Newspaper affiliation not as crucial anymore

Gail Shister may no longer be affiliated with a major newspaper, but she’s held onto something the entertainment industry still covets: credibility.

Shister, who covered TV for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years, continues to scoop the competition and stir the pot, even though her stories only appear online.

“I think it’s mostly because of my reputation,” says Shister, who broke the story for Tvnewser.com earlier this month that the “Today” show would allow same-sex couples to compete in its wedding contest. “I’ve build up a lot of goodwill over the years with people in the business, and I try to stay in constant touch with my sources.”

A few years ago, publicists might not have returned calls from reporters outside the mainstream media. But that was before online sites became so prevalent and before so many established names joined their ranks, including David Bianculli, who started the online magazine tvworthwatching.com after 14 years at the New York Daily News, and Alan Sepinwall, who jumped from the Newark Star-Ledger in May to pop-culture site HitFix.com.

Ed Bark, who covered television for the Dallas Morning News for 27 years, normally attracts just under 6,000 daily visitors to his four-year-old website, Unclebarky.com, a one-man operation consisting of breaking news, in-depth reviews and musings. He’s still invited to teleconferences with major talent and receives screeners from publicists, in large part because of positive name recognition.

“If I was starting from scratch and trying to convince networks to send me stuff, it would be a severe uphill climb,” says Bark, who also contributes to LocateTV.com. “I won’t pretend that it didn’t help to be affiliated with the Morning News, and I probably don’t get as many one-on-one interviews, but overall, it hasn’t been a problem. They might not have always liked what I’ve written, but I think they respect me.”

Established working relationships are beneficial, says Chris Ender, senior VP of communications for CBS.

“When you’re going to put talent or an executive on the phone with a reporter, you’ve got to have a trust factor,” Ender said. “There’s an equity with traditional media figures that we’ve worked with over the years. We know their expertise and how they report a story.”

But that doesn’t mean a young upstart can’t get the publicity department’s attention.

“We all have Google alert,” Ender said. “If we see someone in the online or blogger world that has expertise and a passion for reporting, we’ll reach out to them. With so many portals opening for us to publicize our shows, we’d be pretty stupid not to use them.”

Getting access doesn’t translate into getting rich.

Few writers entrenched in the online world have struck financial gold. Many veterans depend heavily on buyout packages from their former employers and retirement benefits.

Shister, who isn’t attending this summer’s TCA tour, supplements her online-generated income with a teaching gig at the U of Pennsylvania. Bark will participate in the entire tour, but only because LocateTV.com is footing the bill. His personal website doesn’t generate enough cash to otherwise afford it.

But Bark and Shister both believe that profits and profile will grow in TV criticism online, while having a newspaper ID badge will become less of an advantage.

“A lot of young publicists have never even read a newspaper,” Shister says. “At some point, your newspaper affiliation won’t be a marquee anymore. Your only marquee will be your web association.”

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