Sharing stories works, Maine editors told

Posted Oct. 12, 2008, at 9:52 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:17 a.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — One good thing about a new news-sharing agreement among eight daily newspapers in Ohio, according to Columbus Dispatch Editor Ben Marrison, is that it does not eliminate competition among papers involved in the effort.

“We hate each other,” Marrison said, drawing chuckles from Maine newspaper reporters and editors who had gathered Saturday to hear his talk. Marrison spoke during the weekend about the arrangement at the annual fall conference of the Maine Press Association, held at the Atlantic Oakes Conference Center.

The news-sharing arrangement in Ohio, which began in April, is similar to a news-sharing agreement that went into effect last month among five daily newspapers in Maine. The Bangor Daily News, Lewiston Sun Journal, Kennebec Journal, Portland Press Herald-Maine Sunday and Morning Sentinel in Waterville each offer a handful of stories each day to the others, with each paper deciding whether it wants to use any of the offerings. Enterprise or investigative stories, which focus on issues rather than events, often are not offered on the sharing list in Maine.

Marrison may have been joking about newspapers in Ohio hating each other, but he noted that such news-sharing agreements seem to run counter to the fierce competition that newspapers traditionally have with each other, particularly with those in their same state.

“You guys were trained to kick the other guy’s butt,” he said. “In normal times, the idea of sharing stories would lead to immediate death, or worse.”

But everyone in the newspaper business knows that these are not normal times. The main intent of the collaborative project in Ohio — humorously dubbed OHNO, for Ohio News Organization — was to address collaboratively the market forces that have severely affected the size of each paper’s news staff, Marrison said.

Papers everywhere are facing higher newsprint costs and earning less money, mainly because Internet-based competition has eaten into advertising revenues. The lower revenues mean staff reductions, which in turn means newspapers have to adjust and learn how to make do with fewer stories. By sharing stories, he said, newspapers can have an easier time providing readers with information they want and can better allocate resources to make sure they are pursuing and publishing good stories that aren’t being written about elsewhere.

“You have to stop [covering certain types of stories], and that’s the hardest thing to give up,” he said.

For example, Marrison said, he had to convince the Columbus Dispatch’s Cincinnati Reds reporter not to write summaries of the team’s games. By sharing stories with the Cincinnati Enquirer, he said, he could run “gamer” stories about the Reds that were written by a Cincinnati reporter.

Instead, he told his reporter to write more enterprise stories about the team and Major League Baseball. He said the reporter was suspicious at first, thinking Marrison might be looking for an excuse to lay him off and reduce costs, but eventually the reporter grew more comfortable with the new focus.

The reporter kept going to games, Marrison noted, because that remains one of the best ways to find Reds stories to write about. But instead of summarizing the contests, the reporter wrote about how the increasing use of bats made from maple has affected the Major League game, and about the likelihood of Ken Griffey Jr. being traded, among other things.

The news-sharing arrangement also has other benefits, Marrison said. The papers share stories without exchanging money, so they can get stories from other locations in Ohio sooner and free of charge, unlike the costs and built-in delays they face by using Associated Press rewrites. Plus, their reporters and papers get credit for the stories in the other papers rather than just having it printed, often in shortened form, under a simple “by Associated Press” byline.

Marrison said that with the Ohio agreement, papers post all their stories on a secure Web site they all have access to and pick and choose what they want. Sometimes, they even coordinate their efforts ahead of time, such as by making sure their travel reporters write about different locales, working together on political polls, or dividing up the analysis of political advertisements on television.

But Marrison said he sometimes has withheld better stories from the site and shared them with his competitors only after calling them on the phone and making them promise not to write their own story on the same issue once they find out what it is. Sometimes, he said, he simply lists a story about an ongoing issue as “developments,” so as not to tip off his competitors in the news-sharing arrangement about what the Columbus Dispatch has.

“We still compete. I still want to compete,” Marrison said. “We compete like crazy, but we don’t hate each other.”

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