Knight Foundation grants $750,000 to three public media projects

By Dru Sefton

DENVER — Three public media projects aimed at developing new audiences, revenue and content will each receive $250,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

John Bracken, Knight's director of journalism and media innovation, unveils the grants Thursday morning in Denver. (Photo: Ben Mook)

John Bracken, Knight’s director of journalism and media innovation, unveils the grants Thursday morning in Denver. (Photo: Ben Mook)

The grants to the investigative series Frontline, Boston’s WBUR and the Public Media Co. were announced Thursday morning at a Knight breakfast that’s kicking off a CEO symposium sponsored by the Contributor Development Partnership. The event is running concurrent with the Public Media Development & Marketing Conference.

“In this day and age we’re competing with Game of Thrones, Candy Crush and Reddit,” said John Bracken, director of journalism and media innovation for Knight, in announcing the support. “If we’re not building things people want and engaging with them, we’re going to be whispering in the wind.”

“In order to succeed, public media organizations must respond to new audience demands and discover ways to engage a diverse group of supporters, beyond their traditional following,” said Michael Maness, Knight Foundation v.p. of journalism and media innovation, in a statement. “These projects will help create shareable lessons within the public media space, and help organizations explore new innovations in business development and content creation.”

Frontline will use its grant to engage younger audiences through a new YouTube series. That video streaming platform “allows us the flexibility” to tell a story in different formats, Raney Aronson, deputy executive producer, told Current. “I don’t refer to these videos as short-form or long-form,” she said. “I call them ‘right-form.’”

Videos in the series will highlight memorable moments from existing episodes or feature field footage from films under production. Others will tell “original stories, distinct in format and style from our broadcast.” The overall goal, Aaronson said, “is to reach a young, passionate audience with reporting on topics they care about deeply, and open the door to further exploration of our films.”

Frontline will hire a producer to help shoot and edit the pieces and a digital community manager to handle distribution and engagement as well as track impact. “We’ll work closely with this team to develop a unique approach, voice and tone for the series,” Raney said.

With its grant, WBUR-FM will start BizLab, a unit dedicated to developing new business models to boost public media’s revenue from digital platforms. “I hope this will have an impact on the whole public radio system,” Charlie Kravetz, WBUR’s g.m., said at the announcement. He added that the system is facing “existential challenges” surrounding sustainability.

The “applied research lab” will be a multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort, Kravetz said in an interview.

BizLab will start with just a few staffers but could eventually expand to a unit of upwards of a dozen people, according to Kravetz. It will be housed at offices separate from WBUR’s, but the station will serve as BizLab’s connection to the rest of public media. WBUR expects to involve NPR and other public media outlets in BizLab’s efforts and to share the results of its work throughout the system.

The station will match the Knight Foundation’s grant with $250,000 of its own funds. It will also seek support for BizLab from private funders, foundations and other sources, possibly including CPB, Kravetz said.

And Public Media Co. will expand the staff for its Channel X public TV content marketplace, currently in development. The Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit, formerly known as Public Radio Capital, will hire a news director to work with producers and build relationships with journalism schools, public broadcasting newsrooms and other content sources.

In an interview, PMC Chief Strategist Ken Ikeda called Knight’s support “a critical grant for us.”

Channel X will operate as an online hosting, licensing, content aggregator and distribution platform for both broadcast and Web content. It will offer content from independent producers, online sources and stations, and focus on presenting programs of interest to younger audiences.

PMC is in the final stage of recruiting a news director, who will work as a curator, according to Ikeda.  Three finalists are vying for the position. “They’re people with incredible social media chops, journalists and storytellers themselves,” he said. “They have a great sense of what’s compelling.”

“Over time, we want very much for the curators to be a network driven by station programmers,” he said.

Mike Janssen and Ben Mook contributed reporting to this story from Denver.

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