Just a dozen years ago, newspapers on either side of Arlington, Texas, fought fiercely for every reader in the fast-growing city, spending millions of dollars to expand their staffs and cover the smallest meetings and sporting events.
So it came as a surprise that The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram started sharing photos and concert reviews in November.
But these are unprecedented times.
As readers and advertisers migrate to the Internet and the stumbling economy cuts deeply into revenues, news organizations are redefining what it means to compete. In recent months, papers around the country have tried to mitigate their staff cuts by forging partnerships with former rivals.
“In the old days, all of us were involved in the same stories,” said Tony Pederson, a former Houston Chronicle executive editor and now journalism chairman at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “When there was a big news event in Texas or nationwide, everybody was there. Now, that’s not the case.”
The sharing has intensified as newspapers stepped up job reductions and slashed travel budgets, and such arrangements are more palatable than closing news bureaus or dropping some coverage areas altogether.
All three major daily newspapers in South Florida formed a loose partnership, while five papers in Maine and eight in Ohio are sharing what they gather and produce. Fox and NBC television stations plan to share video, and The Washington Post and The Sun in Baltimore announced a collaboration on Maryland coverage in late December. In doing so, readers could lose another voice, and journalists their competitive drive.
“It might be an ideal situation in a perfect world to have four or five daily newspapers each covering the same public hearings, and then comparing the coverage and probably learning something different in each story,” said Mark Woodward, executive editor of the Bangor Daily News, which began cooperating with other Maine newspapers in September.
But cooperation is a necessary compromise “to conserve your resources and still serve your public,” Woodward said.
Many of the deals involve coverage of routine events such as news conferences, and papers sometimes disclose ahead of time what they plan to cover. Papers give full credit for items used, and no money changes hands. In some cases, papers restrict online use and informally agree not to run certain items from the other.
The Dallas and Fort Worth papers started cooperating in October by distributing each other’s papers to save on delivery costs. The detente on the business side paved the way for the two to begin sharing photos and such features as concert reviews.
Talks continue on expanding the exchange. “A decade ago it was a different world,” said Gary Wortel, publisher of the Fort Worth paper. “I don’t look at us as competitors anymore. Really our competition is with media fragmentation around the country and internationally.”
Of course, suddenly becoming friends with once-bitter rivals won’t be simple. “When you’ve competed as aggressively as we have over the years, you can’t just march into something like this and not take that into account,” said Bob Mong, editor of The Dallas Morning News, which ultimately conceded in Arlington. “But a lot of times, events can dictate a different perspective.”