‘Camera-ready’ gains new meaning

By: Joe Strupp

It was a big story for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sports reporter Don Walker: the sudden departure of the president of the local Major League Baseball team, the Brewers. When it broke during a busy afternoon last November, Walker was on top of it, gathering facts and writing to beat the daily deadline.

Then the call came in. WTMJ-TV, the local NBC affiliate owned by Journal Sentinel parent company Journal Communications, asked him to grab some air time. “The story was still breaking and they wanted me to be on their 4 p.m. newscast,” recalls Walker, a 25-year veteran of the paper, who’s done a handful of stories for the television station. “I missed a couple of calls while I was on.”

Walker’s double duty is not unusual in today’s newsrooms, especially those with ownership links or cross-reporting agreements with nearby broadcast outlets. With “convergence” the buzzword, more reporters are being asked to get ready for their close-up to help promote the newspaper and aid the broadcast report.

“I think it enhances our credibility because it shows off our experts,” says Journal Sentinel Editor Martin Kaiser, who says the practice will likely grow. “It becomes part of their work day. They already do short breaking stories online. It could get to the point where it is done a lot.”

None of the dozen editors who spoke with E&P about the issue had instituted mandatory television appearances. “We are not twisting arms,” says Mark Bowden, editor of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which has a cross-reporting agreement with nearby KCRG-TV, an ABC affiliate owned by the paper’s parent, The Gazette Co. “If someone does not want to be on camera, we are not making them.” But Bowden contends that many of his reporters gladly take on the air time, including members of the paper’s investigative team who have worked with their television counterparts on major projects: “They meet on a quarterly basis and plan stories. We are doing a lot of these things.”

KCRG also provides information for the Gazette’s weather pages, as well as having its helicopter crew take aerial photos when needed. In return, the newspaper provides its financial reporter, arts and entertainment reporter, and food editor for regular weekly appearances on the station.

At the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, “We have people on air every week,” says Jane Amari, the paper’s editor and publisher, referring to local KVOA-TV. “We have regular appearances by the traffic reporter, entertainment reporter and prep sports writer. It gives them content, and it gives us promotion and visibility.”

But the growing relationships are also full of potential problems and new issues, including extra pay for the reporters, time constraints at deadline, and questions about how much news reporters want to reveal on air that may take away from their print stories.

“If it is a burden, we don’t do it,” remarks Rick Rodriguez, executive editor of The Sacramento Bee, which shares reporters with nearby KXTV. “We are a newspaper first and it will not interfere.” The Bee pays reporters extra for the broadcast appearances. Many others contend that the work is done within their regular schedule, although The Sun in Baltimore will pay overtime if necessary.

Bernie Lunzer, secretary-treasurer of The Newspaper Guild-CWA in Washington, D.C., says pay could become an issue if cross-reporting is done more often. “There is a question about whether it intrudes on the work cycle and what compensation you are going to get,” he says. “The company is going to have to accommodate reporters and make it worth their while.”

Lauria Lynch-German, president of The Milwaukee Newspaper Guild, made sure that reporters were not forced to go on the air when a camera first came into her newsroom. “If it became a regular assignment, we would have to talk about training and compensation,” she says. “We don’t want it to cause a work speed-up.”

Tim Franklin, editor of the Sun, which keeps a television camera in the newsroom for such appearances, says, “My concern as an editor is that you worry about a reporter perhaps missing a phone call or being out on assignment. You don’t want to sacrifice the quality of the newspaper or have it get in the way.” The Sun had an exclusive agreement with WMAR-TV for several years, but ended it recently to expand its broadcast options and strike new deals with several television stations. “We feel having multiple partners allows us to do more,” says Franklin.

Sun Technology Editor Kevin Washington, who has done regular weekly appearances for WMAR, enjoys it for the most part. “For some things it worked well and I am a bit of a ham,” he says. “It was a little bit of a hassle because I had to prepare for it.”

Both editors and reporters admit that eventually reporters may have to be more versatile as convergence grows. “We are going to have to more and more define ourselves as information gatherers,” says Amari.

For Walker, the demands will likely grow as he covers the 2004 Olympics in Athens in August. “I’m sure I’ll be asked to do TV from there,” he predicts. “I may have to do something at midnight for 4 p.m. here. That makes for a long day.”

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