Merging Media to Create an Interactive Market
New strategies are used to fund the expensive business of newsgathering.
Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Company, addressed a group of editors and publishers in August 2000. With the purchase of Times Mirror, Tribune Company now owns newspapers and TV stations in the nation’s three top markets. Fuller spoke about developing integrated multimedia approaches to newsgathering and distribution. An excerpt follow.
We are now positioned to take a multimedia approach in the top three markets of the country. Moreover, we can take greater advantage of the national advertising boom, offering advertisers large numbers of very high-demographic readers in the three biggest cities in the country.
In the interactive market, we now have the spine of a national network. This should permit us to deal more effectively with whatever threats and opportunities arise. Tribune Interactive should now be a much more attractive candidate for partnership with any firm hoping to get a foothold on an audience. And we should be far more attractive to the national advertisers that are the biggest players in the Internet.
Among all the strategic advantages of the Times Mirror deal, the newspaper-television combination has been the most novel. Let me tell you a little bit about why we think it is important.
Ever since becoming editor of the Chicago Tribune I have been focused on trying to figure out what it will take to preserve and strengthen our great newspapers in the new century. Since I started working as a reporter 36 years ago and only became involved in the business side seven years ago, I confess that I came at the question with a primary commitment to the public service aspect of our work. Long before ever thinking about national consolidation, I began wondering how to build a stronger foundation of financial support locally for the expensive business of newsgathering. It has seemed clear for a long time that, whether we like it or not, in a fragmenting world there will be increasing pressure to reduce costs. Now a lot of editorial costs have turned out to be eminently reducible, without affecting quality (which I define as how well we fulfill our social mission). But we all know of many newspapers that have reduced editorial costs so much that they are hollow imitations of their former selves.
I know that there is a very energetic belief within the journalistic community to the effect that the way to avoid this kind of anorexia is simply for companies to be less greedy. I don’t think that line of argument is very useful. In fact, it is a form of denial. The pressure on costs results from the public market’s demand for financial results. You can call that greed, or you can simply call it the force of a dynamic marketplace. And the forces aren’t going to abate. As media fragment, all forms of journalism will be squeezed.
The best way to continue doing quality journalism in this kind of environment, it seems to me, is to spread newsgathering costs over multiple distribution platforms with multiple revenue sources and multiple audiences. In plain language, that means presenting our journalism to audiences larger than we can get in the ink-on-paper newspaper by using television, radio and the Internet.
There is another reason we have worked so hard to build a multimedia orientation in Tribune newspapers. With bandwidth exploding, soon the Internet will blow through the distinctions between print and television, just as it is beginning to blow through the distinctions between print and radio. We’re going to need to employ people and deploy systems capable of creating news reports with all the elements: text, graphics, audio and video actualities. The companies that have the raw materials and the skills to create multimedia products will be best able to ride the waves of change. The best raw material is still a daily newspaper, with its enormous newsgathering ability. But video and audio content and the talent for video and audio presentation are also necessary.
Not everyone at Tribune agrees with me, but I can see a day when we will produce the newspaper, the TV news show, radio news and Internet news services out of a single newsroom. Of course, there will be specialists in each medium. But certain core functions will be common and not redundant. This will give us a cost advantage over our competition. …[W]e won’t waste money on duplicated effort and overhead and will be able to concentrate our resources on newsgathering, writing and editing.
Because Tribune Company’s ownership of the Chicago Tribune, WGNTV and WGN Radio predated the federal rule against cross-ownership, we have had decades to experiment with this concept. The history has been mixed. At first, the relationship between the newspaper and radio was very close. Radio newscasts originated from the Chicago Tribune newsroom. The call letters of the station, WGN, stood for World’s Greatest Newspaper, which was then the Tribune’s modest motto. In the early days of television, WGN-TV began in a similar fashion. My father was a journalist for the Chicago Tribune most of his career, and I can remember when I was a boy watching with less than complete fascination as his boss, the financial editor, reported on the business scene on his WGN-TV show once a week.
Over time each medium drifted away from the newspaper as it established its own unique identity, sort of the way our Internet offerings are today having to strike off on their own. Moreover, as the federal government began to look with more and more hostility at cross-ownership situations, the lawyers began telling us that to preserve our grandfathered status, the best thing was to put up big stone walls between the newspaper, radio and TV.
So it has really only been during the last decade that we began to rekindle the relationship between the newspaper and broadcast. In both Chicago and Orlando, the development of all-news cable stations in which the newspaper was a key partner helped stimulate the experimentation. At the time we started CLTV—which is a kind of local CNN in the Chicago metropolitan area—the idea of print and television inhabiting the same space, let alone working intimately together, was thought to be a heresy on both sides. Once we got deep into the planning, we realized that it was important to protect the sense of identity of both the print and the television journalists because it turned out they were afraid of each other. The young TV reporters saw all these seasoned print journalists who might try to lord it over them. The print journalists saw one more step in TV’s incursion into their world. In effect, we had to solve the problem of getting the lions to lie down with the lambs by first recognizing that each side thought the other was the lion.
One powerful factor worked in our favor. And my first hint of it came one evening when my wife and I were seated at a dinner party across from Thea Flaum, who had been the original producer of the Siskel and Ebert Show. We were just getting ready to go on the air with CLTV at the time, and Thea was curious about how everything was going. I told her that my biggest concern was how the newspaper reporters would take to the idea of being on TV. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” Thea said. “Vanity is your friend.”
Frankly, we have not had great difficulties in getting TV and print journalists to work together.… WGN’s meteorologist—by far the best and most sophisticated in the city—began putting out the newspaper’s weather page, which has been an enormous hit with barometer junkies.
What hasn’t happened yet is the development of a common newsroom serving any of our operations in Chicago. It is still, I think, too soon for that. Certain technological developments—such as digital cameras that can produce both video and still shots of high enough quality to reproduce well in the newspaper—need to ripen to help drive us closer together. Fragmentation has to proceed, too, until the writing is on the wall. But the time will come. I am pretty sure it will come.
The changes I’ve been talking about are, of course, unsettling. And every one of them begets a new set of questions—ethical questions, if you will—that relate to the very purposes of journalism. I believe it is absolutely necessary in such times that newspaper enterprises have a very solid grounding in the fundamentals of journalism values. They are going to need to go back to these fundamentals time and again to resolve new issues. But they are also going to need to feel the earth solid under their feet if they are going to be confident and bold enough to adapt successfully to the radically evolving information environment.
The need for grounding in the fundamentals, I believe, goes way beyond the editorial staff. The whole organization should understand the unique nature of our business, the special responsibilities it places on us. When I visited for the first time with the editorial staff of the Los Angeles Times, someone asked me whether I was going to rebuild the wall between the editorial and the business sides of the newspaper. I took a deep breath and told them what I believe: that I don’t like walls. It’s a lousy metaphor. Walls increase the possibility of stupid things happening behind them. Better for there to be a lot of people in the conversation, including editors who have enough business sophistication to participate fully, because this makes it a lot more likely that somebody will speak up and tie a can to a bad idea. That said, I went on, at Tribune we have a kind of a simple-minded rule: When there’s a debate among the departments about what goes in the editorial columns of the newspaper, the editor wins.
That went over pretty well, but afterwards I realized that I hadn’t said everything I might have. It isn’t just the confidence that editors control the editorial content that gives a newspaper strong values. What really builds great papers is when everyone in them understands “the truth discipline” and why it is absolutely essential to live by it every day.
We’re trying to deepen that understanding at Tribune. We have started formal programs to do so. I believe that if journalistic principals had been generally understood at the Los Angeles Times over the past several years I wouldn’t be here talking to you about the acquisition. That’s pretty strong evidence that news values are at the sweet spot. The social obligation of the newspaper, which gives rise to the duty to disclose conflicts of interest and tell the truth despite them, is not in conflict with the company’s fiduciary duty; it’s part of it.
Jack Fuller became president of Tribune Publishing Company in 1997. As editor of the Tribune’s editorial page, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and, in 1989, he became editor of the paper and later publisher and chief executive officer. He is the author of “News Values: Ideas for an Information Age.”