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Media Circus

Brave News World

By Michael Anft | Posted 2/13/2002

On the surface, the WMAR-TV/Sun partnership announced Feb. 6 makes perfect sense, both in terms of news and finance. Channel 2's news operation has long been a ratings doormat, so the presence of Sun reporters beside Mary Beth Marsden and Norm Lewis can only help the ABC affiliate's news cred. And with The Sun's circulation slipping ever so slightly, a little cross-promotional logrolling might earn the paper some bigger sales numbers in the hinterlands reached by WMAR's signal. Digging a little deeper, the news- and brand-sharing arrangement also gives Baltimore readers/viewers a peek into the future of news. In the wake of the media mega-mergers of the past two decades and shareholders' insistence on the growth of their portfolios, publishers and editors have tried to patch together networks of "content providers." News conglomerates are increasingly combining the efforts of television, print, radio, and Internet divisions into a common labor pool to keep a lid on expenses.

The concept is called "synergy," and it's been put to especially prominent use by the Tribune Co., owner of The Sun and dozens of other media outlets across the country. Pioneered by Tribune in the mid-1990s (before it mushroomed into a media monster with the purchase of former Sun parent Times Mirror in 2000), synergy has succeeded largely by speaking in tongues the gilded ears of Wall Street love to hear: the language of branding, of markets cornered and resources shared.

I've ranted about the pitfalls of synergy schemes in the past--fewer reporters combing the bushes, the consolidation of media power in the hands of the few and the rich--so I won't bore you this time around. Besides, there's not a direct correlation between ownership and content in this case; WMAR is owned by the Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co. while The Sun takes orders from Chicago, home of the Tribune Co. (Although, interestingly, they do have a historical bond: The A.S. Abell Co., of Baltimore, owned both properties from 1947 to 1986, when Times Mirror bought them; it was forced to sell the TV station under a 1975 Federal Communications Commission rule against ownership of a daily paper and a TV and/or radio station in a single market. The ban had not applied to Abell because it owned both properties before the FCC issued the rule, which is still in effect but under constant attack by big-media interests.) Still, the WMAR/Sun love fest, for all its potential benefits to television-news viewers, does contain one potentially destructive hallmark of synergy: the diminishing of once-independent news organizations. The possibility of shared stories could end up meaning that channel 2 would allow its Sun contributors to investigate some leads the station's staff once would have handled, meaning one less news crew on the case.

Both Sun editor William Marimow and WMAR general manager Drew Berry dispute the notion, but Berry acknowledges licking his chops over the "enormous resources"--nearly 400 Sun reporters and editors--now at his disposal. Although the details of the partnership are still "unfolding," Marimow says Sun reporters will make as many as four to five appearances per day on channel 2's news shows, including a Sun-generated business report. The endless cubicles in The Sun's newsroom will be interrupted by a mini-studio, complete with lights and a camera, he says.

Marimow was mum about the possibility of reporters from the two news organizations working on stories together, but a Feb. 6 memo by Sun publisher Michael Waller suggests that such a cozy news-gathering relationship in the offing. "Eventually, Sun journalists may team with 2News reporters on multimedia enterprise projects," Waller conjectured. Such stories would then, presumably, have the same angle, information, and flavor on channel 2 and in The Sun--hardly a win/win for readers/viewers.

Despite a threat to on-air reporters' face time, journalists at channel 2 don't seem to be all that worried about such a prospect. Reporter positions are still open in the wake of the firings in recent months of longtime station hands Stan Stovall, Mark Vernarelli, John Rosson, and Mary Bubala, but despite the temptation Sun labor might provide management, a reporters' representative is publicly supporting the partnership. "I hope it's a huge success," says Andy Barth, a 31-year WMAR vet and shop steward for the station's American Federation of Television and Radio Artists members.

Besides, one WMAR reporter says, trepidation at this point is pointless: With the recent staff purge and the industrywide push for synergy, the newsprint is on the wall. "It's like steelworkers in the '70s bitching about how they're getting screwed by Koreans dumping steel," says the mic-wielder, who requested anonymity. "It's a waste of breath." In other words, it's the future; get used to it. A Buyout Beats a Byline

One Sunster who won't be made into a TV star is veteran news-sider Joan Jacobson, who is leaving the daily March 1. She'll continue to pursue journalism, perhaps even doing something of book length. Along with building a solid career covering politicians, cops, and breaking news at both The Sun and The Evening Sun, Jacobson earned the respect of many local scribes when then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, bothered by Jacobson's typically tough-minded coverage of him, called her "that bitch." Schaefer and other politicos put under the Jacobson microscope won't miss her--and neither will Sun management types who bristled at her steely involvement in the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild--but readers who appreciated her no-bullshit prose and demeanor certainly will.

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