The Washington Post Co. and NBC News yesterday announced a wide-ranging alliance in which they will share news stories, create a joint Web site with Newsweek, and use both network and local television to promote the work of Post and Newsweek reporters.
MSNBC.com, the Internet arm of the three-year-old cable network, will become the home base on the World Wide Web for Newsweek, a PostCo. subsidiary, creating Newsweek.MSNBC.com early next year. Washingtonpost.com, meanwhile, will provide a limited number of stories to the MSNBC site each day while using certain stories and video clips from NBC. Post readers will see no immediate change in the newspaper.
Both sides say they will maintain editorial independence. But media analysts said the thicket of joint ventures and cross-promotion raises questions about potential conflicts of interest. They noted that The Post Co. is now in business with a network that is owned by General Electric Co. and partners with Microsoft Corp., both major companies covered by The Post and Newsweek.
"We're going to continue to cover them the same way we always have," Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said of NBC, GE and Microsoft. "This will not change or color our coverage. I know it will be more difficult for readers to see it that way because we have a relationship with them."
Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University and director of the nonprofit Project on Media Ownership, said: "The cultural and civic consequences of this kind of corporate bonding are not healthy. It's troubling that The Post should now be in business with a huge company that makes a lot of money off weaponry." GE is a major defense contractor.
"The Post has to own up to the fact that they still have an obligation to cover news, and if it happens to affect a media partner, covering the news has got to come first," said Ken Bode, dean of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "And if it doesn't, it raises questions about where the walls are."
A major impetus for the deal is an effort by Post Co. executives to extend the reach and influence of their Web site by carrying news reports and video footage from MSNBC, putting up Post stories on the highly popular MSNBC site and attracting new visitors through electronic links. Some Post stories will appear on MSNBC.com at 10:30 p.m., the same time they are posted on washingtonpost.com.
According to the firm Media Metrix Inc., washingtonpost.com attracted 1.7 million "unique visitors" in July, trailing the Web sites of the New York Times (2.7 million) and USA Today (2.5 million). MSNBC.com, by contrast, had 6.6 million visitors in September, placing it in the top 30 of all Web destinations. The alliance could also provide a boost for Newsweek's online efforts, which have been far less successful.
Internet analysts saw the alliance as a logical--perhaps vital--deal as new and old media companies partner at a dizzying pace to reach larger Web audiences. Tom Wolzien, a media analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., called the deal "a way of trying to compete against Time Warner, who has more content than anyone else."
Gary Arlen, an analyst with Arlen Communications Inc. of Bethesda, said the video footage and shared content would give washingtonpost.com "a marquee presence and a global product."
"It's real important to establish The Washington Post as an international content provider," he said.
The Post also negotiated unsuccessfully with CBS and ABC, according to Downie. The NBC talks began in July, with Merrill Brown, editor in chief of Redmond, Wash.-based MSNBC.com and a former Post business reporter, emerging as a key figure.
"All of us would be disappointed if within the next six months our traffic and editorial quality weren't significantly enhanced," Brown said.
Media alliances can be a zero-sum game. Yesterday's agreement says Post and Newsweek reporters will appear on NBC and MSNBC and regularly tout forthcoming stories on MSNBC's "The News With Brian Williams"--displacing a similar arrangement that program had with the New York Times. Times spokeswoman Nancy Nielsen called the parting "amicable" and said, "There's a lot more opportunities out there for strategic alliances."
Post and Newsweek executives said their reporters can also appear on other networks, and Downie said he wasn't sure whether his reporters would be paid for the extra MSNBC work.
The agreement also extends to business operations, with The Post Co. and NBC offering joint advertising packages. Executives of the companies declined to disclose the length of the deal or the financial investment by any of the firms, although they said the Web units would share the profit when and if the sites generate any.
"I want our best work to have the widest possible audience," Newsweek President Richard M. Smith said in a conference call with reporters. Asked if he was worried about a repeat of the embarrassment in which Time had to retract a story on nerve gas during the Vietnam War that was largely reported by its partner CNN, Smith said there would be "very active involvement by senior editors and top editorial management" in any joint reporting.
The teaming of journalistic organizations is increasingly common. Another NBC unit, business channel CNBC, shares news with the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times and Fox News are partners with TheStreet.com, a business Web site. Recent mergers have created other alliances, often involving movie studios and book publishing, such as Disney buying ABC, Viacom buying CBS and Time Warner swallowing CNN.
The Post, for its part, is partners with the New York Times in publishing the International Herald Tribune, shares a news service with the Los Angeles Times, does joint polling with ABC News, and provides reporters as guests for NewsChannel 8 and PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."
The Post's limited relationship with WRC-TV, the NBC station here, may be expanded to include distributing each other's independently reported news. Downie said The Post's relationship with NBC would be mentioned in news stories "when it's useful to readers."
The deal was greeted by skepticism in the Post newsroom about entanglements with another media company. The alliance will likely provide little circulation benefit to the newspaper, whose average daily sales for the six months ending Sept. 30 are 763,305, since it is not widely sold outside the area.
On the television side, MSNBC has been struggling to revamp its lineup. MSNBC's ratings dropped 20 percent in the third quarter from a year ago, to an average of 212,000 households. By comparison, CNN's ratings dropped 33 percent, to 592,000 homes.
Eventually, MSNBC and NBC plan to air what executives are calling "co-branded segments" based in part on Post and Newsweek reporting. NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley said he sees "the possibility of joining forces on particular stories," but no one was quite certain how that would work. Downie said he could envision running a bylined piece by an NBC correspondent in a locale where there was no Post reporter.
The deal may create new deadline decisions, since Post reporters will be talking about next-day print stories on Williams's 9 p.m. MSNBC newscast. The news organizations say they are free to hold back certain exclusives.
The alliance also provides fodder for critics of media concentration. "When the same few giants are in command of the whole field of culture industries, competition will be superficial and largely cosmetic," NYU's Miller said.
Staff writer Shannon Henry contributed to this report.
CAPTION: COMBINING MEDIA FORCES (This graphic was not available)