By: Joe Strupp
Media General Properties Converge In New Building
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by Joe Strupp
Bright lights above the busy WFLA-TV newsroom in Tampa, Fla., beam down
on Lisa Greene as she stands, a bit fidgety, next to a large-screen video
monitor awaiting her cue. The 35-year-old Tampa Tribune reporter, whose
experience spans 15 years at daily newspapers, but none on TV, is about
to ‘go live’ on WFLA’s 5:30 p.m. newscast with a report on expanding
Amtrak service in the city.
Earlier in the day, Greene started writing an Amtrak story for the next
morning’s Tribune and Tampa Bay Online, the paper’s Web site, but has
been asked by TV producers to provide insights during a short, on-air
chat with anchorwoman Stacie Schaible. ‘I like to pretend that nobody’s
really watching,’ says Greene, who hopes the dark pants, white-and-blue
sweater, and pearls she’s wearing – her usual newsroom attire – are
appropriate for TV. ‘I still get a little nervous,’ she confesses. ‘But
it gets easier each time.’
When the camera switches to her, Greene is direct, but slightly shaky as
Schaible asks her what obstacles may halt the project and what routes
would be added if daily Amtrak service through Tampa jumped from two
stops to 13 over five years. After the short discussion, Schaible reminds
viewers to look for Greene’s story ‘in tomorrow’s Tampa Tribune.’
Using Tribune reporters on TV is nothing new in the Florida Gulf Coast
city. Since the Tribune, WFLA, and TBO.com – all Media General Inc.
properties – moved into the same building several months ago, crossover
coverage, or ‘convergence,’ has become standard procedure. From TV
reporters penning newspaper columns, to online staff commenting during
newscasts, to print photographers shooting video for broadcast, this
pioneering union of three separate entities has made editors and producers
look at local news coverage in a fresh, expanded way that they say
improves the overall product. The total, they argue, is greater than the
sum of its parts.
‘We have a variety of excellent journalism that is produced, and being
under the same roof makes all the difference,’ says Gil Thelen, Tribune
vice president and executive editor as well as a 20-year newspaper
veteran. ‘We are quicker and more urgent in our reporting, and that is
Others inside ‘The News Center,’ a massive $40-million Media General
structure opened last March to house its three Tampa properties, say
the combined approach gives each operation advantages in using talent
from other staffs, borrowing story ideas, and sharing resources. ‘The
[Tribune’s] ability to cover and know about things that we don’t have
the resources for is unlimited,’ says Dan Bradley, news director for
WFLA, the NBC affiliate in Tampa. ‘We cover a lot of the same stuff,
but we can be more immediate, and they can take it more in-depth.’
Recent circulation and ratings reports indicate at least a small bump
in attention for the combined effort. WFLA says overall ratings were up
about 3% in July, compared with a year ago, while the 11 p.m. newscast
continues to beat head-to-head competitors. The Tribune’s daily
circulation rose from 201,002 in July 1999 to 206,694 this July,
although Sunday circulation dropped from 292,400 to 279,811 over the
same period. At TBO.com, meanwhile, page views were up 35% in July
compared with May.
But the mixing of online, TV, and newspaper coverage also has created a
host of sticky new issues and concerns, including time management for
editors and producers, compensation for those who do crossover reporting,
and training for reporters unfamiliar with print or broadcast styles.
Some have been reluctant to embrace their fellow journalists for fear
that such cooperation may dilute news coverage and editorial independence.
‘It clearly limits the number of voices in the community,’ says John
Sugg, editor of the alternative Weekly Planet in Tampa and a former
Tribune staffer. ‘The newspaper becomes a PR tool for the TV station,
and vice versa.’
Newsroom officials say such worries are unfounded. ‘We’ve been very
sensitive to people who view this as a consolidation,’ says Michael
Kilgore, Tribune marketing communications director. ‘But it is really
more eyes, more ears, and more mouths.’
For motorists driving along South Parker Street in Tampa, The News
Center squats like a giant concrete block. A high tan wall wraps the
facility like the rim of a prison. Numerous satellite dishes nest on top
and a tower bearing NBC’s famous peacock logo sticks straight up. Situated
on the western edge of the downtown Hillsborough River – where college
crew teams and occasional dolphins share the currents – Tampa’s one-stop
news site boasts the city’s largest group of reporting, writing, and
editing professionals in one location.
Located next to the Tribune’s former building – which still houses the
newspaper’s marketing and business offices – the new combo is structured
to allow the three news operations to share and share alike. WFLA studios
occupy the first floor, with the TV station’s newsroom located one flight
above. Tribune staff commandeer the third floor, while TBO.com shares
space on both the second and third floors. TBO.com’s 14-person staff
includes five newspeople, WFLA’s team has 10 reporters, and the Tribune
boasts 125 reporters and editors, 65 copy and design people, and 23
An atrium between the first and second floors makes for easy shouting
between levels, passing along of film and video, or sounding an all-points
bulletin when a big story breaks. ‘There’s a lot of yelling to each other,
but it makes for easier communication,’ says Doug Anderson, WFLA’s
assignment manager, who shares information with Tribune and TBO.com
editors from his post atop the second floor multimedia center that
resembles the bridge of a Starfleet ship. ‘Things happen very quickly,’
he observes, adding that it’s become second nature to be in close contact
‘We’ve had some cultural adjustments to make with copy editors working
right over the TV newsroom,’ says Patti Breckenridge, Tribune assistant
managing editor. ‘They can get a little loud down there; we’ve had to
pass some earplugs out.’
Ask Steve DeGregorio if he feels like the ringmaster in a three-ring
circus, and you’re not likely to get much argument. As the Tribune’s
multimedia editor, DeGregorio – who spent 11 years at WFLA prior to
jumping ship in 1999 – has the task of finding stories that play well
on the TV, online, and newspaper outlets. Starting at WFLA’s 9 a.m.
morning meeting, then continuing at TBO.com’s 9:30 a.m. gathering and,
finally, the Tribune’s 10:30 budget session, DeGregorio must not only
pick appropriate convergence story ideas but also convince people in
each organization to collaborate.
‘It’s like corralling wild horses,’ DeGregorio says with a cynical smile.
‘There is a lot of negotiation for the most part and a lot of planning to
bring it together and make sure you do not duplicate information.’
The standard approach usually resembles Lisa Greene’s Amtrak story, where
a newspaper reporter simply goes on an evening newscast to promote the
story in the next day’s paper. On other occasions, editors may ask a TV
reporter covering an interesting story outside the Tribune’s readership
area to write a version for the newspaper. Or a camera operator on
assignment for TV may shoot a still photo for the newspaper. Nearly half
of the Tribune’s 23 photographers carry video cameras, while two of WFLA’s camerapeople also pocket digital still cameras.
‘It’s all done on a case-by-case basis,’ says DeGregorio. ‘There are no hard-and-fast rules, no exact science.’ Among recent examples of crossover reporting are:
o A Tribune story about a passenger who landed a small plane when the pilot
was ill carried the bylines of Tribune reporter Bill Heery and WFLA anchor
Byron Brown. The double credit occurred after Heery used elements of Brown’s
TV script for background.
o A WFLA report on local swimmers at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Indianapolis was delivered by Tribune sportswriter Bill Ward. Anchor Brown interviewed Ward then reminded viewers to check TBO.com for more information.
o A gripping report on dog bites ran as a two-part series on WFLA, a
front-page story in the Tribune, and a TBO.com package.
o A Tribune story on the removal of a statue from a shopping center included
a picture by Photo Assignment Editor Jay Connor, who also shot video for
And, just two weeks ago, Peter Howard, TBO.com’s special projects team
leader, made history by becoming the first Web staffer to earn a byline
in the Tribune, with a story on a new state commission.
Along with the special cases are a handful of regular features. Tribune
Business Editor Bernie Kohn tapes a segment for each Monday morning
newscast; Adrian Phillips, a 24-year-old TBO.com producer, appears on
the WFLA morning news three times weekly to discuss new Web sites; and
Irene Maher, WFLA’s medical reporter, writes a biweekly column for the
‘A wealth of information now flows through this building,’ Susan DeFraties,
WFLA managing editor for news. Kirk Read, TBO.com general manager, adds
that convergence ‘has totally opened up an audience for us. … We have a tremendous amount of resources.’
While editors praise most convergence ideas as positive steps to expand
coverage, they also note a few examples of how the partnership fell flat.
Among them was the chat room TBO.com created three months ago to allow
government sex-crime experts to answer questions about sexual predators
following a Tribune series on the issue.
‘We set it up and not many people took part,’ says Jim Riley, TBO.com
content manager. ‘We also set up a fan chat room during [Tampa Bay]
Buccaneers [football] games, and no one came because they were busy
watching the game.’
The News Center triad has also hit some bumpy roads getting some
newspaper reporters – a species traditionally known as schlubby dressers
– to spruce up for TV. Whether it’s finding a blazer for a business writer
who wore a golf shirt to work, or asking an unshaven Web reporter to buy
a razor for a last-minute broadcast spot, editors need to remind many to anticipate, and prepare for, on-air stints. ‘After a while, we had
meetings and decided to put together a clothes closet,’ says DeGregorio.
‘We are keeping some stuff in there in pristine condition in case it has
to be used.’
So far, the most extraordinary example of multimedia coverage belongs to
Jackie Barron. The 30-year-old WFLA reporter completed a News Center ‘hat
trick’ in June and July when she covered a federal murder-for-hire trial
for WFLA, the Tribune, and TBO.com. Between June 4 and July 15, Barron
spent about four weeks in San Antonio, where the federal trial of Sarasota’s
Allen Blackthorne had been shifted, providing daily updates for all three
But the time invested by Barron was huge. For several weeks, Barron would
awaken at 6 a.m. (Texas time) to write a journal-type column for TBO.com
on the previous day’s events, then head to court to cover that day’s
proceedings. At 10 a.m., she’d leave the courtroom to phone in a report
for a TV newscast before beginning to work on an evening TV report due at
2:30 p.m. By 3 p.m., Barron was back in court for the afternoon session,
which often ended as late as 7 p.m., giving her just an hour or so to file
a next-day newspaper story.
‘My brain was mush by the end,’ says Barron, who normally runs WFLA’s
Sarasota bureau. ‘There were times when I sat down to write a script for
TV and would start putting in attribution like it was a newspaper story.’
Editors stress that Barron’s case is the exception rather than the rule.
They claim that having reporters pull double- or triple-duty is only done
when circumstances require it. ‘It is not our envisioned future that
everyone on TV write for the paper and everyone at the paper is on air,’
says the Tribune’s Thelen. ‘This multimedia effort does not serve the
community if it turns into a homogenized mediocrity.’
But other News Center leaders believe the future of news coverage requires reporters and editors to be skilled in all three areas. To prepare, they
put all Tribune reporters through a daylong TV training session at the
University of South Florida earlier this year. At the same time, TV
reporters who write for the paper are given special editing and writing
attention when their work appears in print. ‘If one of their reporters
writes something that doesn’t deserve to be published, it isn’t,’ says
Tribune Managing Editor Donna Reed, who adds that a news convergence
stylebook is being created to address questions among all three outlets.
‘One of the early road rules was that [journalistic] standards would be maintained.’
Across Tampa Bay, at the rival St. Petersburg Times, Managing Editor Neil
Brown says his shop is keeping an eye on the Tribune, but not with intense
worry. With a 110,000-daily-circulation lead over the competition, Brown
says the Times still beats the Tribune with basic, hard-core journalism.
‘I think [convergence] creates a serious distraction, potentially, in how
they cover the news,’ he says. ‘There is a risk of dilution.’
Along with concerns about journalistic quality and time management comes
the question of compensation for reporters who perform crossover work, as
well as redefining job descriptions and hiring rules for incoming reporters.
So far, no staffers have received extra pay for going beyond their regular workload, and many say they would like to see the issue settled before
convergence becomes more routine.
What’s the three sum?
‘Compensation is a key issue that they have not addressed,’ says TBO.com’s
Howard, who spent five years in the Tribune newsroom, during which time he
did two packaged TV reports and about a dozen live interviews for WFLA. ‘I
think this is an opportunity of a lifetime, but they have to put [a policy]
in that is consistent.’
Marsha Taylor Holland, Tribune human resources director, agrees that pay
scales and job classifications need re-working. ‘Job description is
definitely going to have to have a big overhaul,’ she says. ‘One approach
would be to pay for each time a reporter engages in convergence, but we
have not finalized it yet.’
Others wonder how the cozy, inbred relationship between the newsrooms
might affect their coverage of each other. Tribune TV writer Walt Belcher
offered a chilling example, saying editors forced him to lay off criticism
of WFLA for nearly a year prior to the opening of The News Center,
supposedly to avoid ill will between the staffs. ‘I told them that maybe
I should just stop writing about TV all together,’ Belcher says with a
laugh. ‘I eventually went back to [covering WFLA] in February, but I still
felt like I had to be careful and explain some things more clearly.’
Belcher says that sisterhood with WFLA stopped him from reporting on a TV
reporter moving to an Alabama station earlier this year. He wanted to
write about speculation that the reporter’s wife, another WFLA staffer,
would also eventually leave, but did not address it after TV managers
requested he avoid it.
Three on a seesaw?
‘I don’t know that enough of it has shaken out for us to know what the
dangerous effect [of convergence] will be,’ says Aly Colon, an ethics
instructor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in nearby St.
Petersburg. ‘It will provide a change in perspective for each newsroom.’
When it comes to criticism of his Tampa experiment, Media General Chairman
and CEO J. Stewart Bryan III has one direct response: ‘They’re all wrong.’
Bryan, whose company owns 26 TV stations and 20 daily newspapers nationwide,
boasts proudly of the growing Tampa convergence project, and says similar
marriages between Media General-owned TV stations and newspapers in common
markets will occur.
‘I think it will show that by combining the strengths of three different
mediums, you will be able to cover the news for the consumer better,’ Bryan
says during a phone interview from his office in Richmond, Va. ‘This is not
a scheme to save money – we’re trying to find a way to cover the news stories
in ways consumers want them.’
Bryan says Media General, which is buying five Thomson newspapers in markets
where it already owns TV stations, made the purchases with future convergence
in mind. ‘We don’t know what it’s going to look like as a full-grown child,
‘ he says of the combined coverage trend. ‘But as a baby, it’s in pretty good shape.’
Joe Strupp (email@example.com) is an associate editor for
(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher