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18 July 2024

Downturn forces papers to join hands

Editors say co-operation is a necessary compromise. (AP)


Just a dozen years ago, newspapers on either side of Arlington, Texas, fought fiercely and bitterly for every reader in the fast-growing city, spending millions of dollars to expand their staffs and cover the smallest meetings and sporting events.

So it came as a surprise that The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram started sharing photos and concert reviews in November.

But these are unprecedented times.

As readers and advertisers migrate to the internet and the stumbling economy cuts deeply into revenues, news organisations are redefining what it means to compete. In recent months, papers around the US have tried to mitigate their staff cuts by forging partnerships with former rivals.

"In the old days, all of us were involved in the same stories," said Tony Pederson, a former Houston Chronicle executive editor and now journalism chairman at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"When there was a big news event in Texas or nationwide, everybody was there. Now, that's not the case."

The sharing has intensified as newspapers stepped up job reductions and slashed travel budgets, and such arrangements are more palatable than closing news bureaus or dropping some coverage areas altogether.

All three major daily newspapers in South Florida formed a loose partnership, while five papers in Maine and eight in Ohio are sharing what they gather and produce. Fox and NBC television stations plan to share video, and The Washington Post and The Sun in Baltimore announced a collaboration on Maryland coverage in late December.

In doing so, readers could lose another voice, and journalists their competitive drive. "It might be an ideal situation in a perfect world to have four or five papers each covering the same public hearings, and then comparing the coverage and probably learning something different in each story," said Mark Woodward, executive editor of the Bangor Daily News, which began co-operating with other Maine newspapers in September.

But co-operation is a necessary compromise "to conserve your resources and still serve your public", Woodward said.

Many of the deals involve coverage of routine events such as news conferences, and papers sometimes disclose ahead of time what they plan to cover.

Papers give full credit for items used, and no money changes hands. In some cases, papers restrict online use and informally agree not to run certain items from the other.

The Dallas and Fort Worth papers started co-operating in October by distributing each other's papers to save on delivery costs. The detente on the business side paved the way for the two to begin sharing photos and such features as concert reviews. Talks continue on expanding the exchange.

"A decade ago it was a different world," said Gary Wortel, publisher of the Fort Worth paper. "I don't look at us as competitors anymore. Really our competition is with media fragmentation around the country and internationally."

Of course, suddenly becoming friends with once-bitter rivals won't be simple.

"When you've competed as aggressively as we have over the years, you can't just march into something like this and not take that into account," said Bob Mong, editor of The Dallas Morning News, which ultimately conceded in Arlington. "But a lot of times, events can dictate a different perspective."

Morning News owner AH Belo Corporation reduced payroll by 13 per cent in 2008, including about 50 newsroom positions at the Dallas paper, leaving it with about 350.

The McClatchy Company, which owns the Fort Worth paper, went through two rounds of job cuts of about 10 per cent each, and the Star-Telegram cut about 40 jobs on its own earlier. Elsewhere, McClatchy's The Miami Herald and Cox Enterprises Incorporated The Palm Beach Post have shared stories before and are extending that to a third paper, Tribune Company's South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which traditionally covered the geographic territory between them.

The arrangement was extended in late October to include the EW Scripps Company's Treasure Coast Newspapers, which overlap with the Post's territory to the north.

John Bartosek, editor of the Post, said his biggest competitor now is not the Sun-Sentinel but other websites and responsibilities consuming readers' time.

"We need to think about how much time and money and people are we going to throw at beating another newspaper when things like websites exist that are competitive with both of us," Bartosek said.

Separately, The Miami Herald and the St Petersburg Times are combining their state capital operations, after both trimmed staff over the years. The Herald and other McClatchy papers also began a trial foreign exchange with The Christian Science Monitor. In Ohio, The Columbus Dispatch ran other papers' coverage of Cleveland and Cincinnati baseball games, freeing its own sports staff for larger, investigative pieces that all eight papers in a new co-operative can share.

Ben Marrison, the Dispatch's editor, denied the arrangement has diminished the drive for scoops.

"We're still competing on the quality of the idea and the quality of the work," he said. "We want to beat them, and they want to beat us." Co-operation is not entirely novel for newspapers.

The Associated Press got its start 162 years ago when five New York newspapers agreed to share costs of getting dispatches from the Mexican War.

The co-operative grew into a global operation with more than 4,000 employees and 240 bureaus today.

In many cities, over the decades, competing papers forged joint operating agreements to combine printing, ad sales and other business functions.

As newspapers increasingly post their completed stories on the internet long before the morning paper arrives, their window of exclusivity has shrunk, making sharing of the news product more acceptable.

"Just as our readers are shopping around for content in a way they have not before, editors are looking at new sources for content," said Susan Goldberg, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Ultimately, these efforts also could morph into a partial alternative to the AP.

Ohio's consortium, in particular, includes newspapers that have publicly complained about the AP's costs and scope of coverage.

But editors involved say replacing the AP is not the goal for now, and the AP is even encouraging some loose co-operatives through AP Member Marketplace, which some 600 US newspapers have joined at no additional cost to share stories, photos and graphics among themselves.

The idea is to supplement, not replace, AP's traditional role in selecting and adapting local stories for a broader audience, said Randy Picht, the AP executive who oversees training for Marketplace at newspapers. But the new co-operatives won't address all of the pressures weighing on newspapers' profitability.

"Sharing is just one effort to stick our finger in the dam," said Rex Rhoades, executive editor with the Sun Journal of Lewiston, Maine.

"A lot of newspapers face a lot of threats on a lot of fronts. This isn't going to solve it all. You try where you can to make a small difference," said Rhoades.