What the Northwest reporting hub can tell flocks of newcomers
They used to call us “hubs.” Now, local journalism centers (LJCs) and regional collaborations are springing up all over the country. These initiatives are changing public radio news as we know it.
The Northwest News Network dates back to 1991. Its current iteration came about in 2003, like the LJCs, with the help of a CPB grant. Now 12 stations, large and small, in Washington, Oregon and Idaho rely on us for much of their daily spot news and features.
ur stations have found that regional collaboration allows them to cost-effectively extend their reporting reach, to go deeper and farther.
Here are six lessons we learned from that experience that could spark some conversation with and among journalists at the new generation of hubs.
1. Grow organically
No, I don’t mean pesticide-free. I mean grow and evolve a newsroom in ways that make sense on the ground — not as dictated by some high-minded design from outside. One reason the Northwest News Network is so ensconced in our stations is that our structure developed from a series of small decisions that simply made sense at the time.
Here’s an example of what I mean: Why in the world would we put a correspondent in the small resort town of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho? On the face of it, this seems like an odd decision. Yet each station has its own practical reasons for supporting this position. For Spokane Public Radio, the bureau helps solidify a local presence across the state line.
he same correspondent gives Boise State Public Radio a voice from the north end of what is a very tall state on the map. And stations west of the Cascades get stories relevant to the Inland Northwest — about forestry, the reintroduction of wild wolves, the rural economy and a distinct inland culture. The coverage rounds out a view of the Northwest. Stories from our correspondent Jessica Robinson get surprisingly wide airing, even though she’s based in a small town in the Idaho Panhandle.
2. Share the costs/ Share your stuff
Everyone gets more out of a regional sharing arrangement than they put into it. That’s obviously true for costs. It’s also true for sharing stories.
Let’s talk costs first: The Northwest News Network is funded by station fees, set on a sliding scale. Larger stations pay more than smaller ones, but even the biggest pays much less than the cost of adding as many journalists to its own staff. Example: One of our big stations pays for roughly the equivalent of one and a half full-time employees, but in return it gets the work of five correspondents and an editor. The fees for a station are also adjusted to reflect its proximity to each bureau. That way station executives feel they’re getting their money’s worth and not paying for stories that are too far afield for their listeners.
At the same time, our stations have developed a healthy economy of sharing spots and features. In most every daybook to member stations, I include thank-yous for one to four spots and features shared with the region. Sharing regionally relevant stories has developed a momentum and become an everyday part of our newsroom cultures.
Yet our tracking reports show most of our stations air more stories shared from other stations than they contribute to the region. Example: In the first three months of this year, KUOW shared 41 of its reporters’ spots and features and aired 105 from reporters at other stations.
3. Build the virtual newsroom
Three technologies newer than the Network are now integral to everything we do: Skype, Google Docs and PRX Networks.
When I started this job in 2008, my long-distance phone bill was $150 a month. In 2009, it dropped to $15 per month. The main reason: Skype. It allows me to stay in close contact with reporters, including easy texting, all for free. The sound quality is more akin to FM radio than a scratchy phone line. It makes our team feel like we’re all in the same newsroom even though we’re scattered across three states. Skype has plenty of dropped calls and other technical challenges. As we say when a glitch occurs, we get what we pay for — and we don’t pay a dime. I often sound like Darth Vader to the reporters, but that’s not always a bad thing.
Google Docs allows the reporters and me to literally be on the same page as we edit. I can suggest a change in a script (as we talk on Skype), and I’ll see the reporter make that change in real time. Each reporter has his or her own Google Doc and simply pastes in another script for each editing session. Again, for free!
PRX Networks is Public Radio Exchange’s password-protected server for sharing text, WAV files and pictures with the stations. We regularly hear our stories on the air minutes after posting them. The system automatically makes an MP3 version of the WAV file for stations to post on the Web. PRX Networks converts the radio copy into web-friendly scripts and sends the sound, copy and pictures into the NPR API. (There are other options for reaching stations that I’m not familiar with.)
Some tools haven’t panned out. We once started an internal blog that only our team could see — the Idea Bank, where we could offer up creative possibilities as they arose. But the venue never earned much interest, and the bank closed. Regardless, creating the virtual news room is easier and cheaper than ever.
4. Edit well
This isn’t meant to refer to my own editing skills. I certainly have a lot to learn on that front. My point is that stations demand high-quality work from us every day. Our stories have to reach the highest common denominator every time. We all know that news is a subjective enterprise in which smart people can disagree about what and how we should report. For the relationship to work, each station newsroom has to trust the skills and judgment of journalists who could be perceived as outsiders. What we give them has to be as good as what they can produce themselves. No matter how talented reporters are, everyone needs an editor, and a news collaboration can’t live without a good one.
I send so many emails I sometimes wonder if a station’s spam filter will start tossing them out. But if we don’t go overboard trying to reach station hosts, editors and reporters, I’ve found that key information gets lost in the shuffle. We’re all busy. So we send out a regular schedule of daily emails: early morning spot possibilities mapping out how the day might unfold, a midmorning daybook of everything we’re doing, and then an update of the daybook before afternoon newscasts. We have a Listserv that includes station hosts, programmers, news directors and reporters. We also maintain the daybook as a Google Doc so that anyone in our system can see what we’re up at the moment. This helps us avoid duplicated efforts and tells hosts and producers what to expect from us and when.
6. Ditch the extra branding
Listeners very rarely, if ever, hear the name Northwest News Network. Each station introduces us as its own or simply as a “correspondent.” Our outcues are generic: “I’m Tom Banse reporting” or “I’m Anna King in Richland.” We don’t hide who we are, but we don’t call attention to the arrangement on the air.
I know this is an approach many stations and collaborations reject. I can understand why they want to tout their innovative enterprises to listeners. Branding can be important, especially to potential funders. But here’s the case for keeping the collaboration invisible: Listeners don’t care. All they want is high-quality news, not a highfalutin’ moniker vying for brand identity. With stations and NPR working hard to maintain their own brands, we think it would be confusing to try to enter that fray.
We do copyright our stories and identify ourselves on the Web as the source of our stories. But on the radio, we sound like we’re part of our stations’ news teams. That’s fitting because that’s exactly what we are.
Colin Fogarty is regional editor of the Northwest News Network, which serves stations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Staff photos by Steve Scardina.
Red hub background photo: Chrisinplymouth. Rights: Creative Commons.
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