Camera co-op: In the near future, Portland television stations WCSH-TV (Channel 6) and WGME-TV (Channel 13) plan to share some news-gathering resources. The arrangement hasn’t been finalized, but sources familiar with the negotiations said the two market leaders in TV news are close to a deal to swap video of some news events on a daily basis.
This type of cooperation is becoming more common in an industry hit hard by the recession. Philadelphia stations owned by the Fox and NBC networks began trading some of their video last year.
One station executive called the Philadelphia arrangement “a template for the industry” and predicted it would soon be expanded to other stations owned by the two networks.
In the Minneapolis market, four stations set up an informal video-sharing system last month.
The participating TV outlets hold a daily conference call to decide who’ll send camera crews where to avoid duplication. “I’m not even sure if it’s saving money,” one news director said. “This just allows us to do more enterprise reporting.”
Also in February, two Cleveland stations worked out a similar deal to share coverage of “preplanned” events, such as news conferences, groundbreakings and other routine happenings.
Officials at the stations said the video swap would free staffers to cover more stories. As one general manager put it, “We’re wasting our photography resources on numerous generic stories everyday.”
There’s a similar setup in Denver. In Phoenix and Chicago, stations have even gone so far as to share the leases on helicopters.
It’s not clear how extensive the Portland deal will be, because neither WGME news director Robb Atkinson nor WCSH news director Maureen O’Brien would talk about it, with both saying such comments would be premature until all the details are settled. “It’s still cookin’ in the oven,” Atkinson said in a phone interview last week.
In spite of claims that sharing video will result in stations devoting more time and effort to enterprise stories, the reality seems to be that these deals are primarily aimed at cutting costs. A news operation that can obtain video from its competitors can get by with less travel, less overtime, maybe even fewer shooters. Those kinds of financial benefits trump most other concerns, according to Kelly McBride, head of the ethics group at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“If you’re making big profits, you’ve got no reasons to justify it,” McBride said. “Given that newsrooms are closing left and right in this country, figuring out ways to provide information is the ethical imperative.
“Surviving is a fundamentally ethical act, and sharing resources in a difficult environment is one way for TV stations to survive.”
McBride does concede that such deals result in “fewer professional points of view,” but finds that a more acceptable loss than many alternatives.
George Matz, the news director at WMTW-TV (Channel 8) in Portland, said he had some initial discussions about joining the video-sharing arrangement with WCSH and WGME, but didn’t pursue that option.
“Economic times are difficult, but I think the integrity of the news product is important,” Matz said. “I think it is erroneous to think that just because it’s an announced event, that the video is generic, that the station isn’t responsible for finding the best angle on that event.”
He said the deal had the potential to reduce competition.
In Bangor, Jim Morris, news director at WABI-TV (Channel 5), said he’s not interested in sharing video, unless it’s absolutely necessary, such as the court-mandated requirement that a single pool camera be used to cover legal proceedings. Morris said he could imagine cases where stations might not even send a reporter to events, thereby missing nuances and off-camera actions that might alter how a story is presented.
“Where are you going to draw the line,” he said. “I have a problem if we’re not pushing each other.”
The sharing arrangement in Portland apparently does not include any Bangor stations at this time, but it could still create a disruption in that market. Some newscasts on WCSH are also shown on its sister station WLBZ-TV in Bangor (Channel 2). If WCSH uses video it got from WGME, those shots might also air on Channel 2. But WGME currently has an exclusive arrangement with WVII-TV (Channel 7) in Bangor to swap video. That exclusivity could soon be a thing of the past, thereby reducing the value of WVII’s deal with WGME.
More details about the video-sharing arrangement are expected to be announced later this week.
Udder confusion: On Feb. 15, the Kennebec Journal published a story by staff writer Matthew Stone that claimed Maine organic dairy farmers “appear better positioned” than their non-organic counterparts to weather tough times in the milk-producing business.
While the article noted the organic farmers might be affected by declining subsidies and a supply glut in the conventional milk industry, it indicated the small-scale industry was insulated from much of the mainstream market’s turmoil by fixed-price contracts farmers had signed with Stonyfield Farm, a company owned by dairy giant HP Hood.
A much more comprehensive story in the March 2 Bangor Daily News by staff write Sharon Kiley Mack tells a completely different story.
Not only is Hood canceling many of those contracts with organic farmers, it’s also notifying dairy farms that continue to sell it organic milk that they must cut production by 15 percent. Hood blamed a surplus of organic milk, which can cost twice as much an the non-organic variety, for the decisions.
How could these two stories offer such contradictory views of the organic dairy industry? Did the situation really change that much in just over two weeks?
It appears the warning signs were there for Stone if he (or his editors) had looked. As Mack noted in a sidebar, production of organic milk in Maine has been plummeting for the past 18 months because of declining demand. Rather than being well positioned to ride out the recession, as Stone claimed, the organic dairies appear to be far more vulnerable to the economic downturn.
Mack got the cream. Stone came up a couple of gallons short.
Deep thinking: Those wondering how the next generation of Blethens will deal with whatever is left of the family newspaper empire got some non-answers from a Feb. 26 column by Ryan Blethen in the Seattle Times.
Before Blethen landed the column-writing gig at the family’s flagship paper, he got much of his journalism experience during a brief stint with the Portland Press Herald a few years ago. Here’s a sampling of his insights:
“Life has taught me that change and unpredictability are consistently predictable.”
“How did the newspaper business get to this troubling spot? The Internet is the force behind the disruptive change.”
“For the next couple of months I will be writing about these newspaper-saving ideas. Will any of them work? I have no clue.”
“What is for certain is that newspapers will emerge on the other side of this transitional period much changed.”
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.