Media General plans to move the operations of its Tampa Bay area newspaper, TV station and online service under one news-gathering umbrella.
Grandly referred to as "The News Center," a new four-story building under construction in Tampa will soon house three local sources of news and information: The Tampa Tribune, WFLA-TV Channel 8 and Tampa Bay Online (TBO), which are all owned by Richmond, Va.-based Media General. Early next year, the formerly distinct news operations will move to the new facility, where they will share resources and personnel.
For Media General, the stakes are considerable. Tampa Bay represents the company's largest market, and WFLA alone delivers one-third of Media General's broadcast division revenues. With four network-affiliated television stations and a Time Warner 24-hour cable news service in the area, competition for news viewers and advertising dollars is fierce. WFLA-TV, an NBC affiliate, has lost its grip on the No. 1 spot in the local ratings war and has seen its advertising revenues shrink. Similarly, the Tribune battles the St. Petersburg Times, a sister publication of Florida Trend, for local advertising dollars and readership. Like all news operations, both WFLA and the Tribune face changing consumer expectations. "We don't expect our readers to wait 24 hours to get their newspaper," says Donna Reed, the Tribune's managing editor.
Under the new structure, WFLA and Tribune news staffs will collaborate on news-gathering efforts and funnel reporting into the print, broadcast and online formats. Both the newspaper and WFLA already contribute to TBO, an Internet site (www.tampabayonline.com) for community news and information. Next year, area residents can expect around-the-clock news offerings on TBO to increase, particularly with WFLA switching to a digital format -- in compliance with an FCC mandate for digital TV -- by year's end. With the new technology, a digitized TV broadcast could be sent to people's home computers over the Internet. Viewers will see newspaper staff on television; readers will see WFLA bylines on articles in the Tribune; TV cameramen will provide stills for the newspaper as well as video for broadcast news.
Media General is not the first in the state to try to merge different media under one news-gathering umbrella -- or to hazard the challenge of doing it well. Both the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Orlando Sentinel now operate in conjunction with television and online services. "The biggest challenge early on was in bridging the cultural divide," says Orlando Sentinel Managing Editor Jane Healey, who helped shepherd the print/broadcast partnership with Time Warner's News 13 two years ago. She says both organizations are doing "better than expected," and have achieved their objective "to be the primary information source for their area."
Don Bradley, WFLA's news director, admits the merging of the print and broadcast news-gathering cultures may be difficult. Different pay scales, learning to use reporting resources differently, and cross-training reporters and photographers are all issues that the Tribune and WFLA will have to overcome. (The news staff numbers 300 at the Tribune and 87 at WFLA.) After a period when "there was clearly a lack of buy-in beyond the top level of this organization," the need for the move is now more widely understood, Bradley says.
Media General officials say the move shouldn't lead to layoffs. It didn't in Orlando or Sarasota. Reed says she sees more job opportunities, with a new set of skills needed to present news in multiple formats. The Orlando Sentinel's Healey says media companies have to cater to the demand for information in all forms to retain the value of their brand in the market. "If you're not going to read it in our paper, then we want to make sure you get our information from our television partner," she says.
In the News
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