Tennessee Newspaper Network takes another step in its growth

The four largest newspapers in Tennessee are expanding content sharing to collaborative coverage in the Tennessee gubernatorial race.

The first result of that is a piece on the finances of the GOP candidates from the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Tom Humphrey that is on the front pages of the Sunday print editions and the Web sites of all four news organizations.

Certainly, not the first newspaper content sharing agreement in the country, the group of newspapers called the Tennessee Newspaper Network is becoming more interesting with ambitious plans for cooperative coverage of who will be Tennessee’s next governor with plans for a fact check tool, issue comparison tools, jointly funded polls, the ability to hold candidates accountable if they say one thing in one end of the state and another on the other end, and possibly jointly sponsored debates.

With just a handful of written rules and simple procedures for exchanging articles and other content, the four Tennessee editors, who work for three different media companies, have built a good deal of trust among themselves in the last year that sharing content can work to benefit their readers and, by extension, their organizations. The cooperative coverage (and I think cooperative may be a better word than coordinated) is another sign that the Tennessee Newspaper Network is maturing from experiment to daily used resource.

Of course, a news cooperative that all participate in has existed for years. The Associated Press does describe itself as a “news cooperative,” but most its interactions with its “members” feel more like vendor-customer relationships rather than the collaborative approach of the newspaper editors.

Critics might argue the result will be less diversity in coverage and views. I find that doubtful, unless you think four versions of the same press conference coverage is diversity. It rarely is. Now the four editors can spread their resources to more stories. And it’s my guess that the odds are less than one in four that all four will endorse the same candidates in the primaries.

The four editors talked about the Network in their columns today:

This approach will result in more statewide watchdog journalism produced by some of the best reporters in Tennessee. At the same time, the individual newspapers will be able to devote more of their resources to important local stories without shortchanging state coverage.

The big winners will be the readers of newspapers and Web sites across the state.

Mark Silverman, Editor of The Tennessean

The nut graf here: Journalism, if it is to survive, simply must do better work. The future isn’t just about simply quoting others and stringing together stats. It isn’t going to survive just by covering small local events. The public itself can do all that. So let them. Open up some space in newspapers and Web sites for user-generated content and call it good. Then, focus the work of the professional journalists up the food chain to higher-value reporting with deeper research and data analysis.

The four largest newspapers in Tennessee, including The Commercial Appeal, will begin to make that move in 2010. The Knoxville News Sentinel, The Tennessean in Nashville and the Chattanooga Times Free Press will work with this newspaper to do higher-level reporting on the governor’s race.

Chris Peck, Editor of the Commercial Appeal

As the election unfolds, a series of issues has been identified, and each newspaper will develop stories supplemented with documents on the position of each candidate. Through this process, voters in, for example, Southeast Tennessee will know if a particular contender takes the same stand on an issue regardless of geographic location. Candidates in the past might have tailored a comment in support of the University of Memphis when in the western part of the state but developed a case of amnesia when asked about that position in the backyard of the University of Tennessee in the eastern part of the state.

With the breadth and strength of journalism across the state, the Tennessee Newspaper Network focuses on accountability, credibility and accessibility so that Tennessee readers and voters are well informed in making decisions that impact the future.

Tom Griscom, Editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press

The trend has drawn some criticism.

“The real loss is in the number of different eyes watching the same thing,” said Keith Woods, dean of The Poynter Institute, a journalism training and resource center. “We can be sure in the grand scheme of things that the ability of journalists to be watchdogs is reduced.”

I disagree. Shrinking resources have diminished newspapers’ ability to serve as watchdogs. But eliminating redundancy is a way to get some of that back. By collaborating, newspapers can broaden their reach rather than waste precious resources on duplicate efforts.

That’s why the “Big Four” papers recently decided to take their agreement further and actively collaborate on some news coverage under the name Tennessee Newspaper Network.

By coordinating, the papers can cover more ground and dig deeper.

Jack McElroy, Editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel

(I work for the Knoxville News Sentinel, one of four Tennessee News Network members.)