In October 2007, devastating wildfires raced across California’s San Diego County, killing 10 people and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. But out of crisis was born opportunity for KPBS, the San Diego public broadcaster, which had been closely covering the disaster on its radio station.
Station leaders realized they could also publish helpful information for local residents on KPBS.org. The station’s website was then operating mostly as a promotional platform for its broadcast schedule, not as a news destination.
As the KPBS team experimented with new digital applications for web-based reporting on the fires, such as a well-received Google map of fire locations, the seeds of a multiplatform strategy for news coverage were sown.
Fast-forward four years to September 2011: KPBS completed its transformation with the debut of Evening Edition, a half-hour 6:30 p.m. television newscast devoted to local issues. With the show’s launch, KPBS took another big step toward General Manager Tom Karlo’s ambitious goal to become “the premiere source of local thoughtful news across all platforms” in San Diego.
Seven months in, Evening Edition is averaging a .5 rating, or about 8,000 viewers a night, halfway to its goal. That’s double the national average for PBS stations during the time slot, said Nancy Worlie, director of communications. With the three platforms plus social media, KPBS now reaches 1 million area residents monthly across a wide spectrum of demographics.
As public broadcasting charts its future as digital public media, it’s been challenged from numerous sides to step up its local news reporting and fill a growing gap of coverage left by ad-supported news media. KPBS’s Evening Edition provides a model of how pubcasters can adapt and respond, although its long-term viability is yet to be determined.
Following the growth of the NPR news audience and local station newsrooms over decades, public radio is in a much better position to expand its local newsgathering. NPR and stations have collaborated on numerous projects to strengthen local reporting for broadcast and the Web.
But for public TV, it’s a different story. Even though local television is America’s “most popular source of local news and information,” according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, few public TV stations have plunged into in-depth local coverage, having concluded that the costs of operating a local newsroom are far beyond their capacity.
As an operator of both public radio and TV stations, KPBS straddled this divide, and it leveraged its radio newsgathering capacity into a broader strategy for multiplatform news delivery.
It launched production of Evening Edition on a surprisingly small budget. Start-up costs of roughly $300,000 went to staffing, the set and some equipment, said Deanna Mackey, station manager. Only four positions were added: a producer, host, web producer and videographer. But the budget doesn’t reflect KPBS’s previous investments in reporting for radio and the Web, the foundations on which the TV news show was built.
Indeed, leveraging news content across all three platforms is integral to the financial model that KPBS developed for its news expansion. KPBS also forged partnerships with other San Diego news outlets, took a strategic approach to fundraising and made tough decisions about which initiatives it would drop as news became its primary focus.
It starts with radio
Karlo, whose tenure at KPBS spans nearly four decades, traces the beginnings of the pubcaster’s new service strategy to the 1990s, when KPBS-FM added news to its classical-music format. The change started to grow the pubradio operation’s audience.
It is now the top-rated news station in the market. Classical music migrated to an HD Radio multicast channel a year ago, when KPBS-FM switched to an all-news format.
When Karlo applied for KPBS’s top job in 2008, he was mindful of how news programming had powered listenership growth and of the audience’s immediate response to the 2007 web-based fire coverage, he told Current. He proposed that KPBS expand its newsgathering capacity even more, focusing on in-depth local reporting across all of its platforms. Commercial radio stations were consolidating, the city’s major daily newspaper was shrinking, and local TV stations were focused on sensational coverage. KPBS was in a good position to not only fill the vacuum of local news reporting but to become San Diego’s top source for news within five to seven years.
When Karlo got the job, in January 2009, it was a green light to pursue the vision he’d laid out as a candidate. He merged the stations’ radio, TV and digital news operations into a single content-producing division. Karlo appointed Mackey as his deputy, and they recruited Suzanne Marmion as news chief. She oversees a newsroom of 33 journalists, not including production staff, and an annual budget of $2.9 million.
Early in the reorganization, in May 2009, KPBS.org relaunched as a news site. Its average monthly page views have increased sevenfold — from 70,000 to the current 500,000.
Last May, when KPBS-FM went all-news, the format change reinforced the pubcaster’s commitment to news via broadcast channels. The premiere of Evening Edition on KPBS-TV came four months later.
The phased rollout provided time for journalists in KPBS’s newsroom to take multimedia training, much of it done in-house. With $3.5 million in gifts from Joan and Irwin Jacobs, KPBS established a media lab, where journalists learned skills such as writing for the Web, shooting digital photography, and creating slide shows and infographics. Each member of the news team has done the training at their own pace, said Mackey. For some, “it’s literally taken them two full years to get to a comfort level.”
Radio guests do TV, too
Each KPBS news cycle starts with a 9:15 a.m. meeting at which assignments are laid out. Guests appearing on KPBS Radio’s weekday talk show Midday Edition leave the radio studio for a TV studio across the hall, where they answer a different set of questions for Evening Edition. A videographer may also leave the station to conduct field interviews or shoot additional footage. “We’re very efficient in how we use human resources,” said Mackey.
KPBS also uses footage provided through its editorial partnership with the local ABC affiliate, KGTV. In exchange, KPBS shares its investigative reporting with the ABC outlet. The two also partner in producing political debates.
The TV show is structured like NPR’s Morning Edition, with headlines followed by three five-minute segments. Each edition includes a regular segment devoted to a specific topic, such as business and technology, health or culture. Fronteras, the local journalism center reporting on border issues, contributes stories. Reporting on local government, from the city budget to water rates, is integral to each broadcast. “[W]e felt like that needs to have a presence in the show every night,” said Marmion.
Just as radio guests appear in TV interviews, video packages are adapted for radio and web reporting.
The multimedia production process may seem clear and logical, but figuring it out — and getting the staff to buy into it — wasn’t so easy. The newsroom resisted the push into TV news.
“One of the biggest challenges was motivating the staff that this was the right thing to do,” Karlo said.
The staff feared the TV show would “[water] down the quality of the work that we do because it was serving one more platform on an ongoing basis,” Marmion said. To make the transition easier, she bought four “Holy Grail cameras” — easy-to-use JVC models that produce high-quality HD video and radio audio.
In retrospect, Marmion said, the transition was relatively smooth at the nonunion shop. “Nobody is working a ton of overtime, and the quality stayed the same.”
Judging by audience trends, the quality of radio broadcasts hasn’t suffered. Earlier this year, KPBS-FM became the top Arbitron-rated morning-drive station in the market among all formats.
On the management side, Karlo reorganized his own job, taking on the role of “chief fundraiser,” dedicated to finding support for the news operation.
In the three-plus years since he got the job, KPBS has expanded its news department by 11 positions through philanthropy and grants, he said. Money dedicated to individual news beats such as Fronteras, the LJC focused on immigration issues, and science was raised from major donors, almost in the way that an academic chair would be supported, Karlo said.
To focus on news, KPBS had to forgo other activities. “We haven’t put a whole lot of attention into multicasting,” Karlo said. KPBS ended production of A Way with Words, a local radio program about language, but the show secured alternative funding and remains on the air. KPBS also scaled back on its studio-leasing business so that production facilities are readily available for news. In addition, “we’ve backed off on outreach unless it focuses directly on the core business,” namely news and children’s TV programs, Karlo said.
Like other stations, KPBS took revenue losses during the recession, but the news expansion has helped it hold its own. Its membership of 47,000 remained flat at a time when other stations reported declines, corporate support is edging back up and fundraising for major and restricted gifts “is doing quite well,” Karlo said.
The news-focused pubcasting station still has work to do. Focus groups inform the design and revisions of Evening Edition. KPBS journalists sometimes forget to take cameras along for interviews, and a virtual set created for the program has to be scrapped because it had too many problems. Mackey said Evening Edition needs to be promoted more aggressively.
To beef up its indepth coverage, KPBS will expand its partnership with Investigative Newssource, a journalism nonprofit that’s embedded in its newsroom, and has reassigned Evening Edition host Joanne Faryon as a full-time investigative reporter. Faryon joined KPBS as an investigative producer in 2006 and has more than 20 years of journalism experience.
Karlo is pleased with the progress that’s been made to date. “I think we’ve created a model here that could be replicated across the country,” he said, a model of converging a pubcasting operation and filling a void in local news.