Begun as a bottom line necessity for many stations back in 2009, the pooling of news coverage and helicopters is still growing, even though one of the original participants, the NBC stations, is getting out or reducing its involvement in several markets, including New York and Los Angeles. Other broadcasters remain bullish: “This is about enhancing our coverage; this is not about skimping,” says Scripps Television’s Lana Durban Scott.
Joint newsgathering arrangements in which rival stations share video crews and helicopters continue to multiply, even as NBC, one of the early and prominent advocates, has begun reducing its involvement.
“If we have relationships where it can work … we’re open to all opportunities,” says Lana Durban Scott, who, as Scripps Television’s director of news strategy, oversees the news sharing agreements in Detroit, Phoenix and Tampa, Fla.
From the start, Fox has been at the center of the news sharing efforts. It and NBC launched the first co-op in January 2009 in Philadelphia with NBC’s WCAU and Fox’s WTXF.
The Fox-NBC partnerships eventually spread to five other markets — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Washington.
However, in 2011, Valari Staab took over the NBC stations with a mandate to boost the stations’ sagging news operations. She ordered WNBC New York and KNBC Los Angeles get their own helicopters, but otherwise left it to station managers to decide whether to continue to work with Fox or any other broadcaster.
With that word from headquarters, NBC’s WCAU Philadelphia exited its sharing co-op for both video crews and helicopter, and WRC Washington dropped out of video crews, while maintaining its helicopter arrangement.
The NBC and Fox stations still share video crews or ground resources in New York and Dallas.
According to Fox, the news sharing trend continues despite NBC’s go-it-alone attitude in some markets.
Just this week in New York, WCBS confirmed that is replacing WNBC as Fox’s helicopter partner, but would make no further comment on its news sharing ambitions.
Fox now has sharing agreement in 12 of the 16 markets where it produces news, not only with NBC and CBS, but also with Scripps, Meredith, Gannett, Tribune and Post-Newsweek, according to a Fox respresentative.
Here’s the market-by-market breakdown of the arrangements in which Fox is involved (by DMA rank):
1. New York — Video crews: NBC, Fox, Tribune and CBS; helicopter: Fox and CBS. NBC was Fox’s original helicopter partner, but it dropped out earlier this year.
3. Chicago —Video crews: Fox, NBC, Tribune and CBS; helicopter: Fox and NBC.
4. Philadelphia — Video crews and helicopter: Fox and CBS. NBC was Fox’s original partner, but dropped out earlier this year.
5. Dallas-Fort Worth — Video crews: Fox, NBC and Tribune; helicopter: Fox and CBS.
7. Boston — Video crews: Fox and CBS; helicopter: Fox and CBS.
8. Washington — Video crews: Fox and Gannett: helicopter: Fox, Gannett, NBC and Allbritton. NBC dropped out of the video crews earlier his year.
9. Atlanta — Video crews and helicopter: Fox, Gannett and Meredith
10. Houston — Helicopter: Fox, Belo and Post-Newsweek.
11. Detroit — Video crews and helicopter: Fox, Scripps and Post-Newsweek.
13. Phoenix — Video crews: Fox, Scripps and Meredith; helicopter: Fox and Scripps.
14. Tampa — Video crews and helicopter: Fox, Scripps and Gannett
15. Minneapolis-St. Paul — Fox, CBS and Gannett
Fox and other proponents of the arrangements argue that in making newsgathering more efficient, they are freeing up reporters to concentrate on enterprise stories while curbing big costs, especially those associated with operating helicopters.
KPHO, the Meredith-owned CBS affiliate in Phoenix (DMA 13), has two separate agreements, one for helicopter pooling and another for on-the-ground work, involving all four of its competitors — Scripps, Gannett, Fox and Belo. “It’s really a strange deal,” says GM Ed Munson.
Yet the arrangements have proven worthwhile, he says. “The concept has kind of been baked now into our culture and, because of that, and because it works well and does free up resources for covering things more in our brand wheelhouse, it has continued.”
But purists — industry watchers, academics and the like — continue to question whether pooling resources with competitors compromises the quality of the broadcast journalism.
Caryn Ward Brooks, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School who also has 25 years of on-the-job experience, says there is no easy way to reconcile the pros with the cons of news sharing arrangements.
While sharing video from, say, a speech or crime scene may allow reporters to spend their time reporting more in-depth stories, doing so also “takes away the spontaneity of trying to get a scoop once the news conference is finished or before it begins,” Brooks says.
“Ideally, each newsroom would have its own resources, its own stories and its own priorities,” she says. “But in the real world, with economic pressures on newsrooms, what’s ideal for journalists is not ideal for business.”
Alan Mutter, a longtime newsman who teaches journalism at the University of California,-Berkeley, agrees. Mutter says news sharing “makes a lot of sense in these days when people are doing more with less.” But the arrangements also spark “a danger of great complacency.”
“There is nothing wrong with sharing assets or video, but there is a huge problem when that sharing leads to little or no reporting,” Mutter says.
Even the kind of run-of-the-mill events that one newsperson might cover for several stations could yield bigger, better stories if reporters well-versed in their subjects are there to sink their teeth into them, he says.
“When you take reporting assets off the street and just share video … we are just going to go to another level where we lack even more substance than we ever had before,” Mutter says.
“When you have more eyes and ears on a subject, on an event or on a personality, you are going to get a lot richer reporting.”
Scripps’ Scott, however, says her stations’ news sharing agreements actually result in more pertinent content, which is the reason why the company got involved in the first place.
Last week alone, the partnership between Scripps’ WXYZ and Fox-owned WJBK Detroit produced 55 stories, she says. Of those stories, 76% aired on one of the stations and 46% aired on both, she says.
Scott says all her news departments retain the option of sending their own crews to cover particular stories — something that WXYZ in particular has done.
“This is about enhancing our coverage; this is not about skimping,” she says.
But Mutter says there is ample reason to reconsider news sharing now that budgets aren’t quite as tight as they were when many of these partnerships got underway in 2009.
“We know that in a good economy there is a lot of profit in local news operations,” he says. “Why not take a little less profit and get a little more journalism?”
With NBC having pulled out of the helicopter sharing arrangement with Fox in Los Angeles, all the big stations in the No. 2 market now have their own airborne reporting.
But that doesn’t mean that they can’t cooperate on an ad hoc basis.
Faced with the daunting logistics of covering last weekend’s Carmageddon II — the 405 Freeway closure in Los Angeles — and complaints about the chopper noise generated by the coverage of Carmageddon I last year, the stations decided to work together.
The Big Four O&Os and as well as the Univision and Tribune stations sent up just one chopper to capture footage from above the Sepulveda Pass — and even then only at the top of each news hour.
The Radio & Television News Association of Southern California, which coordinated the effort, called the resource pooling an “unprecedented joint operation.”
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