Kansas City’s KCPT picks up gauntlet to expand local news coverage

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Three years ago, a delegation from Kansas City Public Television, including the board chair, trekked out to San Diego’s KPBS to evaluate how that station’s extensive radio, television and online news operation might be adapted in Kansas City.

A few months later, an influential visitor to Kansas City, PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer, urged KCPT leaders to act on their nascent ambitions to develop a locally focused news service for the community.

Over dinner at the restaurant Lidia’s, Lehrer “kind of threw the gauntlet down,” recalled Kliff Kuehl, KCPT president, challenging executives to step up the station’s commitment to news coverage.

But the proposal to transform KCPT into a true local news hub remained mostly an aspiration until a surprise major grant from the Hale Family Foundation arrived in July 2013. Only then was the station able to turn its ambitions into something substantive and seemingly sustainable.

Today, KCPT is actively developing its own news operation, including a new news-focused website that’s expected to launch in about a month and a smartphone app coming within the year.

As public television stations seek new service models that will lead to future sustainability, news and public affairs programming presents a tantalizing opportunity. Even as large metro stations such as KPBS, San Francisco’s KQED and Oregon Public Broadcasting have adopted the model, many smaller stations remain leery, primarily because they believe they can’t make the numbers work.

Paths to Sustainability for public TVIn PBS’s November 2013 report, “Public Media Models of the Future,” authors Ted Krichels and Stephen Holmes cited the “great potential” for stations that want to create a strong news presence. They also acknowledged the risks, noting, “There are probably more public TV stations that have dropped a nightly news program over the past decade than there are ones that currently produce one.”

Among the compelling reasons to consider news and public affairs, the authors wrote, are the “clear public interest” due to cutbacks in newsgathering capacity at commercial broadcasters and daily newspapers. Public radio stations have proven the model can thrive, they noted. Moreover, the report said, “realistic funding models” are out there, as are willing partners in nonprofit news organizations, news-oriented public radio stations and local newspapers.

KCPT fit the profile of PBS’s report to a tee. It had identified the need “to help fill in some of the gaps we see in print and commercial journalism,” said Kuehl. Four years ago the station started a Thursday-evening program, The Local Show, focused on education, entrepreneurship, arts and culture, health, nonprofits, metro development and science. But the effort to build its reporting capacity was “sort of limping along,” Kuehl said, due to money. “We just couldn’t say, ‘Let’s hire 10 more people.’”

At that point, luck intervened. The Hale Family Foundation, led by a 17-year station donor, was searching for major gift opportunities and asked where the station needed help. The subsequent $3 million donation acted as a catalyst for the news expansion. Lehrer helped cut the ribbon christening The Hale Center for Journalism at KCPT last November.

Recent stories from the center’s journalists tackled the overhaul of a local mental health facility and the revamp of early-childhood education in Kansas City public schools. An enterprise report this month examined far-reaching changes to the U.S. meat inspection process. Mike McGraw, a retired Kansas City Star reporter who joined KCPT in July, led the investigative reporting project that ran on KCPT.org with an accompanying video and in the Star.

Janet Saidi, v.p. of news at KCPT, reviews a story with multimedia reporter Bridgit Bowden. (Photo: KCPT)

Janet Saidi, v.p. of news at KCPT, reviews a story with multimedia reporter Bridgit Bowden. (Photo: KCPT)

In designing the news strategy, KCPT’s staff decided much of the coverage should be centered on seeking solutions to local challenges, said Janet Saidi, who started as v.p. of news last month. She was previously an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she ran the NPR-affiliated newsroom.

Until the Hale website launches, the news coverage runs on KCPT.org mixed with content from PBS’s primetime lineup, including blurbs about upcoming Nova and Nature episodes. PBS NewsHour has published some of the work as well as the Star. Some stories are turned into reports for The Local Show.

The key to the Hale Center work is making its coverage “open source,” available to many different outlets, said Saidi.

In April, KCPT entered a joint venture with the city’s NPR affiliate, KCUR-FM, based at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. KCPT joined Harvest Public Media, the KCUR-based regional news venture that started as one of CPB’s Local Journalism Centers. The two stations are also collaborating on a KCUR-hosted initiative, Heartland Health Monitor, and are jointly establishing a Public Insight Network for Kansas City. They are weighing whether to share arts coverage.

The KCUR partnership centers on, “How can we make this the bigger than the sum of our parts?” said Donna Vestal, KCUR’s director of content strategy. “We do local news really well, but we’re also not proprietary about it.” KCUR has been helping the Hale Center journalists “tell the stories the way they can tell them,” she said, but the partnership goes both ways; Hale Center health reporter Mike Sherry, for one, collected audio for KCUR.

“I don’t know how we can survive without collaborating, doing what’s best for the audience, doing what’s best for the taxpayer, the citizen, rather than elevating each individual station solely,” Vestal said, adding that funders also want that model.

Indeed, that vision of the Hale Center as a resource supporting other existing news organizations was compelling, said Mollie Hale Carter. Carter helped her mother, Joyce Hale, as the Hale Family Foundation searched for opportunities benefiting “civil, more informed discourse,” Carter said. “It actually felt serendipitous that KCPT had this concept in their back pocket.”

Unlike at KPBS, which has a daily newscast, television coverage is not a big part of the work, yet. Saidi described the strategy as “digital first.” But the staff is exploring producing reports for the two-minute PBS NewsHour Weekend local cut-ins. Meanwhile, McGraw’s meat inspection video may become the centerpiece of a 30-minute KCPT broadcast that will include a discussion forum.

Saidi sees community discussion as a major differentiator of KCPT’s work, adding that the staff wants to “go deep on dialogue” as well as stories, adopting the informal tagline “Advancing the Conversation.”

Backing up the PBS report’s contention that funding for news operations is out there for those who look, KCPT unlocked another $400,000 in major gifts after Hale’s lead donation. A donor who had previously given modestly came in with $100,000 for the journalism center, Kuehl said. The $3.4 million will cover the majority of the center’s operations for the next five years, although station executives hope to add to the money. The Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City and the Kauffman Foundation also provided support for specific subject areas.

Still, concerned that foundation funding won’t continue indefinitely, KCPT is cultivating individual donations, Kuehl said, although not specifically for the journalism operations. All memberships, including those for The Bridge — contemporary music station KTBG-FM, which it acquired last year — go through KCPT. The Bridge promotes Hale Center work to its younger listeners but airs only a minimal amount of news.

Another Midwest station recently asked Kuehl to talk it through its own content strategy. Kuehl believes KCPT’s approach is replicable if stations rethink their television content and redirect money to the Web. They may be better-positioned than they realize, he said; someone who is passionate about local news may just be lurking in donor files.

Donors who love Downton Abbey “might put you in their will,” he said, but asking for support for a reporter dedicated to local arts is “a much more fun conversation for everybody.”

While the KCPT changes have been well-thought-through, Kuehl said, the board knows “that we are making some investments and trying some things that may or may not work out.” Still, he said, “Part of what I told my board is that I’d much rather go down swinging than fade away into the dark of the night” when viewers decide they no longer need a local station to get Downton Abbey. “I may get fired in two years because I’m doing something risky, but I’d rather do that than just fade away.”