As NBC partners, pubmedia may expand reporting, visibility

By Jeff Kaye

NBC will share stories, resources and content distribution with two public broadcasters, ProPublica and two local nonprofit newsrooms under the FCC agreement clearing Comcast’s 2011 takeover of NBC Universal.

If the preexisting, five-year collaboration between NBC-owned KNSD in San Diego and the nonprofit Voice of San Diego news site is anything to go by, news consumers may see real benefits.

Boosting NBC Universal stations’ local content through partnerships with nonprofit news organizations was one of the conditions placed on the network to complete its deal with Comcast.

ProPublica, the Pulitzer-winning investigative enterprise that frequently partners with other top news outlets, will work with WNBC-TV in New York, as well as with all 10 NBC-owned stations in the country.

In other metro areas, WCAU in Philadelphia will work with pubcaster WHYY, and KNBC in Los Angeles with team up with public radio station KPCC, operated by a sister organization to American Public Media. NBC will pair its Chicago station, WMAQ-TV, with the Chicago Reporter, a bimonthly investigative newspaper published by the Community Renewal Society, a long-established civil rights and social welfare group.

The fifth partnership, already operating between KNSD and the Voice of San Diego, has won widespread praise and could serve as a blueprint for others.

After more than five years of working with KNSD, Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis remains upbeat about the collaboration. “We’ve built this incredible rapport over several years,” he said. “We’ve built up so much trust with them.” And as for the results, he says, “Our visibility is much higher than anything we could have done on our own.”

Lewis says the partnership continues to fulfill the three major goals VOSD had sought from the agreement — to spread its kind of accountability journalism, to publicize its website and to help recover some of its costs. The NBC station pays VOSD a fee of $3,900 per month, Lewis said. While the payments do not cover all of VOSD’s staffing and other costs for its work for NBC, the partnership is still well worth it, he added.

In addition to other kinds of editorial exchanges, Lewis and other VOSD journalists appear three times a week on the station’s newscasts. The on-camera segments are “San Diego Explained,” which looks at local issues in depth; “San Diego Fact Check,” which is billed as “truth-squadding public officials’ statements”; and “Behind the Scene,” on local arts.

For nonprofit newsrooms seeking to build similar partnerships, Lewis recommends creating regular segments such as these. Working on occasional projects together can be good, he said, “but our lives are so hectic, that could just peter out.” He added that commercial stations will like the idea of having regular segments they can sell ads against.

Lewis’s main piece of advice for newsrooms entering into this type of collaboration is to maintain an open attitude. “The way the partnership will work is when both parties admit there’s something they can’t do.”

“I think the Voice of San Diego and NBC collaboration has not only led to good content for both, they have led to some revenue for VOSD,” said Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism (which, like Current, is operated by American University’s School of Communication). “There are some really good models of collaboration evolving — from collaborative networks, enterprise reporting partnerships, old and new media, broadcast and websites.”

In Chicago, the top news execs on both sides of the partnership sound fired up. Kimbriell Kelly, editor and interim publisher of The Chicago Reporter, said the new arrangement will allow her small but influential civil-rights–oriented newspaper to increase its exposure to the public. Kelly’s stories about discriminatory mortgage-lending practices brought the issue to widespread attention and prompted the Illinois Attorney General to file suit against Bank of America, owner of Countrywide Financial, which agreed to a record-breaking $335 million settlement with federal prosecutors last month. “We pack a punch,” said Kelly.

“It’s a true partnership,” said Frank Whittaker, v.p. of news and station manager at NBC’s WMAQ-TV in Chicago, who will work with Kelly and her staff. “We’re hoping to get stories we otherwise would not get.” He said the partnership with the Reporter is also part of an effort to “try to rebuild our Unit 5,” the TV station’s investigative team, which Whittaker said is hiring again and developing hard-hitting stories after a period of cutbacks.

“Over the last several months, we’ve made significant investments in our 10 stations to boost our newsgathering capabilities and deliver the best local news and information in the marketplace,” said Valari Staab, president of the NBC Owned Television Stations. She cited the demand for enterprise reporting and stories reflecting diverse voices.

Bill Davis, president of KPCC, is also looking to assemble a collaboration that will be greater than the sum of its parts. “The arrangement between KPPC and NBC will better serve the public by making NBC’s audience aware of stories they weren’t aware of before, or going into greater depth in stories that they simply weren’t able to do in the past,” he said in a video announcement about the deal. “And for KPCC, it’s going to bring our audience a whole new range of stories we simply have not been able to get to.”

The commercial/nonprofit partnerships are launching against a backdrop of two important trends reshaping the news industry. Traditional journalistic practices and business models are under threat because of changing social trends, the gloomy economy and disruptive new technologies. Investigative journalism, in particular, has become endangered because of its high cost and long lead time between stories. At the same time, media-watchers are concerned about industry giants building their presence through mergers and acquisitions.

The NBC–nonprofits arrangement addresses both of these issues.

While cable giant Comcast was vying to gain control of NBC Universal in 2010, media watchdog groups such as Free Press complained that putting more media control into the hands of one entity would threaten the local news coverage they provided. Under its agreement with regulators to obtain approval for the NBC takeover, Comcast pledged that within a year of the deal’s close, it would start five partnerships between NBC-owned stations and local nonprofit news organizations. The deal closed in January 2011, and NBC announced the partnerships last month.

Jeff Kaye joined Current this month as a senior editor.
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