Convergence at the OK Corral

Newspaper, broadcast station join forces online in NewsOK.com

By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review

Convergence has received something of a black eye lately. Black eye? That might be understating things a bit. We’re talking broken ribs, multiple lacerations and third-degree burns, thanks to the spectacular flameout of AOL Time Warner, the poster child of media convergence.

But not all converged news operations are created equal. Case in point: NewsOK.com, a joint operation of the Daily Oklahoman and KWTV News9 in Oklahoma City.

Both news organizations bring considerable assets to NewsOK, which will mark its first birthday August 19. The Oklahoman, the largest news operation in the state, has a daily circulation of 209,000 and newsroom staff of 160. News9, the leading newscast in town, can spur viewers to pick up the next day’s paper with a preview of a joint news project, or send them to NewsOK.

“It’s amazing to me how a newscaster can mention a story, and we see an immediate spike in our traffic,” says Kelly Dyer, general manager of NewsOK.com. “We had a 5 p.m. live chat on women’s health, and within minutes of its mention on the air, it was maxed out for the full hour. There’s something about the immediacy of TV that’s different than printing a link in a newspaper.”

The partnership is one of the few converged news outfits owned by different corporate parents. (MySanAntonio, a joint enterprise of the San Antonio Express-News and KENS-TV, is another.) NewsOK draws 350,000 unique visitors and 12.5 million page views a month. Before the joint Web site replaced the separate newspaper and broadcast sites, the Daily Oklahoman site was drawing 6 million page views a month and News9 less than a third that amount.

More telling than the numbers, however, has been the evidence of more substantive news coverage in the community. “There has been a lot more synergy than I would have predicted,” Dyer says.

An explosive video

A good example was the coverage earlier this month of a videotape showing a white police officer accosting a black suspect. No, not the incident in Inglewood, Calif. Oklahoma City had its own mini-drama, but because the episode occurred in Oklahoma rather than Los Angeles, it attracted scant national media attention.

On the afternoon of July 8, local media outlets received word from an amateur videographer that he had shot footage of an altercation between police officers and an African American man accused of lewd acts. The footage shows the suspect did not resist but didn’t comply with an officer’s orders to lie down; police then jerked him to the ground and used batons and pepper spray to subdue him. News organizations, including the Oklahoman and News9, were invited to visit the video vigilante’s house to dub the footage.

News9 got its copy at 5:15 p.m. “We had a decision-making session about how to handle it and chose not to air it on the 6 p.m. news until we had a chance to evaluate it,” says Kim Albro, News9 convergence coordinator. “We didn’t want to air that kind of footage until we had a chance to give it context, meaning and balance. Some of the other TV stations ran some video and audio on it, and people were inflamed.”

Journalists for News9 and the Oklahoman pursued the story and filed reports for the 10 pm newscast and the next morning’s paper. News9 dubbed a copy of the video for the NewsOK site, and the story and full seven-minute video appeared that evening on the Web site — something that’s impractical for a half-hour newscast to do. In addition to the video, NewsOK staffers pulled together a balanced report on the incident and ran a poll asking users whether they thought the officer used excessive force. By the next morning, 300 people had voted, and they were evenly divided — a split in the community that played out over the next week.

“The community remains in a very heated debate about what constitutes violence among police officers,” Albro says. “We’ve received phone calls, e-mails, letters. It’s a divisive subject, and we need to do as much as we can to put things in context.”

Albro, whose strong suit is TV production, works in concert with a NewsOK staffer who knows Web production. A second NewsOK staffer, managing editor Dave Morris, attends News9’s 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. editorial meetings to find out what’s on tap for the day’s newscasts. The station’s offices are less than a mile away from the Oklahoman, where NewsOK’s 19 staff members — who predominately came from the newspaper — work.

NewsOK’s operating agreement allows the site to post anything that goes out over the air on News9 or that appears in the print newspaper. Typically, the NewsOK staff digitizes News9’s newscasts and posts four or five of the top video highlights each day. (The Web site, which does not have editing bays, uses the feeds intact.) In rare cases, such as the governor’s State of the State address or the NAACP news conference alleging police brutality in response to the videotaped altercation, NewsOK puts the full footage online — something that every broadcast station with a Web site ought to do.

The news on NewsOK has led to some sobering findings.

“I’ve said all along that what plays on the Web is different than what plays in the newspaper or on TV, and I think we’ve seen that borne out,” Dyer says. “We’ll have a hard-hitting, government-focused investigative piece — a story that lives up to our standards of what journalism should be about — and it’ll get less traffic than a story about an old man who has his car stolen with his poodle inside. Sometimes it’s a sad commentary on humanity, and a journalist’s nightmare come true.”

Potent Web tools for crime, health & weather

More often than not, however, news values and reader interest go hand in hand. On Tuesday, for instance, the site’s lead story reported on film footage discovered of the 1933 trial of Machine Gun Kelly in Oklahoma City.

On most days, NewsOK is typical of news sites in that only a small number of users access video. About 2 percent of its traffic goes to multimedia clips. “We expect that figure to climb as broadband and cable continues to grow,” Dyer says. Last fall NewsOK used a third party to stream its video, but when the traffic didn’t warrant that investment, it began streaming multimedia in-house through a Real server.

News9 brings more to the NewsOK table than repurposed video, however. Among the cool tools:

Crime Tracker, a popular feature that originated on the KWTV site, lets a user scope out crimes committed within a few blocks of his or her address. The data is gathered from metropolitan police departments.

Health Report features both video and text of new medical treatments, nutrition information and other health news.

Diner’s Digest lets you search for restaurants that have been cited by state health inspectors, although the site does a poor job of explaining what the violations mean.

The Day Care Files offers reports on the 5,800 licensed day care facilities in the state.

• The site lists attorneys and veterinarians disciplined by the state.

But this being Oklahoma, perhaps the biggest News9 asset is its chief meteorologist, Gary England. England is something of a legend in these parts, having served up local weather for 30 years. He even had a cameo in “Twister” and served as a consultant for the movie.

“Since we went on NewsOK, our volume of e-mail has gone up considerably. I count 224 e-mails in my in-box right now from the past 10 days,” England says. “People ask all sorts of questions, everything from ‘What is thunder?’ to ‘Did I see a UFO or meteorite in the sky last night?’ to ‘Why do you have a seven-day forecast when you can’t predict tomorrow’s weather?’ And we try to answer them all.

“Most amazing are the questions we get from overseas. Because Oklahoma is the tornado capital of the world, everyone’s interested in the weather here. We have tornadoes, droughts, wind storms, ice storms. Sometimes it’ll rip the shirt off your back.”

“I’ve said all along that what plays on the Web is different than what plays in the newspaper or on TV, and I think we’ve seen that borne out,” says Kelly Dyer.

Global tornado voyeurs notwithstanding, it’s the locals who benefit most from updates on fast-changing weather conditions. One of the coolest features on NewsOK is a dandy little program called I-News. Nearly 50,000 people have downloaded the free application since last year. I-News webcasts the latest breaking news, weather and sports headlines to your desktop. A pop-up screen, along with England’s voice, will warn of severe weather conditions.

England, whose 200-word Web site essays are reprinted in the next morning’s paper, says, “I never thought I’d see the day where we’d be working side by side with the Oklahoman. They’re the 800-pound gorilla in town, with all the money and power and stature. But so far, it’s been nothing but positive.”

The Oklahoman has drawn mixed reviews from the national media over the years. The paper received praise for its coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and its OKC Bombing section contains the past year’s coverage (alas, to see the archived material on its original reporting will cost you). On the flip side, the Oklahoman was deemed “the worst metropolitan newspaper in America” three years ago by the Columbia Journalism Review.

Down the hallway from England, News9’s lead anchor, Kelly Ogle, also praises the station’s partnership with the Oklahoman. “It expands our ability to gather information,” he says. “We don’t work in lockstep with the newspaper, so we’re still able to compete as well.”

Ogle writes an on-air commentary three nights a week called My 2 Cents, and video of the segment also appears on the news site. “Before NewsOK came along, I would get mail from people two or three days after a commentary aired. Today, the response is almost immediate. I got 125 e-mails in the 36 hours after my commentary on the police beating. I also get e-mails on archived commentaries as far back as February, and people still sound off like it’s today’s news, which keeps it interesting.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the news organizations’ partnership, he says, comes from cross-promotion. Typically, when the Oklahoman prepares to publish a big exclusive, “they’ll let us in on the highlights, and we’ll debrief their editor or reporter live from their newsroom at 4 p.m.,” Ogle says. “Then we’ll expand on their report the next day. And they promote News9 projects on their front page.”

Convergence for the right reasons

Steve Foerster, vice president of corporate development for News9, recalls that the newspaper’s reporters were uncomfortable with the new arrangement at first. “They didn’t want to go on TV. Now, they ask for more air time. Sometimes you have to push people to follow a different path.”

Foerster, who helped engineer the birth of NewsOK, says he would recommend such a partnership to other print and broadcast stations. “The key ingredient has been a good relationship between the two entities and the personal involvement by high-ranking officials from both organizations to make it work,” he says.

Some media critics worry that too much convergence could lead to fewer voices and less diversity in the news landscape.

“We don’t get a lot of feedback about that,” Foerster says. “In our market you’ve got broadcast stations, a local 24-hour cable news channel, radio stations — there are a lot of media outlets here.”

Convergence coordinator Albro also dismisses the concern about less media competition. “We like to maintain a sense of competition within our reporting ranks. You want your people to go out and sink their teeth into a story and only later share the information at the editorial  level.”

Yet a moment later she adds, “It doesn’t make sense for me to send photographers and reporters to the same event from two news organizations when one entity could do that and share the information. It’s far more efficient.”

True, it’s more efficient. But two reporters rarely bring back the same story. At its best, convergence increases the public’s exposure to news and information. At its worst, it’s a tool to cut costs with little regard to the end result.

NewsOK has higher revenues and lower expenses than the separate Web sites that preceded it, but it’s still losing money. The site is budgeted to break even by the end of this year.

Says Foerster: “We didn’t undertake convergence to trim expenses. It was done to boost the depth of the news product we’ve built up. No question, it changes the media landscape to a degree, and you have to be cognizant of that. By combining the resources of the two enterprises, you’re able to focus your efforts on the synergies that make a difference for your audience. We think convergence is definitely the wave of the future.”

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT