Sleeping with the enemy

I have two recurring, absurd, paranoiac fears: one, that when I fall asleep, I'm not really dozing off but instead I am succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning; two, that the Dallas Observer will soon enter into a joint news-sharing agreement with "WB33 News @Nine." Which, in my nightmare, looks something like...

"I'm Crystal Thornton. Later, we'll be talking to Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze about information he's obtained concerning the DISD school board through a process he calls 'reporting.' But first, we have exclusive information from the Observer's music editor, Zac Crain, about the Britney Spears concert tonight. Zac, what can you tell us?"

"Crystal, sources at the Smirnoff Music Centre have told me off the record that Spears will look smokin' hot tonight, especially in that pink leather outfit she wore on her Hawaii special. And that she can't sing. Or something. Centro-matic rules. Back to you, Crystal."

An unlikely scenario, granted. But heck, we'd better partner with somebody on TV, or there won't be anyone left. That's because soon--probably this week--the Fort Worth Star-Telegram will announce a partnership with Channel 11 (a.k.a. CBS-11, a.k.a. KTVT, a.k.a. the one with Tracy Rowlett). In fact, it may be a done deal by the time you read this. (Full disclosure: I worked at the Star-Telegram until January this year.)

The impending print-broadcast union begs at least three questions:

1. Why would a newspaper with a giant media company owner (Knight Ridder) and hundreds of reporters and editors join forces with a television news operation, which has a reporting staff of 20 or so?

2. How will it work day-to-day?

3. Is this agreement--and, by extension, all such agreements, like the one The Dallas Morning News recently made with Belo brother Channel 8--good for the reader and viewer?

The why answer has many facets, but it boils down to one thing: Newspaper companies are disappearing, being replaced by media/entertainment companies. Rare now is the family-owned, locally owned paper. Corporate owners treat their paper like a business instead of what it should be--a public trust that operates on business principles. Corporations care about one thing: profit margins. High profit margins make Wall Street happy, which makes corporate ownership happy. How to maintain those margins and, by extension, stock price? Do what they do over at 93.3 on your FM dial: merge, merge like the wind.

You see it at every level: AOL merging with Time Warner, partnerships between The Wall Street Journal and CNBC, between and The New York Times. For example, the largest newspaper acquisition in history, the recent takeover by Chicago-based Tribune Company (owners of The Chicago Tribune, WGN cable network, 22 local television stations, the Chicago Cubs, etc.) of Times Mirror (the Los Angeles Times) meant an immediate change in the L.A. paper's relationship with local TV news. Just as the Chicago Tribune has a broadcast studio in its newsroom so its reporters can be interviewed for TV news stories, so too are they building a similar setup at the L.A. Times. Media companies, then, "are going to look at the future, and they're going to see a dance floor full of elephants," media analyst John Morton summed up on The News Hour With Jim Lehrer. "It's a convergence of everything. I mean, at the Tribune Company, they don't talk about newspapers and television stations. They talk about information gatherers. It's all one thing to them."

Sounds like good business. (Bad journalism, but, hey, you hate the media, right? So who cares?) But the biggest problem for such deals--especially for the Morning News and the Star-Telegram--isn't the bottom line but a perception of bias.

"I think it's a good deal for the paper if we do it right," says a source at the Star-Telegram. "Who knows yet how much it will help, and I'm sure the way it works day-to-day will evolve, but having Channel 11 mention on their 10 o'clock news some story that you will only see in the Star-Telegram, that's great for both sides.

"But the thing we must watch out for is the appearance that we're kissing their ass, or they're kissing ours. If the Morning News beats us on a story, Channel 11 will have to mention it. If Channel 11 blows a big breaking news story, we have to point that out. If we do what Belo has done, we lose all credibility."

Brian Jones, vice president and general manager for Channel 11, points out that the CBS affiliate in New York just signed a similar deal with the New York Post. "What it does," Jones says, "is allow us both to expand our share of the audience, get what we think is quality editorial products at both places in front of more readers and viewers. It's going to help both of us compete against Belo. We won't, however, drive each other's editorial. For the most part, we'll share some of it after it's already reported or written."

How that will work day-to-day is not clear--in fact, a Star-Telegram vice president says that the thing that's held the deal up for months is just that conundrum: Once we agree to step on the dance floor, he says, how do we go about getting our groove on? (OK, I paraphrased.) Probably what happens is this: An editor at the paper or the station ships finished versions of stories to a counterpart, who then decides which stories it wants to report or mention. In rare cases, perhaps there will be joint reporting projects or surveys ("a CBS-11/Star-Telegram poll shows that..."). Maybe Babe Laufenberg gets to play quarterback on the Star-T flag football team, or Randy Galloway shows up to do the weather.

Regardless of how the partnership is structured, the problem the paper and station face, judging by the Channel 8/Morning News sharing arrangement, is twofold: getting the troops to buy in, and not messing with editorial integrity.

Getting reporters to embrace the concept fully is unlikely. Newspaper reporters, especially good ones, are bitter, jealous, mean little pissants. They're like children--they share nothing without being forced to do so, and they'll probably cry about it regardless. It's especially bad at Channel 8 and the Morning News, because reporters at each have to fight the Belo-bias perception every day. And--news flash--reporters at each place think they're better than their counterparts.

"There is continuing pressure for us to share even more of our reporting with the News," says a Channel 8 reporter. "More pressure for us to share than for them. I mean, what the hell are they going to tell us? They're not doing any work over there. We're the ones busting ass and breaking stuff."

If that's true (and on some beats, it is), readers of the Morning News won't find out about it, because, as we reported a few months ago (Buzz, March 23), Ed Bark is no longer able to critique local news--something he'd done for most of his 20 years at the paper. The twisted, asinine logic from Belo management goes like this: Now that we have a formal news-sharing arrangement with Channel 8, we can no longer be subjective about covering it.

Of course, as with most ridiculous decisions from corporate suits, this one has the exact opposite effect. Because the paper let Bark cover Channel 8 before the arrangement--when it was still owned by Belo--the company now looks like it's scared to allow its critic to write objectively. Like most suits who lose touch with the people who buy their product, Belo execs are so friggin' stupid as to think it's preferable to look like wussies who are scared of the truth rather than suck it up and take an occasional critical shot across the bow.

So far, it looks as though the Star-Telegram will avoid those sorts of colossal screw-ups. Its television critic, Ken Parish Perkins, will continue to write about local TV news. Perkins, like Bark, is known as a serious-minded critic with unassailable integrity. And so far, the paper appears as though it won't let this arranged marriage change the information its editors believe readers deserve to read. In other words, as of today, it doesn't look as if they plan to screw it up in foolish, heavy-handed Belo fashion.

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste