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WMAR-TV, 'Sun' set to work together

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Sun is poised to enter a sweeping alliance with Baltimore television station WMAR that would begin to integrate the newspaper's reporting into the station's newscasts and also set the stage for joint advertising and promotional efforts.

In a deal expected to be announced soon, Sun reporters would appear regularly on Channel 2's news shows, with The Sun's logo readily visible. In addition, the two media outlets are planning to swap advertising, with time on the air traded for ad space inside the newspaper. They are likely to create projects allowing sponsors to purchase advertising for both media. Down the line, they could co-operate in the reporting of some stories.

While senior officials at the two institutions declined to comment yesterday, several people in the local media industry described the broad outlines of the deal on condition they not be identified.

No money is to change hands in the deal, but both sides believe they can prosper from the relationship. For The Sun, the partnership is intended to help cement the paper's reputation as an authoritative source of news, whether in print or on the air. WMAR's interest in the collaboration, meanwhile, is two-fold: to take advantage of the newspaper's journalistic resources and to try to boost its ratings.

WMAR, an ABC affiliate, has struggled lately, as its local newscasts and network lineup have attracted diminishing ratings. Its 11 p.m. newscast comes in third in the city and often draws fewer viewers than Fox affiliate WBFF does at 10 p.m.

In response to these pressures, WMAR recently replaced longtime lead anchor Stan Stovall with Brian Wood, a reporter and anchor from Seattle; several other WMAR journalists also have been fired in recent months. According to people at the station, the alliance with The Sun could help the station establish a clearer identity as it competes with market leaders WBAL-TV (Channel 11) and WJZ (Channel 13).

As The Sun has nearly 400 journalists, reporters have time to develop expertise in specialized beats such as business, medicine, the environment, education and the arts. The paper also has a bureau in Washington, several national correspondents and five foreign bureaus that could offer material for broadcast on WMAR.

"In new times, you have to look for new ways," said Norm Lewis, chief weather forecaster for WMAR.

TV union agreement

To pave the way for the deal, station officials had to negotiate concessions from the union representing television journalists to allow newspaper reporters to appear during newscasts. But, out of fears that the station's reporters could be made obsolete, no newspaper reporter is to be the primary correspondent on most traditionally constructed television news pieces, according to people knowledgeable about the situation.

The WMAR-Sun arrangement is considered unlikely to yield major financial returns in the near future or any appreciable rise in circulation for the newspaper. Rather, according to those familiar with the strategy, the pact would help reinforce the paper's image with viewers who might not be traditional readers of The Sun, which approached local stations about the idea last year.

"It's getting stories to the reader through an alternate vehicle," said Marti Buscaglia, until recently the vice president of marketing and communications for The Sun. "The printed paper is just one method of reaching people." On Monday, Buscaglia became publisher of the News-Tribune in Duluth, Minn., a Knight-Ridder newspaper.

The Sun has taken several steps lately to prepare for the alliance. It has hired a new editor for electronic news who held a similar post with the Tribune Co. The Sun is also clearing out a portion of the newsroom to install a mini-studio with a permanent television camera.

Sun Editor William K. Marimow and Managing Editor Anthony F. Barbieri, who is leading the paper's multimedia effort on the news side, deferred all comment to Publisher Michael E. Waller. Waller was traveling yesterday and could be not be reached. Sun spokeswoman Carol Dreyfuss declined to comment. Drew Berry, the general manager for WMAR, also would not comment.

The emergence of the pact reflects the philosophy of the Tribune Co., The Sun's Chicago-based corporate parent, in preparing its journalists for a multimedia future.

In Chicago, reporters and critics for the Chicago Tribune appear regularly on WGN, a major station owned by Tribune, as well as the company's own regional cable news channel. In South Florida, the Tribune's Sun-Sentinel has established partnerships with major network affiliates and news radio stations in both Miami and Palm Beach.

In Palm Beach, the National Public Radio station broadcasts news programs produced entirely by the newspaper at its in-house studios. Miami CBS station WFOR often describes articles from the next morning's Sun-Sentinel on its late newscast, and the two news outlets routinely share leads on developing stories.

Such arrangements are not unique to Tribune papers. On the national level, MSNBC has a non-exclusive but close partnership with Newsweek magazine and the Washington Post, whose reporters appear regularly on the cable news channel. Other new outlets have forged similar arrangements locally. Few, though, have been as expansive as those pursued by Tribune.

In a recent talk at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tribune Publishing Co. President Jack Fuller explained the company's strategy.

"Not everyone at Tribune agrees with me, but I believe it is inevitable that the economic pressure of fragmentation will drive us to produce newspapers, TV news, radio news and interactive news out of a common newsroom," Fuller said on Jan. 20. "The company that can do this will have the best products for a broadband environment because it will have all the elements - text, audio and video."

The integration of media outlets has not come without some tensions. Journalists for various Tribune-owned properties, for example, have found them critiquing one another in the course of their duties.

"For some of the newspaper reporters, it's been difficult, because they see TV as evil," said Shannon High-Bassalik, news director at Miami's WFOR. "But Tribune really creates a culture that nurtures it. We know we're a partner with such a good journalistic organization that it's a win-win."

Some concerns

Others express misgivings about this type of partnership for ethical or business reasons.

"I don't like the whole idea of synergy," said Howard Rosenberg, the television critic for the Los Angeles Times, another Tribune paper. "I think it narrows voices rather than adds voices. And the perception of the public is that there could be some funny business going on."

Carl Gottlieb, who was Washington bureau chief for Tribune Broadcasting for a decade, said such plans hold promise but also danger for the television partners.

"There's a danger of turning print people into experts and the TV people into those who are not experts," said Gottlieb, now deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and who remains a shareholder in the Tribune Co. "Done right, it can do a tremendous job showcasing journalists from both sides of the equation."

The Tribune Co. owns or manages more than 20 local television stations, along with many major newspapers. Besides The Sun, those include the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sun-Sentinel, and the Hartford Courant. In addition, Tribune Co. owns 25 percent of the WB network and a sizable stake in AOL/Time Warner, which owns cable channels CNN, TNT, TBS, the Warner Bros. movie studio, Time magazine and other media outlets.

WMAR is owned by the E.W. Scripps Co., a Cincinnati company with holdings in local television, newspapers and cable television ventures. The station was started in 1947 as Sunpapers Television by the Abell family, then the owners of The Sun. Under current law, WMAR had to be sold when Times Mirror Co. obtained The Sun four decades later. Tribune purchased Times Mirror in 2000.

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