December 18, 2002

It sits on the banks of the Hillsborough River in Tampa, a gleaming new $34 million building that has become the poster child for one of the most powerful but controversial trends sweeping the news industry: Convergence.

“News Center,” says the sign out front. Inside this building is the headquarters of the Tampa Tribune newspaper, the local NBC affiliate WFLA-TV, and a booming website called Tampa Bay Online.

From the Internet to new breakthroughs in digital imaging to a public that demands better, fresher and more diverse news, the converging of different journalistic disciplines is dramatically changing the landscape of American journalism.

Nowhere is this more ingrained than what’s happening in Tampa, where the TV station, the newspaper and the Website are all owned by the same corporation, Media General. On a daily basis, TV reporters do their stand-ups and then write bylined newspaper stories. Newspaper reporters write their stories and then appear before TV cameras to do “talk-back” debriefings or their own stand-ups.

And everybody — reporters, editors, photographers — “repurpose” their work for the website.

Competition and Serving Users

In an industry know for competition and sharp, often bitter rivalries between print and broadcast journalists, what’s been happening inside this new building, in which all these diverse platforms cross-pollinate and share, is one of journalism’s most watched and feared experiments.

For the viewers, readers, and ‘Net surfers, it all translates to “news, when and where and how you want it,” says Reid Ashe, publisher of the Tampa Tribune. “We believe this has really improved the journalism of all the properties.”

Ashe was one of several convergence experts and experimenters who gathered recently at The Poynter Institute. The session, a “Smart Conference” for Poynter faculty aimed at getting staff members familiar with convergence, shed some interesting light on just how much the business of journalism is being transformed by the technological and marketplace developments that fuel convergence.

James Gentry, dean of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communication, estimates that there are 50 media partnerships and affiliations that fall under the category of convergence now underway in the U.S., about half of which are “doing it in a major way.” More are coming, he says, especially if the Republican administration eases restrictions on concentrated media ownership in single markets.

Gentry, who helped Media General develop its Tampa plan, says the lure to newspapers and broadcasters and news websites is increased advertising revenue brought about by higher ratings, more subscribers, or more website traffic.

No one is really making money on this yet, says Gentry. “This is all in its infancy and it’s happening because newspapers are seeing subscriptions declining and TV stations are watching viewers decline and they figure that if they can cross promote each other and share resources, they can attract new audiences and save money.”

There is some preliminary evidence that they can.

In Sarasota, the local newspaper, the Herald Tribune, partnered with Comcast Cable and started a 24-hour cable TV news channel.

Diane McFarlin, the publisher, says a recent survey shows 39 percent of the Herald Tribune’s readers tuned into the cable TV channel because they read about a story or program in the newspaper. On the other hand, 30 percent of the TV channel’s viewers said they went to the newspaper to read about a story it contained that was mentioned on TV.

“There is no question that we’ve extended our reach,” says McFarlin. “For me, this is all about technology. Technology gives us the ability to deliver news in different ways and to inform the public better than we ever have before.”

That technology also is being put to use in the converged newsroom of the Orlando Sentinel, which has a partnership with Time Warner in an all-news cable TV channel

Keith Wheeler, the Sentinel deputy managing editor in charge of multimedia, says his newspaper’s recent research has found similar results to McFarlin’s: One medium helps drive news consumers to other media.

The Orlando TV operation sends out VJ’s, or visual journalists. They essentially are reporter photographer one-man bands, lone journalists who report, videotape and then, back at the station, edit the stories for TV. New and lighter digital video cameras and computerized TV editing software on a desktop PC make it feasible.

“We are no longer just a newspaper,” says Wheeler. “We are a communications company.”

Trend or Detriment

Indeed, Wheeler’s corporate family, the Tribune Co., is probably the biggest of the converged media conglomerates, sharing staff and resources between broadcast, web and newspaper properties nationwide. The company’s Chicago Tribune has a TV studio right in the middle of the newsroom where it is aligned with WGN-TV. The Tribune-owned Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale also has its newspaper reporters appear regularly on two TV stations and two radio stations.

“The company has made it clear this is the future,” says Wheeler of a company whose properties also include such big papers as the Los Angeles Times and Newsday.

Gentry, from the University of Kansas, says similar convergence efforts are underway between TV, newspaper and websites by other media companies in Dallas, Topeka, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas.

“This is much more than a trend,” says Gentry. “It’s a movement.”

Convergence is controversial in the industry.

In cities where photographers and reporters are unionized, grievances have been filed when workers are asked to perform extra cross-medium duties or carry extra equipment, such as when still photographers are also issued video cameras.

Bob Haiman, president emeritus of Poynter and a frequent speaker before top media executives, is a strong critic of convergence.
Among other things, he argues that the practice will dilute independent, diverse journalism by merging mediums and messages. Besides, he worries, the practice may see excellent newspaper reporters and writers “who may be fat or bald or speak with a lisp . . . passed over because they don’t look good on television.”

Says Haiman: “The journalism business is allowing itself to fall in love with some new words that really convey bad ideas,” he says. “Convergence may end up being good for the media companies, but I feel it will be bad for journalism.”

Haiman predicts in the long run, convergence, like many of the dot-com startups, will flop.

He may be right, but the trend certainly shows media convergence increasing. And whether it will be for the good or bad, like technology itself, will depend on how it’s applied.

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Wendland is a technology journalist and a Fellow at Poynter. His newspaper columns appear in the Detroit Free Press, his TV reports are seen on…
Mike Wendland

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