Broader coverage offsets loss of journalistic competition.
Hard-driving newsmen Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur have to be spinning in their graves. Their celebrated 1928 play, The Front Page, depicted the cutthroat competition they experienced as Chicago newspaper reporters, when numerous dailies fought to break the news first.
Today Chicago has just two dailies, both facing severe financial challenges. Most cities have one, and many could lose that newspaper as well. And a growing number of surviving papers are looking to cooperate rather than compete in order to cut costs.
The eight largest newspapers in Ohio have agreed to share their staffs' work. So have Florida's Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Palm Beach Post and (Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel. Even The Washington Post, one of America's very best — and most competitive — papers, has begun to cooperate with the neighboring Baltimore Sun.
The Ohio papers share each other's stories and coordinate their state government coverage. During the 2008 political campaign, the papers conducted a joint polling project. The papers are scattered around the state and don't have a great deal of overlapping readership, their editors say.
The arrangement enables each newspaper to provide more information to its readers than it could on its own, Dayton Daily News Editor Kevin Riley says.
“We could have sat around and complained that none of us could afford to have any polling,” he explains. “Instead, we got a statewide poll that cost us more than any one paper would have been able to pay.”
The Daily News no longer covers Ohio State football, using Columbus Dispatch reporting instead. The Dispatch carries Daily News coverage of the Cincinnati Reds.
In Florida, The Herald and Times have created a joint, six-reporter state capital bureau. The Herald, Post and Sun Sentinel have entered an agreement to share routine coverage in order to free reporters for more enterprise reporting. With Florida International University, they created the South Florida News Service, through which journalism students will produce video and audio content for the three newspapers as well as stories.
The Washington-Baltimore agreement covers routine reporting about Maryland, but not state government or University of Maryland sports, where The Post and Sun continue to compete.
The agreements have raised concerns about loss of journalistic competition.
“It could be a good thing,” Florida state Sen. Dan Gelber said about the arrangements in his state. “But I do worry. I'm a big believer that there needs to be plenty of competition. A vibrant press corps in our state's capital is crucial.”
“If you have fewer people covering things,” Ohio University journalism Professor Patrick Washburn says, “you have fewer viewpoints, and fewer viewpoints is not good.” A politician can “spin” one reporter to get his views across easier than he can spin several, Washburn adds.
“I think competition makes us better, because it creates more diversity of viewpoints and makes us work harder” says Andrew Alexander, The Washington Post's ombudsman. He worries that quality may decline “when there's no urgency to beat the other guy or to go deeper than someone else.”
On the other hand, he adds, “I sympathize with the editors. If you don't have enough staff to cover the local school board meeting, you have to make a choice.”
Riley acknowledges that editors and reporters need to be aware of the pitfalls of diminished competition and have to “challenge ourselves to make sure we're doing our job and serving the public good.” But, he adds, competition is not necessarily valuable when it leads eight reporters to do the same routine story.
“When that could be done with one and the others could be working on enterprise stories with more importance, you're not being smart,” he says. “We could have that group of reporters covering more ground.”
Similarly, Miami Herald Editor Anders Gyllenhaal said the Florida cooperation “helps us focus on 100 percent more enterprise.” In announcing the agreements, The Herald promised readers “more deep and probing stories on the important issues across Florida.” The arrangements “increase our ability to look beyond the news, to take on investigative projects and to do the kind of explanatory work that is particularly important at the state government level.”
Journalism consultant Michele McLellan endorsed the cooperation and predicted more will come.
“Sure, it's important to have more than one watchdog on duty at the statehouse,” she said. “But too often the watchdogs became the herd, covering the same hearings, writing up the same turn-of-screw procedural votes, and capturing the same political skirmishes that never quite enlighten real motivations or inform about policy.”