Very quietly, a new era in Twin Cities TV journalism started Monday. At 8:30 a.m., assignment editors in three bitterly competitive newsrooms — Channels 5, 9 and 11 — held a conference call to coordinate coverage.
The result could be seen a few hours later, when only one photographer from the stations attended Al Franken’s meeting with big-city Minnesota mayors. I don’t know if Al’s press folks were bummed, but they might’ve brightened when they learned the footage was sent live to all three newsrooms, available for everyone’s broadcast.
Call it efficiency, or a cartel OPEC would envy, but the now-daily calls represent the fruition of discussions I wrote about in December. The triumvirate — soon to be joined by Channel 4 — will no longer compete for video of certain non-breaking “daybook” items, such as photo ops and press conferences.
It’s not just about saving cash, KARE11 news director Tom Lindner insists. With newsrooms shrinking, it makes no sense to send four photographers to a grip-and-grin, or pay for four helicopters to cover an innocuous spectacle like the 35W bridge reopening.
“Frankly, that one was somewhat of an air-safety issue,” he jokes. “But if one photographer is providing video for [four] stations, we’ve got people we can use on local enterprise stories and exclusives.”
Despite the move’s seeming radicalness, Lindner says it’s a natural extension of pool video already shot at certain trials (including the current election contest) and other governmental events. I have to admit, it’s often ludicrous to watch four camerapeople jockey for position at the same static Capitol news conference. It’s commodity footage, and there’s no reason to duplicate it.
Importantly, reporters’ insights won’t be shared. If you want to get an interview no one else has, you’ll still have to send your own questioner and perhaps someone to tape him or her.
“Nobody gives up exclusivity,” Lindner states. “If I get a hot tip, that does not become a pool event.”
But what if something exceptional breaks out at a pooled event? Lindner says the pool camera would continue to feed all the stations, but if they wanted their own stuff, they’d have to scramble crews to get there.
“It’s new turf, but everyone’s going on good faith” he says, adding that each station retains a veto over any potentially pooled story.
Lindner says the local leaders pondered an alternative model: “In Philadelphia, NBC and Fox actually put together a separate company, and each side donates resources. It works there because NBC has an 11 o’clock newscast and Fox’s is at 10. We opted for the less cumbersome model. Our assignment desks are used to talking to each other for certain events, it’s just that now they’ll do it every day.”
Channel 4 is late to the party because of union concerns. David Chaney, a station photographer and shop steward for the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, says his group initially thought its contract banned airing non-union work.
As it turned out, “there’s language in our contract allowing that,” Chaney says, adding management told him they’d join the arrangement next week.
Is Chaney at all concerned about the obvious: that more pooling makes it easier for ownership to cut staff?
“Their intent, they tell me, is to free us up to do more interesting stories,” he replies. “They say this isn’t to eliminate jobs, and I’ll take ’em at their word.”
Update: Channel 4 news director Scott Libin confirms Chaney’s account.
“We plan to join the rotation next week. As I told our staff, this is just the kind of pool arrangement we’ve participated in for many years. The only difference is we will be doing it more often and voluntarily, freeing up resources to do stories that will further distinguish us from the competition.”
Update II: Tom Lindner emailed Wednesday morning asked me to add this note:
“Joking” about air-safety is not something I do. I’m not sure how you got that impression from our discussion. In fact, I’ve personally flown with all of our helicopter pilots over the years to learn firsthand how they operate. If I had an issue, I would act on it. Fortunately, that has never been the case for me.
I also want any of our guys to know they are NOT required to fly. It’s a voluntary assignment at KARE, and always will be as long as I have a voice in the matter.
Helicopter safety is the first, middle and last part of our thinking when we send a crew airborne. It’s not an issue of humor for us. And never will be.
Quick comment here: I didn’t think Tom was literally saying there was an air-safety problem — it was more of a self-jab at TV news competitiveness. (He is a pretty funny guy.) But let the record stand augmented.