Let's Get Together
Once upon a time, in a city right outside your door, reporters at assorted media organizations actively competed for stories, with the aim of scooping anyone and everyone. But while such battles still take place on occasion today, things are infinitely more complicated than they once were.
Consider the tale of Tanner Dowler, a two-month-old abuse victim from Lafayette who was taken off life support in early October; the child's parents, Joseph and Audra Dowler, are facing various charges in connection with his death. During her inquiry into this tragic happening, longtime Channel 9 investigator Paula Woodward discovered that Tanner's grandparents, Lea and Woody Dowler, had sent letters to Boulder County Social Services and other agencies in an attempt to warn authorities that the infant was at risk. Unfortunately, though, nothing was done until it was too late. Woodward subsequently obtained the letters, and Channel 9 broadcast a story about them on Friday, October 11.
The end, right? Hardly. Channel 9 maintains a media partnership with the Denver Post, and as part of that pact, the station is supposed to share information with the newspaper, and vice versa. In conjunction with this dictate, Woodward gave copies of the Dowler letters to Marcos Mocine-McQueen, the Post's Boulder County bureau reporter, who had not obtained the documents independently. But even with Woodward's assistance, Mocine-McQueen couldn't get his account into print before the Rocky Mountain News did likewise, because only the News publishes on Saturdays. This arrangement, ordained by a joint operating agreement between the News and the Post, dealt another blow to unfettered competition, since it gave Rocky types the opportunity to cobble together an October 12 article based largely on having watched Woodward's report on Channel 9. (Perhaps the reason the item was credited to "News Staff," rather than an individual, is because the Rocky's media partner is Channel 4.) Mocine-McQueen's more complete followup appeared in the Post the next day, along with a brief addendum: "Paula Woodward of 9News contributed to this report."
Such a credit seems appropriate, given Woodward's level of participation in the Post piece; she provided the letters, but Mocine-McQueen did the actual writing and researching. Still, a second collaboration between Woodward and Mocine-McQueen that took place later in the week was handled much differently.
After some coaxing from Woodward, Lea and Woody Dowler agreed to go before a camera for an interview on October 17. During this period, Mocine-McQueen arranged with the Dowlers' attorney to speak with the grandparents for another story, this one concerning holes in the child-protection system's safety net. Representatives of the Post and Channel 9 -- including multimedia manager Jessica Roe, who's charged with coordinating communication between the paper and the station -- found out about these separate appointments shortly before the Dowlers were slated to arrive at Channel 9, and she decided it would be easier on them if the sessions were combined, which they were. But the logistics of doing so proved to be a bit clunky. When the Dowlers were ushered to a conference room at Channel 9's studio, Woodward and a video crew were front and center; Mocine-McQueen sat in the back of the room taking notes as Woodward led the couple through a discussion of their heartbreak. After this long, emotionally draining conversation was completed, Mocine-McQueen made inquiries of his own, most of them having to do with the Dowlers' interactions with social workers and the like.
Mocine-McQueen's look at the social-service network, completed with the help of reporter Chris Frates, appeared on the front page of the Post two days after the publication of an October 18 piece about the joint interview with the Dowlers. Woodward didn't contribute to the writing of either article; she merely asked questions that elicited some responses quoted in them. Nonetheless, the October 18 byline read "By Marcos Mocine-McQueen and Paula Woodward."
The details behind the byline decision are difficult to pin down. Woodward says she wasn't upset about her failure to receive a byline in the October 13 report about the letters and never requested one on October 18: "It didn't matter to me. They can credit however they want to credit." Multimedia manager Roe notes that she was out of the office at the time of the first article and wasn't part of shaping the credit for the second. Still, she adds, "Everything was handled very professionally, and I think it worked out fine." As for Mocine-McQueen, who's been on the job at the Post for just over two months, he declined to comment.
Whatever the case, incidents like these are guaranteed to pop up more frequently as news organizations inch toward an altered communications paradigm -- and the process is already far enough along to have spawned its own jargon. Important terms include "convergence," which describes alliances between media enterprises that take place across various "platforms" like broadcast, print and the Internet.
"This is years away," says Howard Saltz, who, as associate editor for new media and strategic development for the Post, is a key strategist of the Post-Channel 9 pairing. "But the day will come when the notion of a TV reporter or a print reporter or an online reporter will be interchangeable. A reporter will report across any of these platforms, with no need for distinctions. And we're taking steps in that direction. I envision more situations where a print reporter at the Post will do a TV package, and more people from Channel 9 writing for the Post."
No one recalls the precise moment when the Post and Channel 9 began working together on some projects, but Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis guesses it was approximately the mid-'90s. Shortly thereafter, the organizations hooked up on some long-running stories (Woodward recalls teaming up with the Post for some JonBenét Ramsey reportage), as well as a few highly coordinated projects. "One was 'Digital Divide,' which was a month-long look at the haves and the have-nots of the computer world," Dennis recalls. "We organized editorial discussions of who wanted what story and deliberately diversified our coverage. And we also did a week-long series about 'What is CSAP?' and really introduced it as an educational component of the system before a lot of people had heard about it."
Dennis considers these efforts successes -- but because people at both organizations are so busy steering their own ships, they were also exceptions. "Many times, we'd get an exclusive story or access to something important and forget there was a partnership," she concedes. "I'd pick up the paper the next day and think, 'Here was a missed opportunity for both of us.'"
To Saltz, who joined the Post in 1996, a Channel 9 robotic camera that's been in the Post's newsroom since the early days of the venture epitomized this state of affairs. "It basically gathered dust for years," he says. "It's positioned next to a window, and during the day, it's turned around to pick up live shots of downtown for Channel 9's noon news or its Web site. But in terms of it pointing at anybody at the Post, it was certainly underutilized."
That began to change early in 2000, when Saltz was promoted to a position related to the one he holds currently. But because no one was assigned full-time to promoting cooperation between the station and the paper, plenty of chances to deliver a one-two punch were lost. For instance, Channel 9 wound up with videotape of Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel spewing a racial remark amid an exchange with a belligerent fan -- a gaffe that indirectly led to his resignation. Too bad no one from the station called the Post, which was badly beaten on the story by the News ("He Got Blame," December 20, 2001).
In the wake of this embarrassment, Channel 9 and the Post looked for ways to keep info flowing between them, and they eventually gave the go-ahead to hire a person charged with doing just that. Roe's path to this job was a lengthy one. Because she's an employee of both Channel 9 and the Post, she had to sit for multiple interviews with executives at each -- a total of ten, she says.
Running this gauntlet turned out to be good preparation for a position that's all about juggling. Roe starts her day at Channel 9, where she attends an 8:30 a.m. planning meeting. Then she heads to the Post for its 10:30 a.m. editorial roundtable. "After that, I let everyone know what each organization is doing," Roe allows, "and if there's a clear, leading news organization on a story, then that organization will make the decision on the timing -- who goes first, and when." As an example, she cites a profile of Pejuta Wastewie Soldier Wolf, the first member of the Arapaho tribe to attend Arapahoe High School. "I was told the Post was working on it on a Friday, and the TV part of my brain went off. So I talked to an editor at the Post, and we decided to follow a Monday-morning newspaper story with an afternoon TV story. So I called Channel 9, got a photographer and shot the story on Friday afternoon. Then it was edited and put on TV the same day [October 21] that the story ran on the front page of the Post. That's convergence."
During most afternoons, Roe returns to Channel 9 to handle another convergence duty -- training Post staffers such as critic-at-large Kyle MacMillan and restaurant writer Kyle Wagner (a former Westword employee) on how best to translate their articles for television. "If someone like Cheryl Preheim at Channel 9 is doing a story, she could do it without thinking," says the Post's Saltz. "But our guys need training. Jessica gives it to them so that at a certain point they can do it for themselves." Post business reporters use these skills most often; they appear in front of the aforementioned robotic camera weeknights as part of a regularly scheduled segment in the station's 6 p.m. newscast.
Such crossovers move in the other direction, too. Channel 9's Mark Koebrich writes a weekly consumer column for the Post, and other station personnel, including reporter Adam Schrager, have received bylines for penning entire articles, as opposed to assisting on them à la Woodward. In most cases, Saltz says, such extra efforts are less time-consuming than they might seem at first blush: "To have a reporter do a TV version off of his or her story is a better use of time than having a reporter start something totally from scratch, and a big part of my job is to find ways to make that happen naturally. Mark Koebrich's column is a perfect example. He's doing a print equivalent of his TV reporting, so all he has to do is put it in a different medium."
Of course, Koebrich's column is also one of the bigger wastes of space in the Sunday Post. That raises the question of whether convergence is more about promotion than better serving readers and viewers. Dennis and Post editor Greg Moore say high-caliber journalism is their first priority, and they believe convergence helps them in this respect. But they confess that finding the proper balance can be tricky, especially given the differences in culture between TV and newspapers.
"There have been a few bumps," Dennis notes, "and at any organization, there will be people who don't believe in this type of thing. But I think, generally, TV people are very receptive to working with print journalists and don't worry much about whether that's an appropriate thing."
Adds Moore, "There was some reticence on my part to embrace this. They had to beat on my head, because I'm accustomed to seeing other mediums as competitors, not partners. The idea of sharing with anybody is foreign to me. But we're trying to build partnerships, and this is a way for us to broaden our reach and, if we do it right, extend our brand. That's the way things are done now."
He's right. Corporate links between powerhouses like ABC, ESPN and the Walt Disney Company are commonplace today, and equivalents can be found at the local level. Take Tampa, where the Tampa Tribune and TV station WFLA not only share the same Web site, TBO.com, but occupy the same headquarters: a mammoth $40 million structure built with convergence in mind. With the Federal Communications Commission all but certain to relax current cross-ownership rules, which prevent companies from purchasing a daily newspaper and a TV station in the same market, Tampa-style operations will proliferate, for better or worse.
In the meantime, reporters at Channel 9 and the Post are seeing a lot of each other. "I have two short-term projects going with Post reporters right now, and one really long-term project, a six- or seven-month-long one," Woodward says. "And the people I've worked with have been great. We're really learning how to communicate and figuring out the best way to make this work. Because you're talking about really competitive people..."
The Armstrong experiment: If it seems like only last month that it was announced that veteran Denver Post sports columnist Jim Armstrong would be filling the city columnist role once performed by Chuck Green, that's because it was only last month. Editor Greg Moore let Post personnel know about the impending move in early September. But four weeks later, after Armstrong had churned out a handful of lackluster pieces, Moore took it all back. In a staff e-mail, he wrote that "Jim Armstrong is reversing field and returning to sports, where he will resume his former perch as a premiere [sic] takeout writer and columnist."
In the memo, Moore took some responsibility for this "lightning turnaround," acknowledging that "in my exuberance to think outside of the box in filling the Metro columnist slot, I might have pressed Jim into a suit that ill fit him." In an interview on the topic, Moore underlined this point. "I went to him; he didn't come to me," he says. "But it may not have been for the best -- and since I'm a huge fan of his, I want him to be in a place where he can be successful and comfortable. So that's why we decided to cut the cord right away."
Good call, because Armstrong's news-oriented columns offered few indications that he might develop into a writer on par with the Rocky Mountain News's Mike Littwin, a onetime sports scribe who managed the transition to news with aplomb. His introductory salvo for the Denver and the West section, published on September 24, was laughably lame: In it, he came to the startling realization that a lot of people have cell phones (egad!) but don't have very much interesting to say on them (stop the presses!). Other columns exhibited a similarly banal grasp of the obvious. Without Armstrong, Post readers might not know that talking with senior citizens can be sort of interesting ("Finding Value in Elderly Voices," October 4), families are nifty ("Parent, Teen Keep Family Ties Tight," October 11), and sport-utility vehicles aren't all they're cracked up to be ("SUVs: Speedy, Unsafe Vehicles," October 15). Armstrong's attempts to tackle topical matters were just as tepid -- and when he mentioned both Brian Griese and Terrell Davis in the lead of an October 1 dispatch from the parking referee's office, it was clear he'd prefer to keep his eye on the ball.
Armstrong didn't respond to an interview request from yours truly, and in the October 25 return of his "Opening Shots" sports column, he resisted the urge to share his brief experience in the real world. But his first line spoke volumes. "One big, happy notes column," he declared, clearly relishing his return to a gig that doesn't require him to write anything especially substantial. Nice work if you can get it.
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