Broadcasters Get Caught

News Tribune Executive Editor Karen Peterson did a nice column on the ancient practice of broadcast news operations stealing from newspapers. caught-with-pants-down

Make no mistake, it is stealing in the strictest sense of the word. If you take somebody’s work product without permission and turn around and sell it, that’s stealing.

Now, I’ll give you a little inside insight into this long-standing practice – of broadcast newsrooms ripping off their ink-stained brethren.

In the old days, there was a lot of straight up robbery. Newsprint would actually be cut out of the Daily Bugle, and stapled right onto a piece of copy paper as a “script” for a newscast. Sad, but true.

Over time, the technology changed – and broadcast newsrooms evolved to re-write newspaper content – somehow making the fact that the newspaper gathered the actual news moot.

Then, news laundering technology came into play – known as the AP. The Associated Press allowed TV newsrooms to use newspaper and wire service content as their own. The AP cleansed any old feelings of guilt TV newsies might have had about stealing the news.

What’s interesting though is that during times of crisis, broadcasters will still to this day bend over backwards to attribute the AP, or even a newspaper of origin. You’ll notice this only happens when the news is highly controversial.

For instance, a TV newsroom will never attribute a story about local governmental action that they were spread too thin to cover – but when it comes to a report about serious criminal allegations, or whether somebody is dead or alive in a breaking news situation – just listen to the “according to” attributions roll. During those times, you would think the AP or the local paper was the voice of God.

In the legal profession, this behavior is known as having a requisite knowledge of wrongdoing. Broadcasters know when it’s good for them to attribute (like when their reputations are on the line), and when it’s not (like when you want to make it look like you had the story). The problem is that it’s always been wrong either way.

And finally, we can get into the gray area of the TV/Newspaper news conundrum. What about TV newsrooms that see a great story in the morning newspaper and then go out and cover it themselves? Well, it is what is is. At least the TV newsroom is making an effort, hopefully, to advance the story and talk to different people to expand the “marketplace of ideas.” The newspaper’s contribution to the TV news industry in this way over the years is incalculable.

Now, I know the newspapers always used to watch us too – but what’s amazing is this: They watched us not to get an idea about what to blow up into their top headline story – but to figure out what stories to de-emphasize and bury. Their idea was that if TV news had covered something to death on Tuesday, they were going to bury it on Wednesday – unless they had something new for TV news to play catch-up on again.

Why did things evolve this way? Simple answer: Resources. Most people have no idea about how big newspaper newsrooms have traditionally been, and how small TV news rooms have always been. In TV news’ heyday, the biggest staffs in the biggest markets may have had 25 reporters. Newspapers had hundreds – and even in today’s bloodbath, still have huge reportorial staffs when measured against TV news.

There’s another factor too: Reporting for television isn’t about getting the story – it’s about the logistics of getting the story. A newspaper reporter can talk to sources, gather quotes and break news on the phone. A TV reporter has to persuade sources to appear on TV and chase all over hell-and-gone meeting deadlines at noon, 5, 6, 10 and 11. It’s just the nature of the two mediums, and it’s the reason there will always be a place for the kind of journalism newspapers produce – whatever the delivery platform. The smartest newspapers will take the best of their content, and turn it into television without doing the things that make television crummy in some cases.

No matter what though – Karen is right. TV news operations have been pawning newspaper’s legwork as their own for decades.

But will the News Tribune, Times, P-I and every other paper in America ever get the credit they deserve for providing assignment desk services for TV news? Nope. Sorry, need the time for the water skiing squirrel.