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Local TV news: sharing more to cut costs?

A bitterly competitive business may decide sharing-to-save is the way to go.
By David Brauer

Some tips are more intriguing then others. So when someone let me know the four local TV news directors were meeting “like the four families in ‘The Godfather,'” I had to check it out from my California cabana.

The tipster implied lots of TV news baubles were on the table: helicopters, statehouse bureaus, and big-event footage. The idea was the four stations would pool more coverage and save costs in tight times.

Instead of four choppers flying to the same accident, one would. Instead of four cameras — and four reporters? — prowling around the Capitol, fewer would. The word was the summit had gone down at KARE’s Golden Valley headquarters.

WCCO News Director Scott Libin won’t confirm the KARE detail, but says discussions have been held. He describes them as very preliminary — “a carefully constrained expansion of the pool arrangements we already have in place.”

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Libin doesn’t deny cost-cutting is a big motivation, but says “the goal is to maximize enterprise, investigative and ‘exclusives’ reporting.

“Speaking for myself, the easiest thing to imagine [sharing] is helicopter video. It’s hardest to imagine the Capitol bureau. Pat Kessler is exactly the sort of person who sets us apart, no disrespect to the other political reporters in town.”

However, it’s possible that for a non-exclusive event like a Capitol news conference, one pool photographer could capture the footage that four reporters riff from. While Libin says freed-up camerafolk could be deployed to other scenes, I’d be a little jittery if I were a “shooter” hearing this talk.

(Libin notes an explosion of Capitol cameras as online sites enter the space; this might be one way to reduce a growing thicket. It would be a fascinating milestone if you got only one video view from the mainstreamers at a time when online versions are exploding.)

Sharing-to-save is happening all over the industry. Network-owned Fox and NBC affiliates have pooled ‘copter and other coverage in markets nationwide; the only thing stopping a deal here is that while Fox owns Fox9, NBC doesn’t own KARE.

Libin notes that Philadelphia stations are even more intertwined; they created a voluntary, Associated Press-like bureau to share footage.

There are plenty of hurdles to any local efforts.

WCCO and Fox9 have labor contracts to navigate. WCCO owns its helicopter but the others don’t; how would costs be allocated? Stations such as KARE are training “backpack journalists” — individuals who report, voice, shoot and edit their stories. How would these money-saving “one-person-bands” work in a pool?

And of course, newsrooms would still be full of bitterly competitive newsies whose deals could explode as fast and almost as furiously as the Cosa Nostra’s.