With decreasing ad revenue and increasing pressure on bottom lines, station news departments across the country are doing what comes unnaturally: sharing coverage and copters.
Local TV coverage of President Obama’s commencement address at Arizona State University a week ago may have seemed fairly typical to Phoenix viewers.
But it wasn’t.
Much of the coverage was jointly produced by three stations. Only sharp-eyed viewers flipping channels would have noticed.
Fox-owned KSAZ, Scripps’ KNXV (ABC) and Meredith’s KPHO (CBS) relied on their recently formed newsgathering partnership to supply footage of the president’s arrival and his motorcade through the city.
The pooling arrangement allowed each of the stations to assign freed-up crews to stories that might distinguish them from the others.
KPHO reporters and photographers, for instance, fanned out to get more personal stories. They talked to graduates and their parents. They also talked to people who were inconvenienced by the motorcade.
“It allowed us to give more dimension to a story like this than we typically would,” says Ed Munson, KPHO’s vice president and general manager.
The Phoenix stations’ sharing setup is not unique.
With newsroom budgets under pressure like never before, TV stations in a growing number of markets are suppressing their competitive instincts and forming news co-ops to capture and share video of public meetings, press conferences and other routine events. Some are also sharing costly news helicopters for the first time.
In some ways, TV stations have been sharing video for years. They routinely share video and entire stories with stations in other markets through network-run news exchanges and through CNN Newsource.
They cooperate with cross-town rivals on an ad hoc basis, particularly during emergencies. And they must also often set up pools for trials and other events where access to cameras is limited.
But never before have stations opted to work together with their rivals in such a regular and formal fashion.
The sharing movement began last November when the Fox and NBC station groups announced that they would be establishing news sharing partnerships in all the markets where they compete, starting in Philadelphia in January. They had been experimenting with the concept in Philadelphia since last summer.
Following through on their promise, Fox and NBC have launched what they are calling the Local News Service in Chicago and Dallas earlier this month and they are working toward introducing it in their remaining three common markets — New York, Los Angeles and Washington — by the end of the year.
“We’re able to cover more community-oriented stories because we are no longer restrained by the resources we have,” says Sharri Berg, senior vice president of news operations for the Fox group. “Now, because they’ve contributed crews to the LNS they can cover the daybook items, the breaking news and a lot more community events and other stories that used to go by the wayside.”
Fox and NBC have been teaching others how to share.
In Dallas, they drew Tribune’s KDAF into their co-op, and in Chicago, they lined up Tribune’s WGN as well as CBS-owned WBBM.
What’s more, Fox, the real driver behind the sharing movement, has been spreading the gospel and setting up sharing arrangements in markets where it owns a station, but NBC doesn’t.
Fox was behind the three-station co-op in Phoenix that came in handy when the president came to town last week.
Other Fox-centric sharing arrangements:
- In Detroit, Fox’s WJBK and Scripps’ WXYZ (ABC) starting last month.
- In Austin, Fox’s KTBC, LIN’s KXAN (NBC), Belo’s KVUE (ABC) and Four Points Media Group’s KEYE (CBS) starting in February.
- In Atlanta, Fox’s WAGA, Gannett’s WXIA (NBC) and Meredith’s WGCL (CBS) starting last Monday. (A Fox spokesperson says that arrangement is still in a trial phase.)
- In Tampa, Fox’s WTVT, Gannett’s WTSP (CBS) and Scripps’ WFTS (ABC) starting later this month.
- In Boston, Fox’s WFXT and CBS-owned WBZ starting June 1.
The Fox way of thinking has proved infectious. Stations in markets without Fox O&Os are also setting up sharing arrangements.
In Columbus, Ohio, Media General’s WCMH (NBC) has been involved in a sharing partnership for the past two months with Sinclair’s duopoly, WSYX (ABC) and WTTE (Fox).
In Cleveland, Raycom’s WOIO (CBS) and the Gannett NBC affiliate, WKYC started a video pool arrangement four months ago.
In Phoenix, Gannett’s KPNX (NBC), Meredith’s KPHO and Belo’s KTVK (Ind.) have decided to share a helicopter. (The deal is separate from the video sharing arrangement involving Scripps’ KNXV, Meredith’s KPHO and Fox’s KSAZ.)
In San Antonio, Texas, Belo’s KENS (CBS), Post-Newsweek’s KSAT (ABC) and Sinclair’s KABB (Fox) starting swapping material a few weeks ago.
And in Albany, N.Y., Hubbard’s WNYT (NBC) is exploring the possibility of sharing sports footage with Freedom’s WRGB (CBS).
The nature and size of the sharing arrangements vary.
“It’s not one size fits all,” says Fox’s Berg. “Everyone has different needs and requirements.”
The Fox-driven LNS arrangements are more structured than the others. They have their own dedicated photographers and editors, even though they remain paid employees of their home stations.
A managing editor is assigned to oversee the LNS in most markets. In Chicago, the managing editor is an NBC employee; in Dallas, the managing editor comes from Fox.
In Chicago, the LNS has two photographers and one assignment editor from each of the four participating stations. The managing editor brings the count to 13.
A staff of 12 runs the LNS in Phoenix. The Fox, Scripps and Meredith stations each contribute three photographers. And there are two assignment editors (one from Fox and one from Scripps) plus a managing editor from Meredith.
In Dallas, the three participating stations have contributed eight photographers and five assignment editors to the service for a total of 13.
Participants in the sharing arrangements say they do exactly what they had hoped they would — free up crews and other resources for unique stories — without compromising their independence or competitiveness.
The LNS is like a local AP,” says Mike Renda, vice president and general manager at Fox’s WTFX Philadelphia, part of the original LNS.
“We decide how we want to use it and how it’s formulated into our newscast. Our newscast is very much different than … [WCAU’s] and it will remain that way.”
The top news executive at WCAU concurs. The LNS enhances the station’s planned coverage, says Chris Blackman, VP of news.
For example, he says, last week when President Obama honored the Phillies at the White House, the stations sent each a reporter along with one LNS photographer.
“It was a more efficient and cost effective way to get it done. It worked really well.”
Despite the formation of a local video pool in Cleveland between the Raycom (WOIO) and Gannett ( WKYC) stations, the stations remain “intensely competitive,” says Dan Salamone, news director at WOIO.
“Our two stations go at it every single rating book over who’s going to be first at 11,” he says.
The sharing is limited to video, Salamone says. “If I’ve got an angle on an event, I am certainly not going to share it with them. I understand some people look at this as a way to homogenize the news. It hasn’t led to that here. We’re still two very different types of newscasts. That’s because each station picks different topics to cover and assigns reporters who are quite different in terms of reporting styles,” Salamone adds.
For two months, Media General’s NBC affiliate WCMH and Sinclair’s ABC-Fox duopoly have been sharing video in Columbus, Ohio, with positive results.
“It’s about streamlining work flows,” says Ike Walker, WCMH’s content brand manager.
“Why should we send two separate crews to cover the exact same press conference when one of us could send one crew to cover the press conference so that the other crew could be free to do something else?” Walker asks.
In Austin, all four Big 4 affiliates are shooting video for a pool every day. “We’re getting more stories that way,” says Frank Volpicella, executive news director at one of the players, Belo’s KVUE Austin.
“These are stories that are on everyone’s daybook. They aren’t going to be stories that are strategic or exclusive.”
Usually, each station shoots two to three pool stories a day, says Volpicella. There are also times when KVUE is shooting for the pool, but may take along its own reporter to work an angle, he adds.
That’s what happened earlier this week when Natalee Holloway’s mother spoke to a class at the University of Texas. KVUE sent its own reporter with the KVUE photographer who was shooting for the pool. “We did more with it than other stations may have,” says Volpicella
“We really walked down this path in the spirit of cooperation and in the spirit of helping one another out, which is somewhat unprecedented, at least in my career,” he says.
While proponents of news sharing contend that it’s a way to do more with less, they also concede that it’s a way to simply meet the demands of smaller operating budgets.
A helicopter costs between $800,000 and $1 million a year to operate. By sharing copters as Fox and NBC are doing in Philadelphia and Chicago, each station can save half the expense, says Berg.
In addition to Fox and NBC, the station groups now involved in the sharing movement to one degree or another include Scripps, Tribune, Gannett, Raycom, CBS, Post-Newsweek, Belo, LIN, Meredith, Hubbard and Four Points.
It’s an impressive list. But so is the list of those that have decided not to participate in sharing arrangements (at least not yet). It includes the ABC O&Os, Hearst-Argyle Television, Cox Television and Allbritton Communications.
“I like our independence. I like to have control over our content from start to finish,” says Brian Bracco, vice president of news for Hearst-Argyle Television.
Bill Lord, vice president of news for Allbritton’s WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, and its 24-hour NewsChannel 8, says he can’t figure how participating in a news co-op with NBC and Fox would save money. “I just don’t see it.”
Lord also points out that between its TV station and cable channel Allbritton probably has more cameras on the street than the other stations in Washington and more people producing material. “I just don’t think I will get back as much as I give,” he says.
One TV executive, who asked not to be identified, says that news pooling make little sense in markets where one of his stations dominants the news. “Why would we want to share anything we’ve got, even if it’s a press conference, with the No. 3 or No. 4 station?”
Bill Hoffman is the vice president and general manager of the No. 1 news station in Atlanta, WSB, and he says he has no immediate interest in sharing video with the three rivals that want to knock him from his perch.
“Our position right now is we are trying to stay the course of independence and hoping that’s a position we can maintain for a long time,” Hoffman says.
“No broadcaster wants to share,” he says. “But there are some economic realities here. People are making some compromises and trying to be smart where they do it because they are trying to cut some costs.”
Al Tompkins, the broadcast and online group leader at the Poynter Institute, has serious reservations about local broadcasters pooling resources.
“The reality of their economics is a reason so many stations are doing this,” he says. “But it’s right to worry about what gets lost when only one pair of eyes looks at a story and you try to develop the story back at the station without ever having witnessed it yourself.
“The whole idea of just going to an event and reporting what was said is pretty shallow reporting. It’s just being a stenographer. That’s the lowest grade of reporting that we can offef,” Tompkins says.
Nonetheless, Berg says Fox has met with “nothing but success” in its sharing arrangements and she expects the idea will continue to spread.
“Having 10 mike flags at a press conference is unnecessary,” she says. “We can gain a lot more individually by pooling our resources — if we do it right.”