Shotgun wedding for print, TV

PRINT JOURNALISTS LIKE to dismiss TV news as a haven for blow-dried airheads, while broadcasters view ink-stained wretches as snobs whose disdain is born of jealousy.

Both are partially right, but like any number of media odd couples, the two are newly incentivized (to use a popular if made-up synergy word) to prove they can get along.

As a litany of press accounts have chronicled, newspapers are struggling against declining circulation, causing them to hunt for new sources of revenue. Broadcast and cable outlets, meanwhile, are hungry for programming at lower cost as viewers scatter among myriad options.

If it’s not quite peanut butter teaming up with chocolate, it’s pretty close.

The most elaborate collaborative venture is doubtless Discovery Times, a cable partnership of the New York Times and Discovery Networks, whose flagship channel’s profile has veered away from traditional documentary programming in pursuit of younger viewers. The channel will mark its third anniversary in March and, via digital tiers, reaches almost 40 million U.S. homes.

Still, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Real Simple magazine is behind an eponymous program that made its debut in January on PBS. USA Today is pushing a public-affairs show. The Washington Post is expanding into radio via a deal to program a news-and-talk station, and Entertainment Weekly and VH1 are teaming on a new summer series, “The World Series of Pop Culture,” which promises to lower IQs all over America.

Of course, the marriage of TV and print can be awkward, as was demonstrated by the Jan. 21 premiere of Fox News’ “The Journal Editorial Report,” featuring editorial board members of the Wall Street Journal. Hosted by Paul Gigot, “TJER” violated the first rule of TV talk by showcasing four co-workers who sat around agreeing with each other — no debate, no conflict, no nothing, even during a puffball interview with a White House economic adviser.

Beyond that, Gigot kept getting caught in two-shots ignoring his associates, appearing to scan his notes. Then again, they were all saying the same thing, so paying attention didn’t need to be a priority.

Hell, even Hannity has Colmes to kick around.

It’s a reminder that blending TV with print isn’t always easy. Each medium has its own specific requirements and skill sets, and some of the best print journalists look like the proverbial deer in headlights when posed in front of a camera.

Nor have all the big plans for such combinations panned out. After Tribune Co. acquired the Los Angeles Times, for example, there was conjecture about leveraging their joint assets to launch a local news channel, a la NY1.

Instead, Tribune simply posted a correspondent from its L.A. TV station, KTLA, in the paper’s newsroom to interview reporters, previewing Times stories on its evening news. During my tenure there, most reporters seemed to view their participation with an enthusiasm normally reserved for dental appointments, and then-Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg derided the practice.

So much for synergy.

That’s why the more recent flurry of cooperative arrangements bears watching, especially Discovery Times. Vivian Schiller, a CNN alum who serves as the channel’s exec VP and general manager, says the key is not to turn the wedding into a shotgun marriage.

“The ultimate way to make TV and print work together is you don’t make them work together,” she says. In translating print work to TV, “it’s got to work as a television program.”

Lawrie Mifflin, a one-time Times television beat reporter who is now its exec director of TV and radio, says the paper has integrated TV and print operations with such efforts as “New York Times Reporting,” which airs investigative reports almost simultaneously in the paper and on Discovery Times.

“We recognized early on that you couldn’t just slap the two together; you had to figure out how to make the best of each,” Mifflin says, while adapting to serve newer areas like broadband video and podcasting.

“The way technology is evolving … we need to be able to translate our journalism into whatever form the public wants to receive it.”

This isn’t to say that old habits, and biases, don’t die hard.

“There are reporters at the New York Times, who shall remain nameless, who don’t like television and will never like television,” Schiller says. “But there’s a lot less skepticism than there used to be.”

Whether or not necessity is the mother of invention, disappointing earnings reports usually are. Based on that trend, then, both sides of the TV-print divide are going to have to put misgivings aside and begin getting ready for their close-ups.

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