As The Tribune Co. enforced drastic newsroom cuts at The Hartford Courant last week, the Chicago-based media giant's local television outlet, WTIC/Fox 61, was gearing up for aggressive expansion of its news coverage.
The station plans to add 20 to 25 people to its news staff over the next year, according to Richard Graziano, Fox 61's vice president and general manager.
Later this month, the station's four-month-old Morning Show will more than double its morning show broadcast time, expanding from a two-hour program to 4 1/2 hours.
The expanded Fox 61 Morning Show will go live at 4:30 a.m., beating out its Hartford/New Haven competitors that come on after 5 a.m., and be broadcast until 9 a.m. The show currently airs between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.
In addition, Fox 61 also plans to roll out an 11 p.m. newscast to complement its 10 p.m. nightly news. The nighttime news expansion aims to compete with the 11 p.m. news shows on other local channels.
The station has tentative plans to expand its news lineup even further next year, with newscasts at noon and 5 p.m., though the dates for those starts have not been set yet.
The expansions add up to a major initiative for a station that only recently added a morning show to its staple 10 p.m. news broadcast.
Graziano hinted that some of the new faces at Fox 61 may be familiar to local viewers because the station is looking at local talent "who have contracts that are expiring." He declined to elaborate.
The Tribune Co.'s push for market share at Fox 61 runs counter to most national trends, as economic pressures have led to cuts at both newspapers and television stations.
"For a station that doesn't have all of the news programs, it becomes a logical addition," said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst with the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute of Journalism. "It is fairly unusual, though, for a station to be adding staff. It's a year when TV stations, much like newspapers, are focused on cutting costs."
Such is the case with The Courant, which announced recently that it would cut more than 50 editors and reporters by the end of July on orders from Tribune executives in Chicago. Last week the newspaper ended its buyout offer period. Newsroom layoffs were expected, but had not been announced as of press time.
Graziano said plans to expand its news received a push from the new owner of The Tribune Co., real estate magnate Sam Zell. The new morning show's relative success contributed to that decision as well, he said.
"We like what we've seen with the morning show," Graziano said. "It takes a couple of years to really get a foothold, but the early response has been good. "
Graziano said Tribune Co. has pushed for live, local news at strong stations that provide good platforms. "Fox is very hot in a lot of the markets due to our programming," he said, thanks to shows like American Idol. "There's a push to evolve, to become more digital and to present more multimedia options."
Fox 61 and The Courant already collaborate, and it's possible that relationship could evolve as the station expands its news coverage.
"They're taking a hard look at how we could work together," Graziano said. "In places like South Florida, they've co-located the newspaper and television in one building. Wherever we can cooperate, we will."
Graziano was referring to an arrangement in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the Tribune-owned television station WSFL moved its operations into the offices of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, also owned by The Tribune Co. In fact, WSFL recently announced it would be starting a morning show from the Sun-Sentinel newsroom.
Edmonds of the Poynter Institute said newspaper-television consolidation under one roof could be an emerging trend for media companies looking to cut costs.
There are no announced plans for Tribune entities to move in together in Hartford. But Tribune Co. did acquire The Courant's building and printing plant — along with those of several other newspapers — for $175 million in April. The company has acknowledged its intention to sell other buildings, including the Tribune Tower in Chicago.
Edmonds said developments in Hartford reflect two recent trends — the staff cuts at newspapers and heightened focus on news at local television stations.
Robert Papper, professor of journalism, media studies and public relations at Hofstra University in Uniondale, N.Y., said Fox 61's planned expansion of news coverage has two strikes against it: the decline in television advertising revenue and the continued fragmentation of the television audience.
Papper said car dealer advertising, a key source of TV ad revenues, is down 10 percent nationwide.
Journalism.org's State of the Media report for 2008 revealed that ratings nationally were down for afternoon and evening newscasts, though they were steady or growing for morning shows.
"We're not sure that there are less people actually watching the news," Papper said, noting that many stations simulcast their news programs on sister stations (Tribune Co. also owns WTXX/CW 20). "It may just be that there is the same amount of people watching, or more, but they are spread across more stations."
Early morning programs have grown steadily because of people's habits — they're working more, commuting further, getting up earlier, Papper said.
Fox 61's Graziano is aware of the potential pitfalls.
"We do feel we can enter a growth phase.," he said. "We hope to have strong support from advertisers. It's on me, so if it doesn't work out, they'll probably be someone else in my position a year from now."