Newspaper-TV Marriage Shows Signs of Strain

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

At the Washington bureau of the Belo newspaper chain, two veteran television reporters whose stories appeared on Belo's 19 broadcast stations were laid off and are to be replaced by videographers who will shoot digital video for the Web sites of Belo's 11 newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News.

Last week, the New York Times Co. sold its nine TV stations for nearly $600 million, months after it left its partnership with Discovery Communications on a joint TV channel.

Tribune Co., which has 11 newspapers and 24 broadcast stations and has put itself up for sale, has found tepid interest from bidders to buy the company and is considering spinning off the TV stations.

And Tuesday, executives at E.W. Scripps, which owns 19 newspapers and 10 TV stations, said it might consider splitting off its newspaper division as a separate company.

Television once was a coveted partner of newspapers. Executives talked of synergy between the two media, with newspaper reporters broadcasting their expertise on television, and TV stations providing a wider reach for the print brand. The high profit earned by TV stations, as much as 40 percent during years when the stations are fattened by political advertising, was seen as crucial to the bottom lines of newspaper companies.

In 2000, Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said: "From a business perspective, we will not achieve the financial success that can be ours without entering the world of television."

But last year, when the Times exited its partnership with Discovery -- Times reporters narrated cable TV documentaries on topics such as al-Qaeda -- Sulzberger said the company saw the future of video in short form and on the Web, as opposed to long form and on television.

When Tribune bought Times Mirror in 2000, the new company had newspapers and TV stations in several large markets, including the top three. The company lobbied for and anticipated a repeal of the Federal Communications Commission's ban on one company owning a newspaper and TV station in the same city and looked to expand its holdings. The ban is still in place, however, and the expected advertising synergies have not been achieved, the company has acknowledged.

Even though TV stations still are profitable, they no longer enjoy the dominance they did in days before cable and the Internet. And in many places, the newspaper and television cultures never meshed.

"It was a failed experiment," said Tom Ackerman, one of the Belo TV reporters let go. "There were great aspirations, but it was never followed through. It was a mismatch: The [Belo] bureau served 17 television markets, and the newspaper people only worked for the Dallas Morning News. It was not really seen as an asset [for newspaper journalists] to be put on the air anywhere but Dallas."

Television has not provided the hoped-for advertising relationships, either. Increasingly, newspapers are turning instead to the Web to help them land national advertisers. In early December, Gannett said it was working out a partnership with Tribune and McClatchy that would let advertisers one-stop shop to place ads in the 132 papers owned by the three chains. The announcement was reported Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal.

In November, seven other newspaper chains, including MediaNews Group, signed a deal with Yahoo to use the Internet portal's technology to sell ads in the group's 176 papers. The Washington Post Co., New York Times, Gannett and others are working on a similar deal with Google.

What happened to spoil the newspaper-television marriage? Mostly, the YouTube and MySpace interlopers.

Both Web sites have proven that there is a massive and growing appetite for short video of nearly any quality, be it a teenager's webcam scenes, a professionally produced TV commercial or a piece of crude animation.

Newspapers know that it is far cheaper to ask entry-level videographers to shoot digital video of a news event and post it on a Web site than to pay a TV reporter, video photographer and producer to create a three-minute news report for television. Many newspapers, including The Post, are training their reporters to shoot video with their stories. Some reporters carry video cameras and shoot video to accompany their articles when they appear on their newspaper's Web site.

Video "has proven very popular with both viewers and advertisers," Times Co. spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said.

That is the other advantage of Web video over television: On the Web, newspaper readers can easily hang their own pictures and post their own video, a la YouTube. Several newspapers, seeking to bond with their readers and become a sort of bulletin board and water cooler for their circulation area, are encouraging readers to do just that -- post homemade video of their kid with Santa, for instance.

If such content draws viewers, it can be sold to advertisers, and newspapers have achieved a sort of perpetual-motion machine: cost-free content that can support advertising -- in short, nearly pure profit.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company