Strange Bedfellows in the State House Press Corps

Of all the many changes taking place in New Jersey’s news organizations over the past 12 months, perhaps none carries more significance than the decision by The Star-Ledger and The Record to merge their State House bureaus.

Up until now, the layoffs, cutbacks and consolidations have taken place within the confines of individual news organizations. The merger of the Ledger/Record bureaus marks the first time that two of the state’s competing news entities will be combining forces.

The decision is not without some precedent. Since 1970, joint operating agreements authorized by the U.S. Newspaper Preservation Act have provided competing newspapers with exemptions from antitrust laws, making it possible for them to combine operations within the same market area.

More along the lines of the Ledger/Record bureau merger, The St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald announced plans to merge their Tallahassee-based staffs into a single statehouse bureau late last year. Likewise, The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News & Observer have merged the papers’ capital bureaus and sports staffs. Although both papers have been owned by the McClatchy Company since 2006, they had initially remained somewhat independent and continued to compete with each other.

“For the two of us, each the editor in charge of projects at North Carolina’s two largest daily newspapers, telling each other what we’re working on was like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox exchanging strategies for an upcoming three-game series in the midst of a heated pennant race,” Gary Schwab, The Observer’s projects editor, wrote in an article for Nieman Reports.

In the article, Schwab explained the guidelines the two newspapers agreed to in order to coordinate their reporting and ensure proper recognition when one of the papers breaks a story. He also provided an example of how the combined news operations resulted in a powerful series of stories on the poultry industry. The articles led to the resignation of a state health official and the convening of Congressional hearings.

Indeed, this is the type of journalism envisioned by the Ledger and Record officials who announced the merger last month. “At a time when newspapers have had to cut back news staffs, this cooperation allows us to pool resources and better serve all our readers,” Star-Ledger editor Jim Willse explained at the time. Record editor Frank Scandale said the move will enable each newspaper to provide a broader range of daily information.

The downside of such mergers, however, is the danger of the news becoming homogenized. Stories geared toward wider audiences can become broader and more general in content, lacking some of the local details and information that are important to individual readers.

“Diverse media ownership can create the robust and unconstrained debate that allows the best ideas to prevail,” communications professor John H. McManus wrote in an Issues in Ethics journal article. “Consolidation, in contrast, constricts the number of information providers and can cut down on the debate that is essential to a democracy.”

In addition, the role of competition cannot be underestimated. Journalists strive to deliver the news accurately and quickly while serving as public watchdogs. But scooping the competition adds a little extra incentive that may now be missing. It is like the difference between hitting a baseball out of the park during batting practice and doing it in the bottom of the ninth inning with the game on the line.

As journalist Andy Schneider explained in an American Journalism Review article about competition between newspapers in Seattle: “Joint operating agreements, profit margins, marketing and acquisitions strategies, reader retention rates: Mention any of it to most reporters and editors, and you might as well be talking about differential equations. They just don’t care. But give them a big breaking news story, pit them against a crosstown rival, and the boys are back in the locker room, gearing up for the big win.”

How things will play out in New Jersey remains to be seen. There are excellent reporters in the Ledger and Record State House bureaus, but the transition from competitors to colleagues can be a delicate one. Nevertheless, given the current economics of the industry, the merger may be the type of bold, innovative action needed to keep New Jersey news organizations alive in the 21st Century.

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One Response to Strange Bedfellows in the State House Press Corps

  1. Steven Hart says:

    It will probably play out the way a lot of courthouse reporters for competing newspapers operated. The statehouse reporters will coordinate and share notes on the press conference type stories and go free-range on the enterprise stories — to the extent they have time to do them.

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