Sleeping with the enemy: blending resources to cover the news

WCAU-TV logoThat it hasn’t happened sooner is the only thing surprising about the news this week that NBC and Fox are entering into a joint operation to cover certain types of news in Philadelphia. The plan, according to Broadcasting & Cable, is to roll it out in Philly in January and later spread it to other big markets where the two groups each have stations. B&C called the move a “blockbuster local news partnership,” and it certainly should make people sit up and take notice.

WTFX-TV logoTentatively called “Local News Service, or LNS,” the idea is to create a separate newsgathering entity that serves both stations.

The Philadelphia venture will be comprised of 20–25 staffers culled from WCAU and WTXF. An LNS crew would be dispatched to the scene of breaking news. Both stations would receive content from LNS, would edit and package the material in the manner they see fit, and have the option of sending additional resources. LNS will also make the content available to other local media outlets, be it print, radio, websites or even rival stations, for a fee.

B&C calls the idea “similar to the role that the AP plays for newspapers. The leaders of both NBC and Fox local stations acknowledge the uniqueness of the concept, but are quick to point out that there are no real hurdles to making it happen. For the affiliates, however, it might be a bit more problematic.

Affiliates appeared curious to hear more about the project. “We’re in an era where any idea that helps us be more efficient in our newsgathering is worth considering,” says KING/KONG Seattle President/General Manager Ray Heacox (KING is a Belo-owned NBC affiliate), who pointed out that he wasn’t entirely familiar with the project. “But I would have lots of questions about how it balances the competitive needs in local markets.”

This kind of joint operating agreement was inevitable given the advance of technology and the current economic crisis for local media. The way this thing is being set up, it could easily evolve to its own separate business entity and function to serve the basic news needs of multiple media outlets in the market, including the newspaper(s). I made this prediction over 10 years ago, and I still believe it makes smart business sense. I think we’ll also see a rise of independent video journalists who will work as independent contractors, and many of them won’t have come through the local news farm system. It’s an obvious fruit of the personal media revolution.

For sure, a separate entity covering the nuts and bolts of local news for all media companies will mean a significant cost saving, and it ought to concern newsroom employees everywhere. “Efficiency,” after all, often means the loss of jobs. But I believe that people employed at the street level by television stations should examine this for its potential upside on their futures. If you want to stay in the community where you currently live, for example, a separate newsgathering entity offers a pretty secure cocoon in these troubled times.

One of the big raps against local TV news has always been the revolving door brought about by people jumping markets to get ahead, and these kinds of separate business entities will put a dent in that. After all, for a “Local News Service” to be successful, it’ll be all about the coverage, not the personalities delivering it.

Of course, the next logical step is a joint presentation arrangement between all parties online, a single portal where members of the community can access everybody’s content. That will take a level of coöperation, however, far beyond this deal between NBC and Fox, but we must always have in the backs of our minds the fact that our competition online isn’t necessarily our competition off-line.

While we duke it out in the open air, the pureplay companies are having their way with the local online ad market. In the end, they are a much bigger enemy than traditional media competitors.

(Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)

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