A few weeks ago, I saw workers climbing on ladders in a newsroom hallway, one of them routing hundreds of feet of thick, red wire through the ceiling. I’m not sure what it’s for, but it reminded me that before too long the television cameras will be setting up shop somewhere in my newsroom.
When I started in this business more than 25 years ago, I never would have believed it would come to this. Back then I’d show up at a crime scene or press conference and keep a wary eye on my television competitors. Truth be known, most of us print people thought of ourselves as somehow better than TV reporters. We considered ourselves to be the “real” journalists.
But the journalism world is changing. Old-time competitors are starting to team up in markets across the United States. A fancy name for it is convergence. What it means is that all of us — print and television reporters — are going to start working with each other.
And, in the process, learn from each other. In the long run, that’s going to make us better journalists, able to serve our readers and viewers.
The best journalists will be those who can write a story, craft a blog and be comfortable in front of the camera to explain what the story is about. The Oregonian is building on a relationship it forged with KGW, the local NBC affiliate. For some time, the paper has been using weather forecasts from KGW’s meteorologist on the paper’s weather page, and we’ve collaborated on televised political debates.
But the paper has moved to strengthen that relationship. In coming months the plan is for The Oregonian to provide KGW with a nightly enterprise story from the paper that they will tout on the 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscast. The second plan is to install a camera in the newsroom so the paper’s reporters and columnists can be interviewed on the news show.
“The value for the paper is it gives us an opportunity to make our work known to a wider and different swath of the public,” said Peter Bhatia, the paper’s executive editor. “It gives us an opportunity to feature great expertise our reporters have developed. And, we hope, it reinforces our position as the pre-eminent source for news in the region.”
So what does that mean for reporters and how we approach our stories?
Shelia Hamilton, a Portland news director at KINK-FM, has been studying convergence for the past few years. KINK is owned by KGW’s parent company, and Hamilton’s offices are in the same building. Hamilton started in public broadcasting, and during her decadeslong career, she has done it all: TV, producing, documentaries, news, radio and magazine writing.
“What’s going to happen is there will be a heady respect for each other,” Hamilton said of convergence. “TV and print are like different sports. They require different skills for each art.”
Hamilton said that print reporters who soon will be staring into the camera are going to learn how to master the art of conversation.
“It’s not so much about the sentences, it’s more about the inflection,” she said. “Reporters have to learn to speak clearly and concisely. They can’t just rely on the facts, which print reporters have a tendency to do. What they have to learn is how to communicate in a straightforward way. The way I like to explain it is to tell them to imagine how they would explain a story to a friend after a couple of martinis. But don’t have the martinis.”
Hamilton is convinced that in the future, the line between how television and print reporters work will become blurred.
“More and more television reporters are expected to write blogs,” she said, “and print people are going to appear on camera more frequently.”
Rachel Davis, a reporter with the Florida Times Union, has firsthand experience with convergence. Her paper entered into a partnership with a local affiliate. There’s a camera in the newsroom, and each night the station touts a story that’s going to be in the morning paper.
The anchor doesn’t talk with the reporter; he or she talks to a copy editor who basically regurgitates a reporter’s story. There’s a question-and-answer session, but it is highly scripted and doesn’t get into the nuances of the story.
“The copy editor stands there at 11 p.m. and is just a face,” she said. “There’s no discussing about what went on behind the scenes in the story, just the facts.”
When her editors sent Davis overseas to cover the war, she did phone interviews with the TV anchors.
“I’m not comfortable on TV,” she admitted. “The first time I did it, we had practice runs because I was so nervous. When you are on TV, it becomes a mind thing. I’m self-conscious of how I sound. I’m not trained to be on the air. The most interesting thing to me in a story is not what is most interesting to an anchor. I’m willing to do it if we have a script and we don’t deviate from it. But I’d rather just write and be a name on a piece of paper.”
Those days are over.
Tom Hallman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian.