Groundbreaking collaborations are beginning to surface as public broadcasting stations partner with laid-off print journalists to bolster multiplatform local and regional reporting.
In St. Louis, 14 former newspaper reporters now work at desks at public TV station KETC. A similar relationship is just getting under way at KCTS-TV in Seattle, with reporters moving in just last week.
Though future business models and financial relationships remain undefined, pubcasters and newspaper journalists are finding that their missions mesh nicely. Both work to keep the community informed and involved in public affairs. Both value their roles in educating viewers and readers. Both are passionate about those goals and have high standards.
Each is “producing a high-quality product based in trust with community,” said Jack Galmiche, president of KETC, where former journalists from the downsized Post-Dispatch are working from their own small newsroom at the station, publishing the St. Louis Beacon online at stlbeacon.org.
Moss Bresnahan, new president of KCTS in Seattle, is also welcoming into its home some 20 journalists laid off from the Post-Intelligencer, which ended print publication March 17 and retained a small staff to try their luck publishing on the Web (SeattlePI.com). The former P-I staffers are planning to launch their own news site, SeattlePostGlobe.org [not yet operational at this writing].
“We were doing some strategic planning at the station, looking at what public media will become, and that coincided with the closing of the paper,” Bresnahan said. “We called some of our contacts at the P-I and started actively exploring how to find a viable business model to support an in-depth, integrated multimedia site.”
So far, in both Seattle and St. Louis, ex-print journalists serve as unpaid news advisors to the stations, as well as providing contextual reporting and analysis on projects with station staffers.
New-media chronicler Bill Densmore visited KETC last week to check in with reporters and take photos of the operation. He is director of the Media Giraffe Project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Media Giraffe aims to draw attention to “above-the-crowd individuals making innovative, sustainable use of media,” according to its website (mediagiraffe.org).
Media collaborations are essential now, he said. “When I got into journalism in the early ’70s, the perception was you didn’t talk to or forge any relationship with your competition,” Densmore said. “The world has changed so dramatically, that is not situation anymore.”
Cooperation is not only healthy but also necessary. “The goal is not to monopolize local coverage, but enhance and enrich it.”
Besides, it used to be that “media” meant newspaper, radio or TV — period. “Now, we don’t know how to say what we are.” All news entities “are integrated public service companies with multiple outputs.”
CPB, PBS and NPR are encouraging cross-platform partnerships of TV and radio as the way forward for public broadcasting — which they now routinely refer to as “public service media.” As Joyce Herring, PBS station services v.p., said in a statement, the work being done by the stations with former newspaper journalists “is an innovative way in which public service media can meet local needs.”
CPB is monitoring developments in Seattle and St. Louis, intrigued by the potential.
Pat Harrison, in an interview with Current earlier this month, said with so many newspaper layoffs, “certainly that talent is out there — but you have to look at resources.”
As usual, funding is the rub.
“We are talking to all the individuals and stations involved,’’ said CPB Vice President Michael Levy. “We’re very interested in seeing more creation of local content and hyperlocal journalism.
“We really want to know what the business model is for this.”
More than a year ago, in an upstairs room of a St. Louis restaurant, journalists laid off from the Post-Dispatch gathered with execs from KETC.
“We cloistered ourselves and talked about mission and values, the role of journalism, the role of public broadcasting,” said KETC head Galmiche.
The laid-off journalists’ nonprofit news website, the St. Louis Beacon, draws about 28,000 unique visitors daily.
The Beacon earns its keep much the way pubcasters do, mainly from local donations, including readers solicited online. The organization received a $90,000 Knight Foundation grant in December 2008 that allowed the Beacon to add three more employees.
In February 2008, after months of discussions, Beacon reporters moved in to KETC. Six to nine of them can be found working in the office on a daily basis, said Beacon Editor Margie Freivogel, of a total of 14 full- and part-time editorial staffers and three business employees. The Beacon’s area is separate from the broadcast facilities, but close enough for “a lot of easy interaction,” she said.
“The station has been tremendously helpful to us,” Freivogel said. “We draw on their experience as ongoing nonprofit, and we’ve been able to give them the benefit of our journalistic experience and roots in community over many years doing reporting.”
Galmiche described the relationship: “We simply have an understanding to work together rather than one with control over the other.”
That was evident on election night last November. A KETC reporter and Beacon editor co-hosted broadcast coverage. Guests included local political experts, professors and analysts. “During the evening, cameras came up to the Beacon room where reporters talked about developments in the election,” Freivogel said.
On network TV election-night coverage, viewers usually get no more than three minutes at the top of the hour, she said. “We had a four-hour broadcast, with one hour on the main channel and three on a digital channel.”
Another collaboration is the station’s ongoing campaign to bring useful information to victims of the mortgage crisis. KETC coordinated local organizations to reach out to struggling homeowners, and in several cases the project literally helped to save their homes.
As Galmiche explained, “While we were engaging the community, the Beacon’s contribution was to provide long-form reporting, good journalism on the challenges in community, telling the story of the real impact on individuals losing their homes, and the ripple effect that has.”
KETC’s effort worked so well it has expanded its subject area to the broader recession. CPB last week announced extensive funding for similar projects in hard-hit markets.
Beacon stories about mortgage and financial woes are posted on the station’s website as well as its own. One recent article explores how and why foreclosures continue to remain at the center of the economic crisis.
Neither Beacon nor KETC staffers can think of a problem in their alliance.
“So far, this partnership has really has worked very well, for the community, for us and for the Beacon,” Galmiche said.
KETC is also talking with pubradio station KWMU, he said, “and we hope that some kind of partnership will be developing with them as well.”
“All of us know that the Post-Intelligencer was a great paper, and we all know what’s happening to the industry,” said Bresnahan, KCTS president. “We would hate to see the region lose all that reporting talent.”
The end of the P-I was a huge blow to Seattle. The paper had been covering the city for nearly 150 years.
KCTS — itself downsized in recent years — approached reporters reeling from the shutdown. The journalists began moving into the station last week, unsure of their future roles at the station and how or when they’ll be paid, but still hungry to work in journalism.
“We have some space and there are about 20 journalists in the building,” Bresnahan said. “We may begin collaboration on content soon,” possibly in the next few months.
P-I exile Kery Murakami paused for a chat while assembling a computer in his new quarters near Seattle’s Space Needle. The newspaper’s staff was told that the paper would close about 60 days before the end, he said.
“We heard from Moss — he was wondering if there was anything he could do to help,” Murakami said.
Their alliance is still in the early stages. The P-I reporters, KCTS and pubradio station KPLU are talking about combining their coverage online.
Bresnahan envisions “a dynamite, in-depth, integrated multimedia website” with contributions from three newsrooms.
His staff is creating a business plan and talking with potential backers. “National foundations, local foundations and concerned citizens are all very interested,” he added.
Subscriptions and micropayments — tiny charges for viewing a page or story online — are also possible means of support. The time is right to launch these efforts, with many outgoing journalists often living with a cushion of severance payments. Murakami, for instance, is covered for eight months.
“For those of us who took buyouts,” said the Beacon’s Freivogel, “part of the package allows us to start taking our pension. And for moment we have health-care coverage and some income, so we don’t have to entirely replicate our salaries. This is giving people the chance to make some choices they otherwise couldn’t.”
Again, a sustainable business plan is they key. “When we began looking at this idea, early on, we looked around the country figuring there was some business model we could pick up off the shelf as a foundation for planning,” she said. “It really isn’t out there.”
Galmiche likes to use this metaphor: When he was in college, a student center was being built on campus. But no sidewalks were laid down to the facility. As students began filtering to the building, they wore paths in the lawn.
“That’s where they ended up building the sidewalks,” Galmiche said. “That’s what we’re doing, trying to determine where the path should be. We’re learning as we go along.”
Comments, tips, questions? sefton (at) current.org
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Copyright 2009 American University