USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





TBO.com: The Folks with the Arrows in Their Backs
Backpack Journalism
Point: It's Here to Stay
Counterpoint: "Mush of Mediocrity"
TBO.com: Arrows in Their Backs
TBO.com: Faces of Convergence
TBO.com: Then and Now
WFLA-TV, the Tampa Tribune and TBO.com hack through the convergence wilderness without a map

If she had to do these last two years over again, says Tribune managing editor Donna Reed, she'd do more training across platforms, and make sure that reporters from the three news organizations were meeting with each other from the get-go, instead of just editors and producers.

Life would also have been easier if they had had a common story budgeting system, an easy way for people to communicate across platforms and a better idea of what beats worked best for convergence. As it was, each news organization moved in with its own software system.

reed

Jane Stevens

Donna Reed

But who knew?  WFLA-TV, the Tampa Tribune and TBO.com are hacking through the wilderness without benefit of a map or GPS. They're following a dream, not a well traveled road. And pursuing dreams, for all their lofty ambitions, gets messy, really messy.

However, the effect of convergence is worth all the slogging, says WFLA news director Forrest Carr. "For us it's made better journalism," he says. "We can put a story out, have it on TBO.com, the Tampa Tribune and TV, thereby creating a voice that just wasn't there before for our journalism, so that our stories have more reach, more power, and greater effect."

"It's changed the dynamic of the newsroom," says Reed. "Deadlines are constant. We have a new way of thinking, visually, because TV and online are so visually dependent, and newspapers are not. So, I think it's made us a better paper visually; it's made us smarter in being timely and succinct."

The Sticking Points

Technology: The news organizations moved into the new building with different computer systems. And it's been a headache - lots of finger-pointing, many times when one partner or the other ended up with egg on its face because their competitors had a story that it didn't. There was no way to see each other's story budgets until a few months ago, and there's still no effective way to communicate with each other on breaking stories. Email still goes through parent company Media General's servers in Virginia, which takes too long. The News Center has installed some telephone hot lines, and is experimenting with an intranet that has a chat area for breaking news. "We have technology needs that technology companies can't provide us yet," says Reed. "There are no common platforms out there right now for TV and newspapers."

howard

Jane Stevens

Peter Howard

Online: TBO.com began as the organization's stepchild, and still doesn't have all the resources it needs. "The Web is probably the most underutilized resource in this converged operation," says Peter Howard, TBO.com news and special projects team leader. "But you need the staff in order to put the bells and whistles on everything that you want to do." Even though WFLA's Carr believes that all journalists - TV and newspaper included - will be Web journalists someday, the News Center seems to be putting most of its efforts in to melding newspaper and TV stories, and runs its online operation with a skeleton crew.

Staffing: This topic is a sticking point, because Media General's been accused of adopting convergence to reduce the number of journalists. It ain't so, say News Center managers.

The Tribune has 302 full-time employees. Of those, 119 are reporters, 47 news editors, 67 copy editors, 29 photographers, plus librarians and administrative staff. That's three fewer than two years ago, when it converged with WFLA and TBO.com, due to closing of a zoned edition in Polk County, says Reed. With the economy in recession, the newspaper is not filling some positions that have opened as people have left or retired, so that it can avoid layoffs. They are slowly hiring (a regional editor and two copy editors recently), and are currently looking for a deputy managing editor.

Similarly, at WFLA, convergence has not led to layoffs, although the sinking economy has led to a hiring freeze. The station has 24 reporters, including anchors, 13 full-time producers, one part-time producer, and six full-time editors.

TBO.com's presence added 13 news people to the News Center organization.

"The goal of convergence is not and never was a reduction in numbers," notes Reed, and points to stories that Tribune and WFLA reporters work on together, rather than one reporter doing the job of both. "Simply, two brains are better than one."

Model Reporter: When the Tribune announced that it would be converging, the reporters went into a panic, says Cheryl Schmidt, the Tribune's special features editor. They thought they would have to file for TBO.com and appear in front of WFLA-TV's cameras. A few do, but most don't. TBO.com only wants a couple of paragraphs for its updates, so it's usually the newspaper's editors who simply expand a story's budget line. WFLA's happy to get a "talk-back" (in which a camera is wheeled next to the desk of a reporter, who answers questions from an anchor or TV reporter) or an audio feed from a newspaper reporter.

Although the News Center's editors and producers hope and anticipate that more reporters will cross media lines, they're fairly content with reporters sharing information to enrich stories across media platforms.

"Multimedia journalism is better when reporters figure it out, and when they get together," says Reed. "If it's organically grown, convergence is probably better for the public."

Money, Money, Money: There's no direct compensation for newspaper reporters who also do a TV story, or vice-versa. Reporters are supposed to work a 40-hour week, but when convergence began, they were asked to do extra work without extra pay. Many work as much as 55 to 60 hours a week, which isn't unheard of in the newspaper industry, with no extra pay or compensation. However, merit raises, which can mean as much as an extra 8 percent increase in annual pay, are based on whether a reporter has made an effort to participate in convergence.

carr

Jane Stevens

Forrest Carr

Hiring: Carr says he won't look at a new hire out of college unless that person understands convergence. Although he'll give experienced people a little slack, he won't hire them unless they want to do convergence. Reed says that given a choice between two people of equal talents, she'd choose the one that understands, embraces or has experience in convergence.

Training: In an industry that's at the bottom of the ladder in providing ongoing training for its employees, the News Center is no exception. It gave all of its newspaper employees minimal training in television, and then expected them to swim in broadcast waters immediately. It hasn't trained its TV reporters or producers in newspaper writing. It has not done any training of TV or newspaper reporters in multimedia storytelling (using some combination of text, video, still photos, graphics and audio in a nonlinear format). Although it is developing an in-house editing course for mid-level newspaper editors, it leaves most of the development of multimedia reporters to those who are self-starters.