Partners in news, promo:
pubradio and local dailies
As Hurricane Frances bore down on South Florida last week, West Palm Beach’s
WXEL-FM and Miami’s WLRN-FM were ready for it—or as ready as they
could expect to be, anyway. At a moment when they needed immediate access
to accurate information from the field, the public radio stations had dozens
of journalists ready to follow the storm's path, survey emergency officials
and call shelters.
The odd thing was that none of those reporters was a station employee.
WXEL and WLRN are two of the most advanced examples of an emerging practice: partnerships between pubradio stations and local newspapers. WXEL depends completely on Fort Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel for its local news coverage, WLRN on the Miami Herald.
The journalistic and promotional deals range from occasional on-air interviews of newspaper reporters to elaborate newscasts based in print newsrooms, but they carry similar benefits. Pubcasters gain access to large news staffs, investigative resources and the credibility of the area's news leader. As Rick Hirsch, the managing editor who oversees multimedia and new projects at the Miami Herald notes, “there’s no deeper, richer resource for newsgathering than the daily paper.”
And the dailies, eager to retain or build readership, gain exposure to news consumers who may not be in the habit of subscribing.
“Convergence,” the coming together of various news platforms under one organizational umbrella, has been a buzzword among journalism gurus for years. But some see papers pairing with public radio as an especially natural fit. Al Tompkins, group leader for broadcast and online at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla., says radio allows for more in-depth analysis than, say, television. “For the life of me, I don’t know why more papers don’t do this,” he says.
Some public TV stations are finding collaborative success as well, though. KOCE in Orange County, Calif., partners extensively with reporters from the Orange Country Register on the station's daily public affairs show Real Orange. The newspaper is also the program's lead underwriter.
Pubcasters express little concern about surrendering a measure of editorial control and pairing with a commercial outlet — after all, newspapers rely on firewalls between ad and news departments. But observers say stations interested in such a deal should enter it with eyes wide open. Connie Walker, news director at Wisconsin Public Radio and president of Public Radio News Directors Inc., wonders about stations’ liability in the case of reporting inaccuracies or other problems with stories. She also worries that the arrangement would limit opportunities for aspiring pubradio journalists.
Convergence also results in less competition and fewer news perspectives
in a region, something NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin says is not necessarily
good for listeners.
“Management says that co-venture will result in shared resources and greater reach while saving money for both,” he says. “But the results are not always better journalism.”
Mixing the cultures
WLRN and WXEL would beg to differ with Dvorkin's assessment. Each had “rip and read” news departments before they turned operations over to their newspaper partners. Now both rely on the dailies' employees broadcasting from studios built in the papers’ newsrooms (though WXEL's afternoon newscasts are anchored from its studios).
John LaBonia, g.m. of the Miami station, established the arrangement in 1999 when he was manager in West Palm Beach and duplicated it on a larger scale in Miami last year.
LaBonia says on-site studios were essential for access to reporters in the newsroom and to “mix the cultures.” The papers footed the bill for construction of the studios and the stations provided equipment. “They supply the news, we supply the electronics,” WXEL President Jerry Carr says.
LaBonia and Carr won’t discuss financial specifics — LaBonia says the station covers "maybe 25 percent" of the total operating costs—but both say stations and papers share underwriting sales responsibilities and revenue. Carr says the WXEL/Sun-Sentinel news briefs, dropped in hourly during Morning Edition and All Things Considered feeds with an expanded newscast at noon, are easy sales to underwriters. WLRN/Herald briefs run through ME and as needed in the afternoons—for example, during hurricane warnings—and soon will expand permanently into ATC cutaways, LaBonia says.
The newscasts are voiced by experienced radio journalists hired by the newspapers and based in their newsrooms, and many stories include interviews and material from print reporters. But LaBonia says the trained radio journalists generate roughly 65 percent of WLRN's news. "Some people think it's just [print] reporters reading their stories on the air," he says, "and that's just not the case."
NPR's Dvorkin and others have wondered whether competitive juices might lead one of the partners to scoop the other or withhold information to break it first. The Herald's Hirsch says that isn't a consideration, noting for example that the daily opted to break news of retired Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams' failed drug test on WLRN. "The station just gives us another way to be first," he says.
The Herald has similar partnerships with local commercial TV stations, as does the Sun-Sentinel. Dual licensees WLRN and WXEL benefit from all the relationships; both plan to include feeds from commercial TV outlets in their storm coverage and the affiliates will refer viewers to the radio coverage. Other forms of back-scratching include cross-linked websites — a flashing icon on WXEL.org takes visitors to a Sun-Sentinel subscription form — and prominent daily ads for the stations in their partners' pages. "I certainly couldn't afford to buy these ads," Carr says.
While the co-ventures clearly extend the reach of partners' brands, some pubcasters aren't ready to jump into the convergence pool with both feet. Joe Barr, news director for Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, has been happy with a partnership with the city's Bee whereby the paper's editorial writers contribute commentaries. But while he is looking to expand the relationship, he says it's dangerous to become too dependent on another outlet for news. "There's a line that can be crossed if you're using them in a way that lets you rest on your laurels," he says.
Amy Tardif, news director at WGCU in Fort Myers, Fla., says it probably made sense for WXEL and WRLN to cast their journalistic lots with the newspapers. However, she's glad her partnerships with the Naples Daily News and the Sun-Herald in Charlotte County are strictly supplemental to her own reporters’ coverage. Tardif sees local print reporters as valuable stringers and has found them happy to contribute coverage of trials and other stories WGCU can't cover. The papers receive on-air mentions in exchange for manpower, with contributing staffers earning $10 per report for their radio services.
Collaboration between WNKU in Highland Heights, Ky., and the Cincinnati Post and the Kentucky Post includes no exchange of revenue, but the station has increased coverage capability and the newspaper has enhanced its presence in northern Kentucky. The partnership includes interviews with Post reporters, mutual promotion and some special joint projects focusing on elections and other locally important issues, News Director Maryanne Zeleznik says.
Others stations like WVTF-FM in Roanoke, Va., have found success not with ongoing partnerships but with project-based collaborations. When two Roanoke Times staffers were embedded with a Virginia-based National Guard unit stationed in Afghanistan this summer, local ME anchor Beverly Amsler conducted a series of phone interviews with them. News Director Rick Mattioni recalls one that came just after the deaths of two soldiers as being especially poignant, and says there's no way his station could have otherwise offered such coverage of an international story of great local interest.
"You take a local reporter and put them on a local story about local guys and they'll have a different sensitivity than, say, a reporter for the New York Times," he says. "They know their readers."
Web page posted Sept. 6, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee