Q&A: Public News Service founder on ‘whirlwind’ since reporter’s arrest

Courtesy of Lark Corbeil

BY NOW YOU’VE LIKELY HEARD ABOUT DAN HEYMAN, the 54-year-old journalist arrested last week at the West Virginia capitol for “causing a disturbance.” Heyman tried to ask Donald Trump’s health secretary, Tom Price, questions about pre-existing conditions under the new GOP healthcare plan. When people accompanying Price blocked Heyman from doing so, Heyman told the AP he reached his cellphone recorder past Price’s staffers. Police said Heyman was “aggressively breaching” Secret Service agents, and charged him with a misdemeanor for “willful disruption of governmental processes,” then released Heyman on a $5,000 bond.

Set against the backdrop of a White House war with media, news of Heyman’s arrest spread far and wide. Until his arrest, however, many may have never heard of the news outlet for which he was reporting.

Heyman is an independent contractor for Public News Service (PNS)—a small, for-profit newswire founded in 1996 and based in Boulder, Colorado. PNS works with a network of journalists around the country to provide content to 8,000 media outlets in at least 37 states, according to founder and editor Lark Corbeil.

PNS is part of the nonprofit Media Consortium and has an annual budget of around $1.2 million, she says. It is funded through memberships and paid services as well as philanthropic and individual donations; it counts PEW and The Annie E. Casey Foundation as supporters, says Corbeil.

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After coverage of Heyman’s arrest, Corbeil says PNS saw a “significant surge” in donations. (The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple quantified it as a “26-fold boost.”) Corbeil tells CJR, “I think this has brought our name to many more people than would have ever known about us.”

Despites its longevity, the news wire—which has a native advertising arm and a nonprofit offshoot—is still struggling to find the best model to help fill gaps in public interest journalism in a time of media disruption.  

“I feel strongly that good will and democracy is at stake if we do not find ways to fund journalists to cover all the issues,” Corbeil says. “And we cannot sustain a democracy if we don’t find a way to do it.” Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

 

You probably haven’t heard of us because we’re slow to the internet.

 

You worked for Reuters and in TV, and then left to start PNS in Idaho in 1996. Why?

My goal was to help balance the public debate, to lift up the voices that were not in the local newspaper very often. I wanted to enrich the stories and the sources available to all the other journalists. Coming from a news service background, I’m used to providing content that is useful for other media outlets. I saw a need in the local landscape and so I filled that need.

 

How has Public News Service changed since its founding?

I started this in radio because I could just do it all myself, I didn’t need a crew. Then, over the years, we made the content more multi-platform. So it’s audio and now graphics, or photos and print. We’re still working on funding video. We provide video when we have it, but we haven’t found the funding to make that a regular part of our work.

You probably haven’t heard of us because we’re slow to the internet. We have about 8,000 media outlets that are using our content. As far as we can measure, we’re reaching about an average of 40 million readers a week through other media outlets, mostly legacy.

 

We struggle to kind of find the right method to build an online audience, because that was never our primary goal.

 

Who gets to use your content, and how?

It’s pretty old school and pretty simple. We send them an email saying, “Hello, this is what we’re doing. We’re going to send you content now and again. If you want it, go to our back end and take what you want.” It’s that simple. We survey them and say, “What would you guys like? What could we do that would make your jobs easier? Would you ever pay for this content?”

And then we think, “OK, do we have the resources to give them what all they want?” And, given how few of them have resources to pay—or would pay— can we do it or not? And if we can do it, we do, and if we can’t, we don’t.

That’s how we’ve morphed over the years to provide more content to more platforms. And still we struggle to kind of find the right method to build an online audience, because that was never our primary goal.

 

Who works for PNS?

We’ve got a couple dozen journalists across the country. We have news services in 37 states at the moment. We put out job notices and say, “Hey, we’ve got a news service position, come and work for us.” You’ve got to have broadcast experience, hopefully wire service experience if possible.

So far, we have not worked with stringers because when we need people we really need them to be available on a regular basis, so we tend to just hire employees or contractors on long-term contracts. Dan Heyman is a contractor at his own request.

And we have never not paid interns, ever.

 

How did you react to Heyman’s arrest?

I was so shocked. I was numb. My producing instincts immediately kicked into gear and I just started figuring out how we get a lawyer and get him out of jail. I had to first establish the facts. I called the statehouse to see who would be the entity who might have arrested our journalist, and it took me a couple calls. I suspect they did not want any publicity while they moved him, and that was disturbing.

 

Do you have your own attorney on call?

No, we’re a very small shop. We called the Media Consortium. Kevin Goldberg had graciously offered to give counsel, and Kevin advised me to call the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, which I did. They were very helpful. It’s been a whirlwind. We’ve been extremely grateful; this is not anything we’re used to. I just can’t express our appreciation at having such serious support.

 

Where does PNS get its funding?

Over the years we’ve had to innovate quite a bit and maybe be on the forefront on the models for what works [and] doesn’t work. We’ve built a hybrid here.

We’ve got Public News Service, which is an S Corp, founded and owned by myself and my partner. We then started a nonprofit called Media in the Public Interest. The idea was, “Hey, let’s see if this nonprofit model works,” because I don’t come from the nonprofit world.

 

You can fund a beat. You can say, ‘We choose to support reporting on children’s issues or housing, homelessness or urban planning or rural affairs, air water, you name it.’

 

You take donations, right?

Yeah, absolutely, we take donations from the web. Once in awhile we get somebody who throws $500 at us. Mostly we get $10 dollars, $5 dollars here and there, and we’re very, very grateful. That’s one of our streams.

 

Do you disclose your donors?

We’ve wondered about that. I’ve gotten sick of being attacked for receiving funds from the George Soros Foundation six years ago. [PNS received funding from what was then called the Open Society Institute, which was founded by Soros.] We’re still trying to figure that out.

Over these last 21 years, we’ve solicited contributions from literally thousands of NGOs, and thousands have given us something. When I started, I thought, “Just make it like public media, where members can decide if they want to fund ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ or ‘All Things Considered.’” We’ve been calling it membership. You can fund a beat. You can say, “We choose to support reporting on children’s issues or housing, homelessness or urban planning or rural affairs, air water, you name it.”

It’s been a process in terms of media literacy. It’s been quite a row to hoe since we started—to educate folks on why they need to support, essentially, a news co-op, or support local media that they can’t control. And we’ve had people who walked away because they saw that they weren’t getting what they wanted.

That’s probably not a nice way to say it. It takes a while for us to find the perfect supporter who understands they’re helping to make sure that an issue is covered but they cannot control it in any way. It’s a balance. And it’s not easy, so that’s why it’s just one of our funding streams.

 

And another funding stream is a kind of native advertising?

There was a government agency in Oregon who wanted to fund us, and we don’t take government money, so we said no. They started their own news service. We thought, “That’s probably not the best thing for us.” So we started a regular pay-to-play outlet, so if people wanted to pay for native advertising they could, and we would not lose that revenue stream. So that’s called Soundbite Services.

We’re really good at innovating. We’re maybe not so good at marketing. And so we have not sold that as much as we could yet.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.