Partnership raises coverage questions

TV/radio column

Media: Television writer explains his approach to covering the Sun's new partner.

February 13, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The people who sign my paychecks entered into an agreement last week with some of the folks that I write about, and boy, am I conflicted about it.

On the one hand, readers may reasonably wonder whether The Sun will tilt its coverage in favor of WMAR because of their new partnership.

On the other hand, there is no other hand.

It's perfectly understandable that some would question whether there's any way for the newspaper to cover local television news objectively once it's allied itself with one of the stations.

Those inclined to see favoritism or bias will find it anywhere. Yet editors and executives here have promised that our handling of the news on this topic will be treated like any other. So, I'll try to answer some of the questions that have arisen.

Can you briefly remind us how the partnership works?

WMAR and The Sun will trade advertising time on the air and ad space in the paper, without any money changing hands. The paper's reporters will appear regularly on the station's newscasts to talk about stories they've written or their areas of expertise. WMAR's late nightly newscasts will include brief descriptions of stories in the next day's paper.

WMAR likes the deal because it can get news coverage unavailable to its competitors without added costs, giving the station a way to distinguish itself. The Sun's parent company, Tribune Co., likes it because it believes such partnerships reinforce the newspaper's image as the state's most authoritative source of news.

Why WMAR?

Sun Publisher Michael Waller told staffers last week that the third-place station was the most flexible and eager in the market to do business with the newspaper.

Isn't that characterization a bit demeaning to WMAR?

Right now, the station's news programs are being beaten soundly in the ratings. From 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays in January, for instance, WMAR finished sixth among six Baltimore stations. Among the shows WMAR's newscasts trail are those featuring a cranky jurist, a teen-age witch and a supposed psychic. Flexible is an understatement.

In new promotional spots on the air, WMAR describes the partnership as creating the largest journalistic operation in Maryland. Is this true?

Absolutely. Of course, The Sun was already the largest news shop in the state by itself.

How can we be sure that the paper won't cozy up to its new TV buddy in print?

You'll have to decide for yourself.

This partnership puts the newspaper, and particularly me, in an uncomfortable position, as the appearance of conflict of interest can be as consuming as an actual one. As I've never been directed to offend or please a subject, however, I plan to continue operating with the same mission as ever.

If a local TV story were to label someone as a suspected terrorist after simply being questioned by police, we'll likely evaluate it for coverage, whatever the station, as we have in the past. If a prominent television reporter were to have extensive political ties, we'd report on that, as we have in the past. And if a TV station guarantees stories for a major advertiser, we'd report on that, too. No punches are to be pulled for WMAR, despite the alliance.

It is possible that I could be among those who appear on future WMAR broadcasts. I wouldn't profit from it, however - just as previous interviews on WJZ, WBFF, WBAL radio and CNN did not include any compensation. Reporters here are not limited to appearances on WMAR, and they are regular guests on programs such as Maryland Public Television's Direct Connection.

In a sense, I'm asking for a leap of faith. But David Zurawik has been The Sun's television critic since 1989. And I've been with the paper since 1994 and have covered television and media since mid-2000. Both of us have track records that can be evaluated.

What about the concerns expressed by Jack Fuller, Tribune Co. executive who oversees The Sun? He says he sometimes sees "overcompensating," where Tribune newspaper writers are too tough on Tribune's television stations and partners.

I guess I'll let him decide whether it's "overcompensation" to note that WMAR's nightly newscasts look as though they're taped in front of a big blue pool tarp.

What other ties are there between your employer and the television industry that we should know about?

Tribune Co. also owns major portions of the WB network and the Food Network, a sizable stake in AOL/Time Warner (the parent company of CNN, TNT, TBS and other channels) and the Chicago Cubs, along with several other radio and television holdings.

Have those ties affected anything you've ever written?

Pretty much every channel on television is either owned by Tribune or competes with Tribune-owned fare. Yet not once since Tribune bought The Sun in 2000 has an editor or company executive ever attempted to interfere with anything that Zurawik or I have written on the basis that it might displease our corporate masters.

In fact, we and other reporters here have received assurances that won't happen. I'm taking executives at their word. Exhibit A was last week's news story prematurely disclosing the partnership with WMAR. Tribune and Sun officials were caught a bit off-guard by the article, but no one intervened to prevent its publication.

So what is the pact going to do for The Sun's circulation or profits?

Tough to tell. Tribune Co. executives may be visionaries of the new media order. However, the late, brilliant Jeff MacNelly, for years the editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, offered this observation about his employer: "Any company that can invest in the Chicago Cubs has a view of the future we cannot possibly comprehend."

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached at david.folkenflik@ baltsun.com or 410-332-6923.

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