‘Sun-Sentinel’ Hopes One Plus One Equals Three

By: Lucia Moses

It was time again last fall for the kickoff of the annual Sun-Sentinel Children’s Fund. The paper’s biggest charity, the fund has raised money from readers for area special-needs children for 15 years. So when Sun-Sentinel Publisher Bob Gremillion decided to let Tribune Co. corporate sibling WBZL-TV 39 piggyback on the name, there were some hurt feelings at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based paper.

A few months earlier, Gremillion might not have even considered tinkering with the name of his paper’s beloved charity. But he sees things differently since taking on added responsibility for the TV station last October. Tribune agreed to give him the dual-oversight role after getting a federal waiver to, for the first time, jointly operate the newspaper with WBZL, the Hollywood, Fla.-based station it had acquired five years earlier.

“The hypothesis is that we can run the two of them more successfully than we could if they were apart,” says Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing. “It’s truly a situation in which top management is indifferent to where the dollar revenue is recorded. When you do it on a cooperative basis, you can get close to that … but organizationally, it’s a little more clumsy.”

It’s a dramatic departure from most other newspaper/TV cross-ownerships, where the top TV and newspaper executives in theory cooperate to leverage each other’s promotional, business, and news resources, but at the end of the day are responsible for their own property.

Gremillion acknowledges there “may have been people in the newspaper who initially were disappointed in the charity decision.” Now, though, the former broadcaster says, “I’m going to put on the striped shirt and be the referee. I’m trying to do what’s best for the combined entity.” That means not only reporting to two corporate bosses, Tribune Senior Vice President Raymond Jansen and Tribune Broadcasting President Pat Mullen, but also keeping the peace among the newspaper and station’s employees.

It’s not just the suits in Tribune Tower who have their eye on Gremillion. Now that most newspapers may have a chance to freely buy broadcast properties in their own markets (pending the outcome of the battle over new FCC rules), industry players all over are closely watching South Florida’s “market management” approach as a potential model for multimedia.

One question they hope to get answered is whether such an integrated management approach really helps bring together two incongruent cultures — a key to making cross-ownership work, yet one of the most difficult goals to achieve.

“Managers will find that this is one of the hardest things they’ve ever done,” says Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcast and online journalism at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. It “will be a monumental task to make it happen in a meaningful way.”

Buying into multimedia

Gremillion didn’t exactly enter a market hostile to convergence when he became publisher six years ago. For one thing, you’d have to be living in a cave to work at the paper and not know that multimedia is the strategic focus of the Sun-Sentinel, all the way up to Tribune corporate. Reporters can push a button on their computers to listen to the day’s radio news broadcast, produced right in the newsroom by one of their own.

Ten years or so before the paper started working with WBZL, the paper had scads of formal and informal news-sharing relationships with TV and radio stations (see box, this page). The paper actually produces news packages for its broadcast partners, and is one of few in the country that records news broadcasts in its newsroom studio for its local radio partners.

People here buy into multimedia because they see its benefit in an intensely competitive market. Because the Sun-Sentinel’s market straddles two DMAs (designated market areas), West Palm Beach and Miami-Fort Lauderdale, it fights for attention with more than 30 TV stations, 77 radio stations, and two major dailies, Cox Newspapers’ Palm Beach Post and Knight Ridder’s Miami Herald.

The Sun-Sentinel‘s editor, Earl Maucker, has long believed that convergence can give the paper an edge in a competitive environment. Back in the early days of these partnerships, an editor left the room in protest every time TV lights went on in the newsroom, but Maucker says attitudes have changed. In fact, the paper this year became one of the first to receive a regional Emmy award, for a 2002 investigative piece on kennel overpopulation in South Florida that it produced in collaboration with one of its TV partners. “What we’ve really seen,” he declares, “is a change in the culture.”

Still, partnerships can and do change. The paper’s relationship with WBZL, meanwhile, is fixed, and their news, promotions, and ad sales functions are intertwined.

Thus Gremillion treaded carefully when he began the process of integrating the operations last fall. Aware of the danger of “festering, misplaced anger,” he ordered managers to notify him when culture problems arise. Communication and mutual respect are the mantra here.

Broadcast work was presented to reporters as optional, to the relief of newsies who worried they would now be expected to do two jobs for one salary and be thrust in front of TV cameras ill-prepared.

While some print reporters have received broadcast writing, voice, and appearance training, and more are clamoring for it, most of the TV work is done by Raelin Storey, a former TV reporter hired specifically to represent the paper on its various TV platforms. Working with print reporters, Storey repurposes stories that she thinks will play well on TV, and plugs the print reporter’s version in the paper.

Still, managers have to make sure staffers aren’t spread too thin among print, broadcast, and online duties, which are part of life for people like police reporter Ardy Friedberg. Covering a story about a beached baby dolphin on June 16, for example, he brought a tape recorder so he could record a sound bite for the paper’s radio partners, then called in information to the online staff before even thinking about writing a story for the print edition. “I think for the most part they’re pretty understanding of your needs,” Friedberg says of his bosses.

On the up-and-up

On the business side, ad salespeople from the newspaper and WBZL met at ice-breakers before beginning cross-selling in January.

To encourage cooperation, the compensation plan was changed to reward reps for multimedia sales, even if they didn’t make the sale themselves. Every week, pending reports — account status updates — are shared with all salespeople, an openness rare at many organizations. And salespeople meet quarterly to share cross-selling successes and failures over chips and soda.

“There are no secrets here between us,” says John McKeon, who as Sun-Sentinel general manager oversees integrated sales. “We all want to grow our share of market, but we want to do it together.”

Is any of it working? It’s hard to tell.

* Gremillion says cross-media sales have only scratched the surface, but believes they contributed to internally computed ad share gains by the paper and TV station in the first quarter.

* Newspaper circulation was up, 2.33% Monday through Wednesday to 248,962; 0.94% Thursday through Saturday to 282,538, and 0.86% Sunday to 375,145 in the six months ended March 31. Gremillion can’t say for sure if integrated management played a role.

* The audience for WBZL’s newscast as measured by NSI rose from November to February, during which the Sun-Sentinel Co. began promoting the station across its print and online products and news-sharing, although it’s hard to say how much is due to the station being on the upswing already.

Sense and sensitivity

Today, print staffers praise Gremillion for his sensitivity to their work, and outsiders have remarked on the Sun-Sentinel‘s harmonious culture. But the relationship took some work.

When Tribune named a broadcaster as publisher of the Sun-Sentinel in April 1997, it worried many at the paper. Back then, the newsroom’s perception of TV news was colored by the market-leading TV station, which was credited with helping create the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads,” recalls Sun-Sentinel political columnist Buddy Nevins.

“The fear was, our stuff would become superficial, and we wouldn’t be treated seriously anymore,” he says. And now? “It’s proven an unfounded fear. I think they don’t want to degrade the Sun-Sentinel brand.”

Gremillion had the confidence of Jack Fuller, a veteran newspaperman, then Tribune publishing executive vice president. Fuller had worked with Gremillion in Chicago at the birth of the corporate convergence strategy; he was president and CEO of the Chicago Tribune when Gremillion was starting CLTV, Tribune’s 24-hour cable news channel.

Fuller knew Gremillion would have a steep learning curve, but admired his management abilities and knew that with his TV background, Gremillion would work to build local broadcast partnerships. “I really did expect him to be pushing the realm of the possibilities,” Fuller says. “… I want to have broadcast people within the publishing company. Because if you want the publishing side of the business to be able to capitalize on multimedia … you have to have people who understand that side of the business.”

The appointment also gave Fuller a chance for Tribune to test his program of training future publishers by making them general managers first. Thus Gremillion would lean on the newspaper know-how of Kathleen Waltz, a Chicago Tribune vice president and now Orlando Sentinel publisher, who became his first GM.

“You don’t have to be a newspaper person to run a newspaper,” Gremillion, 49, says. “You have to be a good manager.”

Nevertheless, the virgin newspaper publisher realized how steeped in broadcasting he was when he caught himself referring to newspapers as “stations” and asking for overnight response data to the previous day’s paper. When he talked excitedly about ratcheting up circulation, a couple of brave managers privately explained the basics of newspaper distribution to their new boss.

“The whole concept of variable expenses hit me real fast,” he says. A tour of all the operations quickly rid him of his view, one common among broadcasters, of newspapers as slow and overstaffed. “It just comes from not realizing the difficulty it takes to manage and [that] these people are hired to handle so many moving parts,” he says.

Today, the cross-pollination continues, with former broadcasters occupying upper-level slots in advertising, news, technology, human resources, and communications, to name a few. McKeon, who last year hired Michael LeBonia from Tribune’s New Orleans TV duopoly as his advertising director, believes newspapers can learn from broadcasting’s competitive streak: “Too often, the newspaper business has lulled itself into a false sense of security because they consider themselves the only paper in the market, and therefore the only media in the market. I think this kind of cross-breeding allows us to never delude ourselves with that.”

Having been both a broadcaster and publisher, Gremillion now takes a holistic view of the market. Thus WBZL has had to give up some of its promotional airtime to benefit the print products, and TV can’t run with a juicy print enterprise piece, even in a truncated form, if it’s not ready to run in the paper. “We’re not going to hurt the primary provider of the information” is Gremillion’s reasoning, but it can be frustrating when WBZL wants to schedule a newspaper-originated piece for an upcoming sweeps period, says David Blackwell, the Sun-Sentinel‘s deputy managing editor for multimedia.

“Probably the biggest challenge is, the newspaper will not run a story until it is cooked thoroughly,” he said.

Balancing enthusiasm

Gremillion seems to have avoided the cultural resistance that weakens plenty of cross-ownerships and partnerships. Newspapers and TV stations are “inherently suspicious of each other,” says Dale Peskin, executive director of Dallas-based newspaper think-tank New Directions for News (NDN) and former vice president of Belo Interactive. “They’re competitive. There’s a fundamental understanding of who does it better. Add to that suspicion of unfamiliar technology, and you’ve got this stew of uncertainty that’s a big management problem.”

The differences lie not just in their news philosophies, but organizational structures. Broadcast staffs are small by comparison — the Sun-Sentinel Co. employs some 1,800 to WWBZL’s roughly 50 — so employees tend to be generalists, and are easily frustrated with what they see as slow and hierarchical decision-making at newspapers.

As a result, even in cross-ownership situations, it’s “not unusual for one of the partners to have a lot more enthusiasm than the other,” says James K. Gentry, journalism dean at the University of Kansas and a convergence consultant.

A growth in the number and depth of partnerships means more papers have experienced the cultural divide. Organizations like NDN, Poynter, and the American Press Institute in Reston, Va., are answering the demand for help in bridging the gap with workshops and the like.

“The cultural issue is perhaps the key issue in media integration,” Peskin says. “With regulatory policy allowing these things to occur, all the things are falling into place to bring this to the forefront.”

Quantifying the payoff is another matter. “We’re very confident the multimedia approach makes a difference,” Fuller says. “Whether the organizational approach makes a difference incremental to that is what we’ll learn.”

But the first difficult steps have already been taken. When, during a celebration at WBZL of the recent TV ratings growth, Gremillion saw his classified car salesman working on a pitch with his TV counterpart and other account executives came around asking for advice, he knew only good things could happen.

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