Whatever happened to the Bettag report?

Launch postponed for PBSnews.org

By Steve Behrens

Logo for postponed PBSNews.org sitePBS has postponed the rollout of an online news aggregation site called PBSnews.org that it had planned to start in January or February.

“In our online spending, rather than roll out a big national initiative that is not properly funded, we decided to focus our news and public affairs money on resources to help stations really increase their local reporting,” said PBS President Paula Kerger in an interview with Current.

Tom Bettag Plans for the news site had grown out of the PBS News and Public Affairs Initiative and a report filed almost two years ago by Tom Bettag, a network news veteran who has been Ted Koppel’s producer for years. With Pew Charitable Trusts funding for the initiative, PBS hired Bettag to survey pubmedia news producers and deliver a report.

Bettag’s report, obtained by Current, proposed a news site that would aggregate news from PBS producers, NPR and stations with a staff of at least 30 and organized as an independent entity, insulated from government and other funders and from pubcasting system pressure. “It must exist as a Switzerland,” not favoring one news organization over another, Bettag wrote.

Frontline chief David Fanning had been advocating such an independent news unit, which he called “a third space” that was dominated by neither pubTV nor pubradio.

Bettag said pubcasters bring many strengths to online news, including a high degree of public trust, their many local stations and well developed video skills, which online news consumers increasingly will expect.

But he said public TV’s offerings are “not compelling or powerful enough to compete in the digital world.”

His major complaint was that distributing news through the separate sites of PBS NewsHour, Frontline and other news units has created “a confusing hodge-podge” that makes no sense to online news consumers. They see public broadcasting as a single entity and can’t understand why they can’t find all of its reporting on a single site, Bettag wrote.

Like the Public Media Platform under development by NPR, the PBSnews.org site would have responded to that problem by featuring reports from PBS shows, NPR, stations and groups such as the Sunlght Foundation.

PBSnews.org was taken off-line in the last week or two, but a visitor to the address is sent to feature.pbs.org, where elements of the news site remain.

For instance, the prototype site assembled “Deep Dives,” packages of materials on topics such as the federal health care law; and “Issue Clash” debates.

Here’s how the site described its coming attractions: “Expect a virtual zoo of innovative storytelling formats, including articles, videos, data visualizations, Issue Clashes, slideshows, polls and whatever roars best.”

To launch the site, PBS had set up an Ellington content management system and hired a number of experienced online editors, including Managing Editor Christine Montgomery, who was a digital news manager at USAToday.com and the St. Petersburg Times, and is president of the Online News Association.

Tom Davidson, a former digital news exec with Tribune Interactive, was appointed PBS.org’s publisher for news and public affairs.

Joel Schwartzberg was named senior editor at PBS.org but has left the staff, according to the receptionist. Before coming to PBS, he headed new media for Now on PBS before it was discontinued. Before coming to public TV, he managed digital media at Time Inc. and Nickelodeon.

PBS spokesperson Anne Bentley declined to discuss the history of the Bettag report and PBSnews.org during the network staff’s rush before this week’s PBS Annual Meeting.

Comments, questions, tips? behrens@current.org This online version of this article is slightly updated from the print edition.
Copyright 2011 American University

EARLIER STORIES

Within public radio, the idea of converting its websites into an integrated source of local and national news is gaining traction, February 2009.

TV and radio news producers have sitdown discussions, May 2009.

In PBS news cooperation talks, Bettag said, “nobody pulled back,” May 2009.

RELATED LINKS

Staffers blogged about PBS’s online news plans on the PBS News Blog.

In PBS’s prototype news aggregation site, a “Deep Dive” package on Bin Ladin and his death includes new and background reports from NewsHour, Frontline and Tavis Smiley.

Harvard’s Nieman Lab interviews a PBSNews.org staffer, March 2011, just in time for plans to change.

Why does Frontline Executive Producer David Fanning talk about “a third space” for collaboration among news organizations in public media? In a roundtable reported on MediaShift in 2009, he said: “The great difficulty is getting all these people to partner together. I propose we create a third space where we can work together, aggregating our assets in one place, that’s a simple idea. You could aggregate beyond that, with other news organizations that aggregate cleverly around original content. But that isn’t enough. That would just be a grab-bag. My proposal is that you think very big with a new editorial entity, with foundation funding and public broadcasting money, and I think ProPublica is a model for that.”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT