AIR CHECK BY DIANA MARSZALEK

NBC O&Os, Nonprofits Make News Deal Work

After six months of working together on investigative reporting and other stories, the participants have a list of important stories they’ve broken together.  Poynter’s Al Tompkins observes: “At one time, partnerships were mostly about distribution and publicity. But these days the partners are taking their roles much more seriously, adding significant content according to each partner’s expertise.”

Six months into them, the NBC Owned Television Stations’ partnerships with four nonprofit news organizations are bearing fruit, resulting in an uptick in investigative reports on local newscasts.

WMAQ Chicago produced a piece that questioned whether a well-known community organizer improperly spent millions of dollars in government grants — a subject brought to the TV news team’s attention by the station’s partner, ChicagoReporter.com.

Working as a team, WMAQ and ChicagoReporter also reported that a large number of Chicago police are still on the job despite having been charged with brutality, many of them twice.

When ChicagoReporter in March ran a story about employers not paying low-wage workers, WMAQ profiled a worker who spent years trying to get thousands of dollars in back wages to no avail. WMAQ’s Telemundo sister station WSNS ran a separate interview with the worker as well.

KNBC Los Angeles and its partner, noncommercial KPPC-FM, collaborated on several stories, one of which uncovered that a local teacher arrested for sexually abusing students was paid to retire by the Los Angeles school district — preserving a pension and benefits.

In Philadelphia, WCAU has started adding arts and culture reports to its news mix courtesy of its partner, the public TV and radio broadcaster WHYY.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

And in February, three years after federal stimulus money was distributed, the NBC stations in New York, Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego and Hartford, Conn., all did locally focused stories on where all that money went.

Those stories all were based on data provided by ProPublica.org, the investigative news service that works with WNBC and gives other NBC stations access to stories ideas and research before they go public.

WNBC and WMAQ also localized a ProPublica report that explored the quality of treatment at dialysis centers, and expanded on that information to show how patients’ chances for survival largely depended on their economic status.

Although formally announced last December, the seeds of the partnerships were sown a year earlier under the terms of the FCC order approving Comcast’s takeover of NBCU.  The agreement said that at least half of NBC’s 10 O&Os had to find a nonprofit news partner with which to work within the next year.

Although these sorts of partnerships are still pretty rare, NBC did have some experience with such arrangements.

The new ventures are modeled on the successful six-year partnership between NBC O&O KNSD San Diego and the news website VoiceofSanDiego.org. The nonprofit collaborates with KNSD on the regular “San Diego Explains” segments and provides the content for the “Fact Check” pieces. KNSD equipped the nonprofit’s offices with a camera.

Frank Whittaker, WMAQ station manager and VP of news, says his station is also pursuing opportunities with other news organizations. WMAQ has an ongoing relationship with the Better Government Association, a Chicago government watchdog group, which has led to three investigative reports over the last few months.

The BGA/WMAQ investigations looked into government dollars being spent on employees’ personal parking, illegal animal dumping by transportation workers and improper payments by a county hospital to a doctor who no longer worked there. They were cross-promoted on the station and the BGA website.

VoiceOfSanDiego.org CEO Scott Lewis says his experience shows such partnerships can succeed over the long haul.

“Partnerships always depend on both sides recognizing that they each can’t do something so they can complement each other in different ways,” Lewis says. “It all depends on building a rapport between staffs.”

That already is happening, station execs say.

“We were beefing up our investigative unit, looking to add new and exclusive reports, and the Chicago Reporter provided us with access to great investigative stories that needed to be told,” Whittaker says.  “In particular, the Reporter does excellent data analysis on issues affecting race and poverty. Now we are able to work together to bring those stories to television.”

WNBC VP of News Susan Sullivan said the ProPublica alliance allows the nonprofit to dig deeper and localize stories. “When you do that at 10 stations you really are talking about hitting a big part of the country.”

Tom Burke, a WNBC investigative producer who serves as the group’s point person with ProPublica, says the partnership has given the stations a leg up on time-consuming stories.

By having access to ProPublica’s data on stimulus spending two weeks before it was made public, for example, stations had the time and ability to produce local stories on the subject that could run about the same time as the website’s story.

“They have access to this kind of data — a lot of it — and are experts in organizing it in a way that we can analyze it and ask the questions and find out if their story” can be localized, he says.  “It greases the wheel tremendously.”

In Philadelphia, the partnership between WCAU and WHYY-FM-TV has taken shape somewhat differently than the others.

Thanks to daily email exchanges, the partners regularly share Web content — with WCAU benefiting from WHYY’s political and cultural reporting and WHYY getting news and other basics like weather.

WCAU has aired several segments featuring the WHYY arts and culture reporter. A WHYY reporter who did a story (with video) on people who still have bomb shelters beneath their homes, shared it with WCAU viewers.

Chris Satullo, executive news director of the noncommercial stations, says he is eager for more collaborations, primarily joint reporting.

“The feel of the partnership is really good,” Satullo says. “I just don’t know if the output is where we want it to be.”

WCAU spokeswoman Kathleen Burke says that is to be expected in a relationship “still in its infancy.”

“This is a fairly new partnership,” Burke says. “So far though it’s been a very profitable relationship for us. We have done some great stuff together.”

Burke says WCAU is committed to continuing its daily exchange of ideas and information with WHYY to making the partnership even better with time. “This is not just an afterthought.”

Poynter’s Al Tompkins sees says the partnerships “make a lot of sense,” which have “matured” since PBS’s Frontline and The New York Times started teaming up years ago.

“At one time, partnerships were mostly about distribution and publicity,” he says. “But these days the partners are taking their roles much more seriously, adding significant content according to each partner’s expertise,” he says.

Tompkins credits organizations like ProPublica and California Watch, a Center for Investigative Reporting project, with “picking up the pace and quality of these partnerships.”

Commercial TV, however, has been slower than other media to buy into the concept, he says. That is partly because stations don’t produce enough investigative news of their own to bring to the table, he says.

NBC’s nonprofit partners, however, say that is not necessarily what they want. As public service entities, it’s the exposure that counts.

“Our mission is to produce journalism in the public interest and to have impact,” says ProPublica’s Mike Webb. “By working with these outlets, we’re able to spread the information in our investigations to a wider audience and help people decide for themselves whether they’re using the best dialysis facility or how effective the stimulus spending was.”

Read other Air Check columns here.


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