Strange Bedfellows

Wall Street Journal readers might have been surprised on April 1 to see a promo for the NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw, complete with peacock logo, in the middle of the front page of the “Marketplace” section. The “Journal Link,” hitched to a profile of the founders of an online auction service, promoted a Nightly News segment on the same people, scheduled to air that night. The plug for a competitor was no April Fools’ joke: Since November, the Journal has shared ten stories with the Nightly News and cross-promoted the finished products. People will say they’re in love.

“Clearly we are closer with NBC than with any other news organization,” says Marty Schenker, managing editor of the paper’s end of the TV partnership, “and because of that, we’re beginning to explore how NBC can take advantage of our resources so that it can help them and us. I guess you would call it experimental.”

It’s actually been a long time coming. The Journal and NBC’s mixed-media liaison blossomed from an affair that covers the Web, cable, and broadcast worlds. The paper’s parent company, Dow Jones, is a 50-50 partner with the network in CNBC’s European and Asian operations. On the American side, Dow Jones has made what Schenker calls a “broad agreement to provide our brands and content exclusively” to CNBC and NBC. In relationship terms, this means settling down and starting a family: partnering on the CNBC/Dow Jones Website, supplying stories to CNBC, and huddling with the network news division. The Journal, meanwhile, still competes with the Nightly News and covers all three networks, as well as NBC’s owner, General Electric.

Outside the Journal, such overlap is old news: CNN NewsStand plunders its Time Warner sister magazines; 60 Minutes and U.S. News & World Report have pooled resources for three investigations; and a segment titled “Tomorrow’s New York Times Tonight” airs on MSNBC’s The News With Brian Williams (making NBC something of a two-timer between two major newspapers). What’s new about Journal Links, though, is the easing of competitive boundaries for both journalistic clout and marketing potential. “Branding is a key word in all this,” says Schenker. “Clearly NBC has a larger audience than the Wall Street Journal has readers.”

A better key word might be money. In exchange for content, Dow Jones gets a licensing fee and “financial considerations” that Schenker won’t detail – but which seem lucrative. Dow Jones’s 1998 annual report announces that pretax TV losses decreased by more than half thanks to the CNBC alliance. And the benefit for NBC is obvious. “We have had access to some stories that we probably would not have had otherwise,” says NBC News vice-president Bill Wheatley.

Some say the match was meant to be. “All kinds of companies report on their parent companies,” says Columbia Journalism Review editor Marshall Loeb. “This is unusual, but I think it’ll become less unusual.” But others wag their fingers. “It’s disturbing how all of these companies are becoming intertwined,” says Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, fair’s bimonthly magazine.

Strange Bedfellows