cover a broader output of community events. We look at what types of news they’re covering every week, making sure all stations are getting what they need.”

Yet perhaps the biggest concern of all among working broadcast journalists is job loss.

“Each station pays for two individuals, and they get four for free,” said a 20-year veteran photographer at one of the three Los Angeles stations participating in LNS, who did not wish to be identified. “It’s a terrible idea. Eventually they’re going to cry wolf, say they have no money and expand the idea—and more people will be laid off. Are writers next? It has really lousy prospects, in my opinion.”

He said he is not only concerned about losing the work, but losing the competitive edge that his station prides itself upon. “You want coverage, yet you’re not willing to pay for it? You want to compete? Hire extra reporters. It’s work that belongs to us, and they’re basically getting it for nothing,” the photographer said.

“If it was about slashing jobs, how would we still cover news and keep the industry thriving?” Berg said. “Yes, sharing a chopper can save half a million dollars, helping make the best use of our resources. LNS is an important component in that.”

At Tribune’s stations, Charlier said the LNS has not contributed to any cutbacks that have been made, and that some of the stations have added news hours, and hope to add more. “We haven’t made a direct layoff as a result of LNS,” he said.

“How we’re using this strategy is that it provides us a window to grow in a tough economy,” Charlier said. “It’s to make us smarter operators and have more content. Not only is the economy tough, people have short attention spans, and we work hard to earn their attention. As always, content is king. This is how we branch out, focusing on the rest of the material in the day’s newscasts.”

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