Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Same News Stories Everywhere?

Most If Not All Austin, Texas Stations Will Share Video

Austin, Texas stations KVUE TV (ABC), KTBC (Fox 7), KEYE (CBS), and KXAN (NBC) are now planning to share news video. Most, if not all of the stations in the nation’s 49th market, would send only one photographer to what might be considered “routine” stories—news conferences, photo ops and the like—and then, they will share the video.

“Yes it is true. This will enable our stations to achieve broader coverage while not wasting time and energy duplicating efforts when covering news conferences and similar events,” says Eric Lassberg, president and general manager of LIN Television, Austin. Lassberg was responding to whether KXAN TV’s news department and KTBC News were planning to share news video.

Representatives from five Austin Television stations met Wednesday, February 25, 2009. The details of the arrangement are yet to be worked out. Not all of the stations’ personnel have been informed, but apparently it is a done deal. Amy Villareal, KEYE TV general manager confirmed, “KEYE is participating.”

“Yes, KVUE will be a part of this video sharing agreement,” said Frank Volpicella, news director at KVUE TV. “All five stations have agreed in principal. We are hashing out the details.” Certainly, the deal will not deter stations from sending full crews if they deem the story of greater importance. Frankly, I hope that happens more often than not.

KTBC TV News Director Pam Vaught deferred comment to Mark Rodman, KTBC general manager. He has not responded yet.

It is said that Univision will also be invited to join in the loose consortium.

If any of the stations in the Austin market were to share video, it makes the most sense for KXAN and KTBC to be partners. Austin TV viewers/news consumers/news users are very fickle; they sample other stations a lot. But, research indicates that KTBC and KXAN share relatively few viewers. So, it is less likely that a viewer of KTBC’s 9 p.m. news will say, “I’ve seen that before” if they were to watch KXAN at 10 p.m. KXAN and KVUE share many viewers, however. Depending on the details, this arrangement, while economically doable, could be damaging to viewers.

It is unclear whether different reporters will also attend the news conferences and, therefore, present a different angle on a story. Also, the stations may choose totally different sound bites.

Critics might call it a homogenizing of news content. That’s a danger. Conspiracy theorists always maintain that the news is all the same dictated by some sinister force—the TV stations, the network, and even the government are all in cahoots. This could be fodder that fuels those flames. But on the day with The Rocky Mountain News announced that tomorrow (Friday, February, 2009) will be the final edition, it says a lot about the economy.

This is the first such partnership with competing stations in the Austin market, but it is not uncommon elsewhere. For instance in the Phoenix market, three stations are sharing one helicopter. "This was done as a response to this economy and for financial reasons," John Misner, president and general manager of 12 News told the Arizona Republic.

This Austin pool coverage agreement is happening at the same time that the only mass-production local newspaper is up for sale. Experienced reporters at the Austin American-Statesman are being offered buy-outs. As a journalist, it’s a scary, sullen time.

In kindergarten they taught us to share. It was a good thing. It was something we were supposed to do all of our lives, in fact. Nowadays, in TV news, it’s becoming a way of doing business. One could put it into the same pigeon-hole called “Doing More with Less”. Or, one might more rightly say, given these economic times as media stocks become penny stocks, it is a smart way of doing business.

Still, there is a danger to local democracy. If all the local media are reporting from the same stuff (“Stuff” is used intentionally.), I believe that the consumer/user/viewer of broadcast journalism may be losing something of great value. Personally, I’d seldom use content from a news conference, considering it “canned”. Instead, I’d pull the sources aside and ask questions others weren’t asking.

As noted above, the details of this apparent agreement are still being worked out. I do have faith in some of the “Big J” journalists in this market who will ensure that the important work of information to the audience is being done. Some, however, may be lazy. Some stations may simply take the rote sound bites of the day to fill the news hole. Geez, I hope not.

There are many philosophical, thorny issues inside of this issue. This could be a field day for politicians and publicists. I hope to explore these with the local news directors and news editors soon.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Melanie Fish said...

Hmmmm. I could argue this both ways. It makes sense if newsrooms don't abuse it and use it as an excuse not to do their own legwork.

Skirde said...

You make some good points McNabb - I share many of the same concerns you have about this sharing agreement. Something good that may come of this is that it will allow reporters and photographers more time to pursue the other angles of the story, rather than be tied up in a news conference that we really only need for background information.
Oh, and thanks for the shout out to the Rocky. I had to go to three different coffee shops here in Denver this morning before I could find some copies left of the final edition... such a sad sign of the times...

John said...

Actually, aside from the financial savings, it makes editorial sense. I don't think viewers will notice the similarities between the various newscasts’ airing of the same dog-and-pony news conference. As you noted in your column, stations will pull different bites and write different voice-overs.

However, more problematic is the likelihood TV stations will eliminate crews rather than pursue more enterprise stories. Then it is really homogenized news.

That is a more serious concern then merely sharing video from an event everyone will get anyway – albeit at a slightly different camera angle.

Anonymous said...

Chicago FOX and NBC stations are in talks to do just this, as well...and are already sharing (or at least in talks, can't remember if they've begun yet) to share a helicopter; NBC gets a reporter in the chopper from 5a-7a and FOX gets reporter riding from 7-9.

Yes, we're eliminating job opportunities for crews and NEWS opportunities for viewers. As one that's been "in it", seems pretty clear that the more cameras, etc. that are there, the more competative the reporters seem to get (some of them, anyhow) to ask the good questions.

Anonymous said...

News McNabb!!

As a former Austin shooter, with 10 years in a top 25 market I'd have to question the real world logistics to this kind of agreement. In my last market, all court-room proceedings were handled by pool feeds with 3 different formats being used by the 4 local stations. There were a few basic rules: The first to call the clerk was the pool camera, and in order for the other stations to get a dub of the video you had to be present. In other words, there was no relying on another station to do your work. It kept folks honest and accountable, not to mention if a crew was "re-directed" for breaking news... another crew was there to take over.

This arrangement seems to ignore all those issues. What if... a crew assigned to a "story" is late? Dubs are not done in time? Where will the dubs be done and in what format? Which station gets the first copy? What if the pool camera station gets an "exclusive" of some sort?

On the surface, this agreement sounds good if you are the GM and you must squeeze blood from your turnips, but for the crews in the field it will be like working in a snake pit smack in the middle of quicksand. Good luck folks, the dumbing down of local news is about to get a lot dumber.