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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts