Hopes High For Local TV-Nonprofit Co-Ops

As part of its commitment to the FCC, NBC’s O&Os are looking to partner with nonprofit news organizations that can provide investigative, community-focused stories. Proponents are hoping that other commercial stations will see the symbiotic benefits of such deals and join the movement. The partnership between NBC’s KNSD San Diego and could be the model. Says the nonprofit’s CEO Scott Lewis: “They have skills to do video and production that we don’t, but they don’t have the personnel anymore to do analysis and writing. It’s a perfect kind of match.”

KNSD, the NBC O&O in San Diego, has enhanced its newscast with some segments you simply won’t find elsewhere.

On Tuesday nights, for example, “San Diego Explains” boils down complex topics, from medical marijuana to a new Chargers football stadium, into palatable 3 ½-minute stories. On Fridays,“San Diego Fact Check” dissects the statements of politicos and other newsmakers to find out whether they are, in fact, fact.

KNSD airs the segments, but really can’t take all the credit for them. They are largely the work of, a local nonprofit journalism center that has been sharing news tips, co-producing and supplying content to the station for several years.

Greg Dawson, KNSD VP of news, says the partnership with the nonprofit has been “terrific. What’s made it work is that we have a shared set of journalistic values; news coverage that is complementary, but doesn’t necessarily overlap; and a real commitment to producing local news that serves all of the diverse elements of our station’s audience.”

The San Diego partnership may be a harbinger.

Under the terms of the FCC order approving Comcast’s takeover of NBCU, at least half of NBC’s 10 O&Os have to find a nonprofit news center with which to work within the next year. The order cites the alliance as the model for what it would like to see in other NBC markets.


Proponents of the growing nonprofit news movement are hoping that NBC’s FCC-mandated efforts will bear fruit and encourage other commercial TV stations to seek out nonprofit partners.

“We’re all anxious to see how Comcast reacts now and how they are going to implement the plan,” says CEO Scott Lewis. “Having this sort of carrot out there might be the final straw that gets more of these formed.”

Lewis says his partnership with KNSD started informally in 2006, with the two organizations sharing ideas and content.

Over time, the partnership grew stronger, to the point where 15 months ago it was formalized. The nonprofit collaborates with KNSD on the regular “San Diego Explains” segments and provides the content for the “Fact Check” pieces, with KNSD providing equipment, help in producing the segments and cash. Recently, KNSD equipped the nonprofit’s offices with a camera.

“Partnerships work when both entities understand they’d both like to do something that they can’t,” Lewis says. “They have skills to do video and production that we don’t, but they don’t have the personnel anymore to do analysis and writing. It’s a perfect kind of match.”

A representative for the NBC O&Os declined to speak to TVNewsCheck about what plans they have for fulfilling their new FCC obligation to seek out nonprofits. But the nonprofit proponents are excited by the prospects.

“What it seems to be is a nod toward the idea that there are ways to uniquely cover the community, and get a voice, and be present in the community beyond where [TV stations] have been in the past,” says Al Tompkins, the Poynter Institute’s group leader for broadcasting.

Once TV stations realize the benefit — robust, investigative content many stations no longer do themselves — they will seize the opportunity, he says. “This isn’t work that is being done by some watchdog group, or special interest. It’s real journalism, and it’s important journalism. It is my opinion that 2010 was the beginning of a new birth in investigative journalism.”

However, Tompkins cautions, models for the financial and creative side of the arrangements need to be worked out if nonprofits are going to be sustainable and true to their mission of public service journalism.

Nonprofit journalism centers have been around for years, but their numbers have been growing of late as investigative reporters are losing commercial jobs (or don’t like the terms they come with) and striking out on their own.

Since its founding less than two years ago, the Investigative News Network, a nonprofit news umbrella organization, says its membership has grown from 20 to 53.

At this point, says INN CEO Kevin Davis, most of the centers are funded through grants from foundations like Knight and McCormick. Others get support from universities and private donations, he says.

The goal of the centers is to produce investigative or public-service content, and distribute it through their own means (mostly websites) or through partnerships with newspapers and radio and TV stations.

While some centers, like the New England Center for Investigative Reporting in Boston, have had success in reaching audiences through big newspapers, public TV stations and regional cable news networks, few have worked with commercial TV stations.

With the FCC and NBCU impetus, however, that could soon change.

Joe Bergantino, the veteran local and network TV reporter who co-founded the New England Center, says he’s in talks with several TV outlets, including a commercial station.

“I think [the FCC order] sends a strong message that partnering with nonprofit investigative reporting centers makes a lot of sense for commercial news outlets,” he says. “It makes journalistic sense and it makes economic sense.”

Others hope Bergantino is right.

Polly Kreisman, a longtime New York TV reporter, says she recently established her nonprofit, InvestigateNY, along with veteran TV newswoman Mary Alice Williams, in hopes of bringing back real investigative reporting to TV.

Kreisman says she believes there is still a role — and public desire — for public service broadcast journalism, regardless of how it’s produced.

“A lot of us had to give up on investigative because local broadcast news largely just isn’t doing it anymore,” she says. “But I couldn’t give up on the larger issue.”

Bergantino agrees. “We are really in a sort of golden age of investigative reporting, a new time, a fascinating time. I feel hopeful that in this new era that people will get the reporting they deserve.”

Diana Marszalek writes about local TV news every other week in her Air Check column. You can reach her for comment on this column or with ideas for upcoming ones at [email protected]. For other Air Check stories, click here.

Comments (4)

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Jill Colvin & Catherine Lucey says:

February 1, 2011 at 10:11 am

Does anyone fact check these stories? Are they like the hidden sales pieces we see puched off as medical reports these days? What happened to the days when ethics and integrity of a newscast were the responsibility of the News Director.

Sergio Rataus says:

February 1, 2011 at 10:21 am

OK…I have a real problem with this Voice of San Diego group. I their own words: “We don’t report with any right- or left-wing agenda. But we are inspired by passion to expose what is right and wrong, to drive reform and to spur solutions for the best of the community as a whole.” Right…I don’t trust ANYBODY who thinks THEY can determine what’s “right” or “wrong”…that’s a purely progressive liberal point of view. HOW ABOUT THE FACTS, and let individuals determine what’s right and wrong. No, sounds to much like a controlling propaganda machine or worse…morality police!

Darlene Simono says:

February 1, 2011 at 10:25 am

It is common for these type of organizations to be fronts for poltical activist organizations. There are no free lunches. Research the backgrounds of those wanting to offer “free” local news coverage on your stations.

Christina Perez says:

February 1, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I believe there is a typo in the headline of this article. Shouldn’t it read: “Hopes High for Local TV-Nonprofit CO-OPTS” — ??