In April, KQED partnered with California Watch, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s online nonprofit news site, to produce an investigative report on seismic safety in California public schools. The project ran on KQED’s website, for five days on radio, and, in a first for the station, as a half-hour television special. “That’s a breakthrough for us, breaking out of the pattern of our regular weekly roundtable TV show, to put what’s essentially a baby Frontline on the air here in the Bay Area,” Boland says.
The most tantalizing success comes from San Diego, where station manager Karlo says, “We are growing because of our news.”
In 2009, KPBS merged its public radio, television, and web newsgathering into a single content production center, based on the success of its radio news operations. In the May 2011 Arbitron ratings, KPBS-FM shared the lead among all San Diego radio stations in time spent listening.
“I felt that there was a void” in commercial media, says Karlo. “I thought, if we could be number one in radio news why can’t we be number one in local TV news and online news?” Audiences have grown with each incremental news addition, prompting the switch to all-news radio in May, and coming in September, the launch of a nightly TV newscast. The new ventures have been paid for by full-court fundraising, soliciting major donors to underwrite three-year commitments, at $80,000 a year, to fund individual reporting beats. The reporters work for all three outlets: radio, TV, and online.
Another prototype of the future newsroom may be coming together in Cleveland, where the television station WVIZ and radio station WCPN have combined into a public media center known as Ideastream. Also under the umbrella, among others, are the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau and the Ohio Channel, a digital broadcast and online streaming service with C-SPAN-like coverage of state government and public affairs shows from the state’s other public stations.
Cochran, now a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, says Ideastream is evidence that in the long run, it won’t matter if public television isn’t a player. “At some point this is all going to merge,” in a single digital news stream or community information center, she says, and “the difference between television and radio stations is not going to be significant.”
In late April, the NewsHour itself quietly began streaming its newscast online live, for free, on ustream.tv (it is also available after broadcast, on the PBS website). While the potential is there to cannibalize local stations’ viewing numbers, Hari Sreenivasan, a correspondent and director of digital partnerships for the NewsHour, says he hopes stations will embed the feed on their websites, drawing viewers and potential donors, who might not watch on-air.
Sreenivasan, a former correspondent for CBS and ABC who joined the NewsHour in December 2009, has become somewhat of a one-man evangelist exhorting local stations to do more local news. “A handful of local stations have very good newsgathering infrastructures, and some are simply repeating national content,” he says. He has begun offering local stations unused NewsHour footage on occasion.
He seeks out local content that can augment the NewsHour, which has a bare-bones correspondent corps and a minimal travel budget. Sreenivasan says part of what is driving his efforts is an attempt to replicate the correspondent pool reach of the commercial networks by tapping into talent at local public television stations. When news breaks out and there is no NewsHour reporter to go cover it, “it’s very bizarre for me,” Sreenivasan says.
He’s already gotten past the skepticism of some stations that thought the NewsHour was simply trolling for free content; the NewsHour, unlike NPR, has never paid local stations even a nominal fee for content they contribute. That’s yet another tradition that might have to fall if public television hopes to become a serious player in the news business.