Collaboration or collusion in Chicago TV news? | Bleader

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Collaboration or collusion in Chicago TV news?

Posted By on 06.23.11 at 08:30 AM

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Local TV news operations across America got hammered Wednesday by a media reform group based in Washington, DC. "Across the country, hundreds of TV stations have quietly merged newsrooms, circumventing the Federal Communications Commission’s media ownership limits at the expense of independent, local journalism," charged SavetheNews.org.

Chicago was singled out. The basis of the SavetheNews.org case against this city's TV operations is a 2009 column describing, if not merged newsrooms then pooled resources, one justification being that this would free up camera crews to do more enterprise journalism. There's been precious little evidence of that. Evidence of layoffs and diminished journalism is easier to find.

SavetheNews.org is an arm of Free Press — "a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to reform the media," whose new national campaign, "Change the Channels," is intended to expose "covert consolidation and shared news operations." Libby Reinish, program coordinator of Free Press, was quoted as saying that “with the majority of Americans getting their news from local broadcast TV, and the lion’s share of local online news originating from local TV stations, we cannot afford to let media companies use covert consolidation to squat on our public airwaves.”

The problem is "far greater" than a recent FCC report acknowledges, says Free Press's own report, Outsourcing the News: How covert consolidation is destroying newsrooms and circumventing media ownership rules. "The FCC cites data from the Communications Workers of America and Media Council Hawai'i, identifying 'at least 25 television markets in the U.S. where stations have entered into "shared services agreements" (SSAs), in which one station effectively takes over the news operation of a second.' However, by broadening the scope of inquiry to include other similar agreements that also result in less competition, diversity and loyalism, the numbers increase significantly."

Free Press focuses on "local news service agreements," describing them as "an agreement among stations that allows multiple independent stations to pool and share journalists, editors, equipment, and content....We are most concerned with those that result in shared content appearing on a number of stations."

As, for example, in Chicago.

Savethenews.org has this to say about Chicago:

"In Chicago, a Local News Sharing Agreement between four stations (CBS, NBC, FOX and CW affiliates) combines journalists, crew and editorial staff to produce a single newscast. News crews from each station are coordinated by a single editor to ensure that no two stations cover the same story. The footage collected is shared between the stations."

When I asked for specifics, Savethenews.org pointed me to this May 2009 column by Phil Rosenthal, then and until the other day media beat writer for the Tribune. Rosenthal said the four channels — respectively 2, 5, 32, and 9 — would share resources "to provide pool coverage of non-exclusive events." Tony Capriolo, a WMAQ sports producer, would coordinate the coverage.

Execs of the stations defended themselves to Rosenthal.

Channel 5: "Rather than having four cameras at an event capturing the same thing, it makes sense to have one and figure out what to do with the cameras that don't have to be there."

Channel 2: "We can go out in the neighborhoods and talk to people who are affected by whatever the change will be, and we'll still have the mayor's remarks available."

Channel 32: "It's a more efficient method of gathering news video at a time when we have to look for every efficiency we possibly can."

Rosenthal pointed out that 32 and 5 were already sharing the same news helicopter.

One camera instead of four makes some sense in an era where there isn't endless money to throw around, at least to someone who believes local TV news has needed for a long time to wrench itself from the mindlessness of pack journalism. But one camera instead of four also means one reporter (at best) instead of four, which can be a godsend to a politician with a statement to make but no particular desire for questions. All four stations turn out on some occasions where you might suppose one camera would do — such as to catch Rod Blagojevich leaving the federal building after a day at trial — but that's because each station wants to be able to show its reporter doing a remote from the scene. That's not enterprise journalism. It's vanity and habit.

The most obvious benefit of local news sharing agreements has been to the career of Mike Renda. He pioneered the idea at the Fox station in Philadelphia, was hailed for it, and is now general manager of Channel 32 in Chicago.

Capriolo didn't want to comment on the report until he'd read it.

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