Television and newspapers scratching each other's backs to get a good story? In the same coverage area? As remote as that kind of cooperation may sound in the intensely competitive world of news-gathering, it is gaining momentum here in the Northeast. In fact, the idea is fast attracting attention across the United States and - in time - could spread.
Last month the CBS television affiliate in Boston, WNEV, and five Massachusetts dailies launched what they call the New England News Exchange. The idea: Find and report important stories that the station otherwise wouldn't have access to because its downtown studios are too far away from the scene.
It works like this: WNEV places its own reporters and cameramen in the plants of these newspapers, where they have access to the same information their print-journalism colleagues do. The broadcasters often appear on camera with the newsroom in the background, occasionally holding up copies of the day's paper showing the story in question.
The station and the papers are pledged not to scoop each other on important stories but may choose to report them simultaneously.
Newspapers and broadcasters have worked together before - jointly sponsoring political polls at election time, for example - but the news exchange is believed to be the first arrangement of its type in the US.
On a recent 6 o'clock newscast, the station cut away to two reports from its new ''bureaus'' - one on pre-trial proceedings in a central Massachusetts murder case and the other on a projected fare increase for users of the Boston-bound commuter rail system.
WNEV liberally credits the participating newspapers on the air and in other promotional efforts and plans to assign news vans and install microwave facilities near each paper to allow for live transmissions. The station also is offering space on its new helicopter to help reporters or photographers from its print partners get to important stories faster.
The first-year cost of the project, according to WNEV news director Jeff Rosser, is less than $1 million.
Already, two other CBS-TV affiliates - in Providence, R.I., and Hartford, Conn. - have joined the news exchange, and Mr. Rosser says another four stations may come aboard in the near future in Maine and New Hampshire. Radio stations with strong local news departments may also be added.
Rosser was hired away from a WNEV rival earlier this year as part of a continuing struggle to improve the station's news ratings (it has long been the No. 3 station in a three-station market). He claims market research indicated that viewers in the distant suburbs - where the majority of the station's audience lives - were ''pleading, if not demanding'' greater coverage of events and developments in their communities.
Rosser says it is too early to tell what effect the venture will have on the station's ratings, but he says he'll be surprised if rival stations don't copy the idea. Already, he says, stations in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington have called to inquire how the cooperative was put together, as has CBS News in New York.
William Ketter, editor of the widely respected Quincy (Mass.) Patriot Ledger, one of the five newspapers in the exchange, admits ''it's natural to be skeptical'' about the arrangement.
But he adds: ''We think it's good for the Boston viewer to know what's going on in the suburban marketplace, and a metropolitan television station is certainly one outlet for that. It has made people more aware of the Patriot Ledger in the Boston area. It has given a pride of community to the area south of the city.''
Television alone does not provide its viewers with enough information about important stories to satisfy them, Mr. Ketter says, so he thinks those who want to know more will be led to his newspaper once they learn it has printed the full details.
And if the news exchange does not continue to function as smoothly as hoped, Ketter says, ''both sides feel perfectly free not to continue.''