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Journalism's Future May Start in Tampa

One in an occasional series on the media ownership debate

May 07, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

TAMPA, Fla. — In this sunny Gulf Coast city, photographers for the Tampa Tribune lug both still and video camera equipment to all assignments. That's because they're also working for a local TV station, WFLA Channel 8.

Extra sweat notwithstanding, the arrangement usually pans out -- though a newspaper photographer once didn't have time to switch cameras while shooting TV footage of a bank robbery in which a police officer was killed, and the paper was left with only a grainy video frame shot of the scene on Page 1.

So the journalistic future is still ironing out the kinks, even as the Federal Communications Commission considers a rules change that could make such collaborations routine.

The Tampa paper hasn't won a Pulitzer Prize in nearly 40 years, has a relatively modest circulation of 238,176 and often scrambles to keep up with a bigger rival across the bay. But by pushing the "convergence" envelope, it has become one of the world's most closely watched publications.

A steady stream of law- makers, professors, regulators and media executives pours through its slick concrete-and-glass newsroom each week, to glimpse a world in which the oil and water of television and print journalism are thoroughly mixed.

Three years ago, Richmond, Va.-based Media General Inc., the Tribune's parent, spent $50 million on a bold experiment to combine its Tampa paper with WFLA, its local TV station. The marriage, permitted under a regulatory exemption, marked the first attempt to put a co-owned newspaper and station under one roof.

As the FCC reviews a 1975 rule that usually prevents companies from owning a newspaper and TV station in the same market, the Tribune-WFLA combination has emerged as a test of what may become the media industry's next wave of mergers. The FCC is expected to vote June 2 on this and other media ownership rules. The agency's three majority Republican commissioners, two of whom have toured the Tampa facility, favor permitting newspaper-television matchups in all but the smallest U.S. markets, sources said.

The deregulation is likely to spur a race by owners of newspapers and TV stations, including New York Times Co., Belo Corp., Hearst-Argyle Television Inc. and Gannett Co., to buy one another or make strategic trades, enabling them to follow Tampa's example in search of greater cost efficiencies, advantages with advertisers or even new journalistic forms.

"That's going to open the door for more combinations," said newspaper analyst John Morton. "But the idea of TV and newspapers collaborating is still a recent phenomenon. We don't know how it will work."

In Tampa and other cities, co-ownership has been allowed because a single company already held a station and newspaper when the ban was imposed.

In Los Angeles, Chicago-based Tribune Co. owns both the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV Channel 5 -- which share resources on a fairly limited basis -- under an arrangement that is permitted until the station's next license renewal in 2006.

The Chicago company has been lobbying to end the co-ownership ban.

"The rule is an impediment to our growth," said Tribune lobbyist Shaun Sheehan, who contends that the company needs cross-ownership to remain competitive. "There's a migration of audience away from the traditional media of print and broadcast. We are trying to refocus our thinking."

So far, the Tampa experiment promises less than a revolution. To the chagrin of numbers crunchers, the combination hasn't yielded big savings: Budgets and staffing levels for the paper and TV station are about the same as before, executives said. And cross-platform advertising deals added just 2% to the Tribune's revenue last year.

At the same time, dreams of creating a new-style "multimedia reporter," adept at both television and newspapers, have fallen flat. After three years, only one print reporter regularly produces stories for the TV station, the top-rated in the market.

Tampa Tribune managers point to pluses for their paper.

"Being with TV, you have to move faster. We're quicker. We're more visual," said Tribune Executive Editor Gil Thelen, whom many credit with deftly navigating the experiment. "We moved from being a mediocre paper to one that is good."

Yet media watchdogs are nervous.

"Convergence may be good for media companies, but it's bad for journalism," said Robert Haiman, president emeritus of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, who has been a Tampa Tribune consultant and was once executive editor of the rival St. Petersburg Times.

Without the cross-ownership ban, experts worry that newspapers would fall under the influence of large TV station groups or media conglomerates, such as AOL Time Warner Inc., Viacom Inc. or News Corp., which might emphasize entertainment and profit over journalism and community service.

Haiman says newspapers and TV stations have long had distinct work cultures and warns that mergers would distract newspapers from their journalistic rigor and investigative work.

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