Friday, September 03, 2010

It's baaaack - all this talk of converged newsrooms

The announced merger of Salt Lake City's Deseret News and sister KSL stations into one newsroom has the blogosphere all atwitter.

There's Ken Doctor over at Nieman Lab with an analysis worth reading.

There's Alan Mutter at Newsosaur wondering if newspaper-TV mergers are the next big thing.

Put me in the less-than-sanguine column for a couple of reasons:
  1. Almost all of these that have happened are special circumstances of co-ownership - Media General's Tampa center, Lawrence, Kan. (where the paper actually created the TV outlet). Those situations are still relatively rare, with no immediate indication the FCC and Congress are willing to cave yet on allowing more of them. 
  2. Yes, perhaps the economic imperatives are high. But so are the barriers. Every academic study I've seen lays out those barriers, and we've reviewed a lot of them and looked at these operations through Newsplex. While I firmly believe that someday it's all going to come down the same digital pipe, whether it comes from merged newsrooms is an entirely different matter.
  3. There's this little thing in the back of my head that says the Founding Fathers had this idea that competition in journalism is a good thing. Oh, how Neanderthal of me, I know. And certainly, from a business perspective as Doctor points out, how probably irrational. But I get all warm and fuzzy when I see two people, not one, working on a story from competing operations because then I have a better sense that all the questions will be asked and the angles examined. And if three or more are on it -- for a moment, let's exclude the "pack" stories -- I get positively jiggly. Now, the argument will be that there's lots of other competition out there - blogs, hyperlocal sites, etc. But study after study (plus my own experience - see the report in red in the right rail - with such a site) shows that's not the case yet. The marketplace of ideas envisioned so long ago is thwarted by the economic marketplace we see today.
And yet there may be no choice eventually. Consider this from Paid Content relaying an analyst's observation that even in the best case, online customers are worth about a quarter of those in print, even when there is a paywall.

Meanwhile, the battle of the teens is shaping up to be who can come up with ways to end-run the Web with other digital distribution platforms. We've finally gotten over the fallacy that the content - most of it anyway - is worth that much (and as noted here many times, even if it is, the cost of capturing the relatively fleeting economic value is too great) and are starting to openly admit it's all about control.

So the industry is focused on mobile, where people are used to paying, and there are projects afoot to "plug the leaks" in the Web by creating alternative distribution systems or those that seek to thwart standard Web protocols tilted toward distribution, not control. (David Sullivan has some further thoughts on all this, and see TechDirt's rebuttal to the current meme that apps will fundamentally change the Web.)

Chew on that along with your cole slaw this holiday weekend.

I will say that I am fascinated with the description of the Salt Lake City operation on Doctor's post.

The new staff of something more than 200 (Gilbert is being cagey about the number) will be expected to multitask, with remaining staffers increasingly cross-trained and “new employees expected to have those skills.” Do the math. If it took four people to do a story and now it takes only one, you can afford to jettison one of those positions and get more productivity out of the other two.

Step two: “Deepen coverage,” meaning the re-allocating of resources to cover issues most important to the readers. Gilbert says that about half of the remaining news staffers will serve in the “integrated newsroom,” with the remainder staying in more traditional journalistic roles. In that integrated newsroom of roughly a hundred, a third will serve as first responders/rewrite and two-thirds as field reporters. “You’re sandwiching the reporters between first responders [getting to news and getting it out quickly] and rewrite [those taking the reporters work and purposing it for various platforms],” explains Gilbert. Those who first-respond also do rewrite — so that’s going to be a busy staff.

The journalistic question: How do the new stories compare to the old ones?

Converged or not, I suspect they're on to something here as far as how staff resources are likely to be allocated in the future. This follows on the heels of the USA Today realignment which includes putting digital first and throwing everything at a story in the first 30 minutes.

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At 9/3/10, 11:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gannett-owned KUSA-TV (Denver's Northern Bureau) and the Coloradoan (in Fort Collins) have been merged -- off and on -- for over 25 years.

Merging home bases would seem to be the next step.

I'm never crazy about this stuff, but I'm all for anything that adds to the report base. Of course, this will likely just mean they'll cut back on reporters in the newsroom.


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