Expand your news coverage: build a news consortium

Newspaper editors should be discussing how to share content coverage beyond the Associated Press.

Not just sharing stories, but sharing coverage.

Radical, yes. Unlikely, to be sure. But if editors are truly thinking about providing the best public service to their readers, sharing coverage is a natural answer.  How many reporters from different news organizations need to cover the state legislature? Next year, how many need to follow Sen. Kay Hagan and her opponent around on the campaign trail? How many need to staff the Tar Heels and Blue Devils and Carolina Panthers?

If they aren’t duplicating coverage, could they bring their readers other interesting stories that readers wouldn’t get otherwise?

Exhibit A: The front page of Sunday’s Charlotte Observer features a column by Tom Sorenson about Carolina Panther Mike Tolbert. The News & Record published Sorenson’s column on the front page of its Sunday sports section. Greensboro readers benefitted from a wonderful story; Charlotte’s cost? Zip.

So, the first step – sharing stories – is in place. Next step: discussing who should cover what.

The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer have already done it with their political and sports staffs. As a reader of both papers, I declare that it works. Both are better for it. Now that the News & Record and the Winston-Salem Journal are owned by the same company, they should aggressively pursue similar plans. They are 30 miles apart, have smaller staffs and could expand coverage by sharing coverage, particularly as it involves business, development, the furniture market and sports. Bring the High Point Enterprise in and you get an entirely different facet: Neither Winston nor Greensboro would need to bother with the furniture market; the Enterprise could take that.

Admittedly, this idea isn’t fully baked. Editors at papers across the state would need to figure out what sort of coverage they can cooperate on. (I know that if I were the News & Observer, I would try to sell a “Raleigh report” to newspapers across the state.)

But one thing is for sure: It’s no longer an issue of competitiveness. Oh, it certainly still is in the newsroom. The idea that “we” can do it best pervades. Watch “All the President’s Men,” as I did recently and count the number of times Woodward and Bernstein talk about beating the New York Times.

But to readers, it isn’t. They don’t pay attention to bylines. They do care about the best, most complete coverage. So should journalists.

Is it competitive from a business end? I suggest that it isn’t. It’s not easy to buy a Winston-Salem Journal in Greensboro and vice versa. N&R carriers don’t home deliver into Forsyth County, unless that has changed in the past two years. There isn’t a newspaper war in Alamance County, either. The N&R doesn’t cover Alamance or Randolph. The readers in those counties who buy the News & Record want and are getting Guilford County news because that is basically all the paper prints. In the same way, the Times-News and the Courier-Tribune don’t print Greensboro news.

So, what if they joined forces, shared content and some reporter assignments?

Crazy, right?

How much crazier than partnering with TV stations? That ill-fitting match made in journalism hell has been going on for years.

I grant there are some competitive markets in which this wouldn’t make good business sense. But fewer than you might think. Thirteen years ago, the News & Record put more than a dozen staffers in High Point and produced a top-drawer High Point edition of the paper. Could not budge High Point Enterprise readers.

Note I am not proposing the combination of copy and design desks, which saves money but does not serve readers by increasing accuracy. Raleigh and Charlotte do it. Winston and some other Berkshire Hathaway papers do it, and Greensboro will likely join the party. Can you imagine copy editors keeping the Sedgefields and Sedge Gardens apart? The New Garden Roads in both cities?

Honestly, I don’t see this happening. For an industry whose work has moved faster and faster to the point that every minute is a deadline and a breaking story is a tweet away, newspapers often still move as if they have all the time in the world.

The funny thing is, what’s to lose?

Updated: This has been discussed in Texas. In general, there was a consensus in favor of more collaboration—though the details ofhow to do that remained fuzzy, frankly. The Chronicle’s Proctor was the leading advocate for partnerships—the old sense of competing for a share of the audience is outdated, he said, and news organizations should think in terms of serving one common public. He said he wants to work not just with other newspapers in other markets, but with broadcasters in his own market—who still enjoy substantial reach, and a different audience from newspaper-readers.

Thanks to Corey Hutchins for the link.

Updated II: In the comments, Elaine Clisham says it’s happening in New Jersey.

11 thoughts on “Expand your news coverage: build a news consortium

  1. And what if they filled up their sections with this local news and became truly local newspapers? And what if they actively solicited community content and ran it, even though it wasn’t “professionally generated?” Let the school system PR office create all the in-classroom features and turn reporters loose on education enterprise. Like your last paragraph, I don’t see this happening either, at least so long as local newspapers feel like they have to keep filling up their insides with the latest 15 inches from Chechnya.

    • Thanks, John. I’m less worried about Chechnya than Raleigh. There are a lot of readers who are more interested in statewide issues than much of the community content that is published. I am one of them. I don’t suggest that papers get rid of that community content, but to make room for relevant content from Raleigh, Charlotte, Wilmington and, say, Southern Pines.

  2. Forget between the sedges. Keeping Guilford College and Greensboro College straight in Greensboro is a long running battle.

    A la John Nagy, I was crestfallen to see the Burlington Times-News run press releases I sent them word for word – with my byline attached. But then I remembered, I can write a cracker-jack feature and get my facts right. Plus, I’m no more a charlatan than the next guy. So I agree with John Nagy, if the nouns and verbs agree and the story is credible, run it and point your resources somewhere else.

    As for news from Raleigh and Charlotte newspapers, I’m wondering when newspapers across the state are going to start doing what television and radio does so shamelessly: Just steal it and run it. But unlike television and radio, why not attribute it and give credit where credit is due.

  3. Editorial collaboration and partnerships are happening across the independent news sector. The Media Consortium is itself an international network of independent, progressive news outlets. Our members have recently shared coverage on the implementation of planb-onestep (www.whereisyourplanb.com) and the battle against pesticide-resistant GMO seeds in Kauai, with more to come!

    The bottom line: even when outlets are competitors for audience share, they benefit from the leveraged resources and cross-promotion collaboration provides.

  4. “But if editors are truly thinking about providing the best public service to their readers, sharing coverage is a natural answer.” Not sure public service is that high on the list of priorities for most but I’m guessing some will see cost cutting benefits.

  5. There was a flurry of activity back in 2008. The Miami Herald, Sun Sentinel and Palm Beach created a content-sharing partnership in South Florida (http://bit.ly/18Ai065) as did The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun (http://nyti.ms/1bV0O1o). Newspapers in Ohio also formed a partnership in 2009 (http://bit.ly/1aTedkc). Most of this was in reaction to high AP rates at a time of rapidly declining revenue. Haven’t heard anything about how these played out, but would be interesting to know.

  6. Pingback: Who is your competition? | Media, disrupted

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