Honeymoon Underway for Tampa's Media Marriage

The week before WFLA-TV Newschannel 8 boxed up 45 years of history in the old tin roofed newsroom that once served as the station’s prop room and carpenter shop, someone taped a sign to a newsroom door.

"No one can limit your dreams, so don’t be afraid to dream large. The Big Move 2000." --T

Photo by Kenny Irby

THREE'S NOT A CROWD: WFLA-TV Newschannel 8, The Tampa Tribune, and TBO.com share space and news resources in this downtown Tampa, Fla., building overlooking the Hillsborough River.  

The WFLA move is a large dream in the nation's 13th largest TV market.

But it involves more than just relocating to its new four-story concrete and glass, fully digital "news center" overlooking the scenic Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa. The "news center" is also the new home of WFLA’s Media General siblings, The Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Online.

Together, the three media news organizations have launched a new kind of "converged journalism." Newspapers and television groups nationwide are watching this media marriage to see if large-scale multimedia cooperation can capture larger audiences, strengthen brands, and slow the steady loss of TV news viewers and newspaper circulation.

Dozens of television stations and cable operations have launched partnerships with newspapers that involve occasional partnerships on special projects or community service efforts. But the Media General convergence in Tampa is significantly different in kind and size.

WFLA news director Dan Bradley says the TV station, the Tampa Tribune, and TBO will share their journalism minute to minute, 24 hours a day, every day. They share space on a "superdesk" that coordinates crews, provides news research, and tracks news developments. The move also signals a change in the way journalists at all three organizations will work. Reporters, who once filed stories just for television, or just for print, may find themselves filing a TV story, writing a newspaper story, and producing an online version as well. Newspaper photojournalists will carry still and video cameras on assignments. TV photojournalists are learning what newspaper photo editors look for. Their pictures may be used in the paper, on TV, online, or all three.

"It boggles my mind," said WFLA managing editor Susan DeFraties. "On a typical day right now, I have eight or nine reporters I can send out on daily news assignments. With the convergence, I have access to more than 100 Tribune reporters who are out there gathering news."

Media General’s goal for this marriage is simple, DeFraties said: "To become the information powerhouse in this market. We want to have it all, if the public wants to be told about it, read it in depth, or if they want to get online quickly to check it out."

For the Tampa Tribune the convergence resembles a moth’s attraction to bright lights. The metro newspaper's staff wants to bask in TV's illumination, but fears being altered by it.

Photo by Kenny Irby

Todd Chappel, Tribune photo team leader, discusses an early-morning story idea with a WFLA-TV photographer.

The attraction is understandable. Television offers a much larger potential audience for the newspaper. The Tribune's 1999 circulation was more than 235,000 daily and 327,000 Sunday copies, but the Tampa television market includes 1,485,980 households and WFLA is the longtime market news leader. With convergence, the Tribune stands to reach thousands of new potential readers. The online site, TBO, benefits from television's reach and the newspaper's reputation and content.

"The single greatest challenge we have is to overcome our cultural differences," Bradley says.

The three sides tried to bridge the cultural gap during more than five months of "prenuptial talks." In those talks, the details began to surface about the deep cultural problems converged newsrooms would face. But new opportunities sprang from those meetings, too. Newspaper, TV, and online launched a series of joint projects. One explored whether schools should require children to wear uniforms. Later, the new Tampa media alliance undertook an investigative project called "Prisoners in Their Own Homes" that looked into how judges sentenced criminals to serve jail time under house arrest. WFLA's stories showed that people under "house arrest" were not, in fact, at home. The convicts were often out committing more crimes. Tampa Bay Online built an extensive database that allowed Internet users to pinpoint who was under house arrest in a specific neighborhood.

The project was a dress rehearsal for the kind of convergent news story that the three teamed up to report last December 30th.

That morning, WFLA was sitting on a huge story. WFLA anchor Gayle Sierens landed an exclusive interview with Dewey Brandon, a man police suspected had killed his wife and two young daughters. Four months after the killings, police cleared Brandon. Sierens was the only journalist that Brandon wanted to talk with after he was cleared.

"The newspaper wants the story," multimedia editor Steve DeGregorio told WFLA news director Bradley in a hurried speaker phone conversation. "They would like the story before you run it on TV."

Bradley agreed. Sierens wrote an in-depth newspaper article that included many details she had to leave out of her TV story because of time restrictions. The Tribune later played the story on the front page of the metro section. The same day the newspaper and TV story went public, TBO streamed long pieces of the exclusive interview that would not air on television.

In the afternoon editorial meeting on that December day, everyone agreed the Sierens interview was the certain lead story for that evening’s newscasts. But at 3:10 p.m., a Tampa hotel worker walked into the Radisson Bay Harbor Hotel and shot four people to death. He injured three others. Then the gunman shot another person to death while attempting to steal a getaway car.

The TV station and newspaper instantly began sharing information. Tribune reporter Peter Howard phoned in a television report. At 6 p.m., WFLA included a live interview with Tribune photojournalist Dave Kadlubowski, who was among the first journalists at the scene.

A day that began with the newspaper asking to break a TV story ended with the TV station profiting from the extensive newspaper presence at a big breaking news story. The online coverage took in information from both broadcast and newspaper journalists.

"We are merging the collection and dissemination of information," News Director Bradley says. "But we are not merging newsrooms. There may be some stories we choose not to share, but I think that will be rare. We will each have to make our own editorial decisions. There may be times when we disagree. We have to stay independent, but I think we can do that and share our information."

These stories about the Media General Tampa news facility was produced for Broadcasting and Cable by The Poynter Institute. The project was reported by Poynter faculty members Al Tompkins, Aly Colón, Kenny Irby, Nora Paul, and Bill Mitchell, editor of Poynter.org. The stories were edited by Chip Scanlan, group leader of Poynter's reporting, writing and editing program.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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