Quietly, with barely a glimmer of attention, the largest newspaper chains on the continent have spent the past few months rolling out Web publishing systems that herald important changes for both online staffs and news consumers.
The new systems tie each media company's Web sites closer together, lowering production costs, smoothing the way for network advertising buys, and enabling editorial staffs to share content much more easily than before.
On the whole, this is good news. From the bean counters' point of view, eliminating duplicate spending and increasing ad revenues brings news sites one step closer to profitability, viability and vitality.
From the perspective of online news crews -- especially small, understaffed teams -- leveraging editorial contributions from sister publications can make for a richer offering.
And from the vantage point of users, digital news networks can mean deeper and better news coverage -- or a sterile, homogenized product lacking soul, personality or purpose.
When it comes to this flavor of convergence -- let's call it chain convergence -- execution is everything.
The Winter Games provided a good example of what digital news networks can offer the news consumer.
Reporters, photographers and videographers from Belo newspapers and television stations descended on Salt Lake City in February and created a powerful editorial package that became integrated into their own sites with a seamless look and feel.
On the night Sarah Hughes won the Olympic gold medal in figure skating, I glided over to New Orleans' WWLTV.com and came away impressed with its coverage: a timely news story, produced by a Belo Interactive staffer, and photos.
Several hundred miles and one time zone away, the Providence Journal -- another Belo property -- made no mention of Hughes' feat on its front page. A small interior text link mentioned her win and transported the reader, somewhat jarringly, to the story on DallasNews.com.
The difference? WWLTV had come under the wing of Belo Interactive's new central publishing system a few weeks earlier, while Providence -- the last site to adopt the system -- didn't come aboard until a few weeks later, on March 28.
It's a pretty rare feat for TV news sites to beat an online newspaper at breaking news. But the 17 broadcast sites in the Belo Interactive family have an advantage: They're no longer flying solo.
"If you look at the smaller TV sites, they probably could have done very little on their own to cover the Olympics," says Jay Small, who oversees news and operations for eight Belo sites in the eastern United States. "But as part of a larger network, they were able to look a whole lot bigger than they really are."
TV news sites are typically run on a shoestring. But Belo's sites can dip into editorial content ranging from breaking news and lifestyle pieces to op-ed commentary and sports coverage, all courtesy of sister Web sites running the same publishing software.
The home-grown content management system (named VelocIT by those playful tech guys) evolved from necessity, Small says. It grew from an effort to replace a failing content system at DallasNews.com two years ago.
"Once we saw how successful that was, it made sense strategically to start looking at accomplishing economies of scale and providing sites with the right set of tools to capitalize on what they were already doing locally," he says.
So Belo Interactive initiated a project, dubbed Gold Standard, to provide a common but easily customized Web template framework on top of the network content platform.
The first two sites to adopt the Gold Standard design were KING5.com in Seattle and the Riverside, California, Press-Enterprise. Also coming under the tent over the past few months were AZFamily.com in Phoenix; KMSB.com in Tucson, Ariz.; NBC6.com in Charlotte, North Carolina; WFAA.com in Dallas; WHAS11.com in Louisville, Kentucky; NWCN.com in Seattle; and KGW.com in Portland, Oregon.
While the sharing of news and features across Belo Interactive properties isn't new, it's now relatively painless.
"Before the new system was in place, sharing content was more time-consuming and labor-intensive," Small says. "We did a lot of it through e-mail and wound up doing a lot of post-production work. So this really simplifies our lives. No more chewing gum and bailing wire."
How do the sites swap content? Let us count the ways.
Political news, state news and photos from the Dallas Morning News routinely appear on other Belo sites in Texas: WFAA, Texas Cable News, Austin's KVUE and the Denton Record-Chronicle. In the opposite direction, most of the weather-related features on dallasnews.com come straight from the meteorologists at WFAA.
The Belo Interactive staff in Dallas creates a movies channel that is packaged and distributed with a common look and feel for other Belo sites. So a visitor to WVEC in Hampton Roads, Va., can read a movie review written by a Dallas Morning News film critic. That's marginally better than publishing a movie review from a news service like Knight Ridder, in my view.
But the real power of the digital news network comes through when sharing breaking news, sports or enterprise reporting. Personal technology news, for example, is provided by reporters at the Dallas Morning News, Providence Journal and New Orleans' WWLTV.com.
Stories about the Dallas Cowboys -- big news in Texas -- are shared across the network. Regional sites have become authoritative news sources for coverage of local pro teams. Projo.com provides extensive coverage of the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots. KMOV in St. Louis provides in-depth coverage of football's St. Louis Rams.
"You'll see a lot of video sharing among the Texas news sites, as well as the TV station in New Orleans because of its proximity to Texas," Small says. "You'll see a lot of content sharing in the Northwest group between Seattle, Portland and Spokane."
News about the Texas governor's race has national appeal, as do various locally created news and feature packages. The online team at WHAS11, the top-rated news station in Louisville, Ky., is putting together an extensive package covering the Kentucky Derby on May 4, looking at not only this year's entrants but tracing the event's rich history. It will appear next week.
Now, about the impact of convergence on the Belo sites' design. To a larger extent than Canada.com or Knight Ridder's Real Cities (though less than Tribune Interactive), the Belo sites allow for meaningful flexibility and site enhancements at the local level.
"A user will see similarities in the core navigation and the presentation of headline blocks and a mostly standardized look to the tile and banner ads," Small says. "But within the framework, individual sites are able to customize the elements to permit a distinctive look and design."
In my book, that's convergence done right.
The fact that Belo's media properties lean more heavily to television stations than newspapers suggests that the flavor of its news sites will be shaped by the broadcast news culture and users' expectations of that medium.
"Many of our TV stations have the ability to get aerial footage of a crime scene or disaster or large fire, and they'll quickly make their way to all the sites because of the integrated network," Small says. "It's often compelling stuff."
Small sees great possibilities for sharing broadband news in the years ahead. "If you're right up against deadline in a print newsroom and breaking news hits, your reaction is to get a few grafs of text into that edition and follow up later. In a TV-Internet environment, we're definitely thinking of not just getting a few grafs of text news on the site but following on as quickly as we can with any rich media content that we can reasonably produce in an accurate and credible way.
"As the technology improves and the time needed to encode video for the Web comes down, that will get easier to do," Small says. "What you're looking at today is only Version 1.0 of our overall vision."
On to CanWest Interactive...