In Tough Times, Newspapers Sharing Content

Cash-strapped newspapers are turning to what once were their fiercest competitors to help stay alive — by sharing content and reporters. Editors at newspapers from Texas to Ohio talk to host Robert Smith about how they share content while keeping their own identities, and about how these agreements affect readers.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

Reading the newspaper these days can give you a sense of deja vu. Take today's Dallas Morning News, for example. Interesting story about how Nolan Ryan is training pitchers for the Texas Rangers. But wait a minute. The guy who wrote it actually works for the other newspaper in the region. And if you check online, there it is. You'll see the original story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Although you wouldn't know it unless you subscribed to both papers, the two have a deal to share content. This from papers who used to hate each other.

Bob Mong is the editor of the Dallas broadsheet.

Mr. BOB MONG (Editor, Dallas Morning News): We have been pretty intense rivals for years. We even started a daily newspaper over there in the mid to late '90s, which sort of threw a cherry bomb right in the middle of their market.

SMITH: Newspapers can't afford those kind of fireworks anymore. Shrinking budgets, fewer reporters and, all of a sudden, getting the scoop doesn't seem quite as vital as staying alive.

Dallas and Forth Worth began their partnership last November. For now, they share entertainment and sport stories. Dallas does basketball and hockey; Fort Worth covers baseball; everybody covers the Cowboys.

Mr. MONG: We've done it in the least obtrusive way. As far as any kind of in-depth or investigative work, you know, we don't share that. And we don't share breaking news.

SMITH: So you still want to beat the pants off them?

Mr. MONG: Absolutely.

SMITH: I'm sure some reporters might have been concerned, the more you share, the more people you can lay off.

Mr. MONG: No question about that.

SMITH: Have you eliminated positions because you've been able to cooperate?

Mr. MONG: No, not yet, but it's certainly possible.

SMITH: That threat is playing out across the country. The Philadelphia Inquirer is swapping stories with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun are sharing suburban coverage.

In Ohio, eight newspapers are opening up almost all of their content to each other. Ben Marrison is the editor of the Columbus Post Dispatch. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Ben Marrison is the editor of the Columbus Dispatch.]

Mr. BEN MARRISON (Editor, Columbus Dispatch): It has to happen. We have to figure out a way to maintain high-quality content at a lesser cost. Having, for us, seven other wire services every day that don't cost us a dime from seven papers that are really good newspapers is a great option.

SMITH: A great option for the newspapers, but what about for the readers? Keith Woods is the dean of faculty at The Poynter Institute, a school for reporters. The core of journalism, he says, is having more than one set of eyes on a story.

Mr. KEITH WOODS (Dean of Faculty, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies): There is something lost if you have fewer sports writers and you have fewer entertainment reporters and fewer arts and culture reporters. Something is distinctly lost for the public.

SMITH: You know, the editors I've talked to say that they're not getting angry letters. Readers don't seem to notice, but I suppose it's hard to notice what's not there.

Mr. WOODS: You don't know what the newspaper isn't finding. That's a normal course of business for the public. But when there's no one even looking, then you know you've got a problem.

SMITH: In Columbus, Ben Marrison says there are fewer reporters sniffing for stories at the state capitol, but that was the case before their cooperative agreement. The fact of life is that there are going to be fewer reporters everywhere. The sharing agreement is helping to fill the holes.

Mr. MARRISON: So what we're doing is increasing the number of stories because we're working smarter. It's odd to hear journalists talk about efficiency because we're not math people, but it's precisely what we're doing, and it's working extremely well.

SMITH: Isn't there a part of you as a newspaper man who liked and thrived on at least a sense of competitiveness between these papers?

Mr. MARRISON: Oh, that's still there.

SMITH: It's still there, even though

Mr. MARRISON: Absolutely.

SMITH: even though you know you could put something out, and it's just going to pop up in Cleveland?

Mr. MARRISON: That's okay. It's going to have our name on it. So what we look forward to is that day when we have a story that's on the front page of our paper and the other seven. That tells us that our story was better than everything else everybody else produced. We still compete like crazy.

SMITH: And Marrison notes that it isn't as if the newspapers are stealing readers from each other. Those days are over.

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