Tiny news team at Lakeland Public Television fills gap left by commercial TV

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Station managers who worry they can’t afford to do news and public affairs have only to look at Lakeland Public Television in Bemidji, Minn., for inspiration. Since 1998, the station has produced a full half-hour weeknight news program. It currently operates on a yearly budget of just $375,000 to $400,000.

Lakeland News is “structured like a commercial newscast, without commercials,” said Bill Sanford, the station’s chief executive and director of engineering. It was conceived after the station secured funding to evaluate how to reinvent itself. The study revealed that viewers wanted a local newscast to replace a commercial program that had disappeared after a spate of media consolidation.

News director Dennis Weimann doubles as anchor of Lakeland News. He manages a staff of four full-time reporters and a volunteer crew to produce the local newscast.  

News director Dennis Weimann doubles as anchor of Lakeland News. He manages a staff of four full-time reporters and a volunteer crew to produce the local newscast.

The news team aims for as much local coverage as possible in a region than takes six hours to drive across, said news director Dennis Weimann. Recent broadcasts covered a local arts alliance that works with inmates in a county jail, an elementary school making Christmas ornaments for the U.S. Capitol, the grouse-hunting forecast and a respiratory virus sweeping through Midwest schools.

Even without what Weimann calls “all the fancy toys,” such as live trucks, the program earned a regional Emmy nomination last year for Lakeland Public TV. (It lost.)

Lakeland Public Television makes the broadcast’s finances work by being “very, very frugal with the money,” Sanford said. Four full-time reporters shoot and edit their own work. The show team includes a full-time sports anchor, a part-time weatherperson and a full-time news technical director. Weimann doubles as the show’s anchor.

But the station also relies heavily on volunteers, drawn from Bemidji State University as well as the community, who operate the cameras, handle audio, floor direct and run the teleprompter, among other tasks.

Weimann, who previously worked for commercial stations in North Dakota, acknowledges that the model is unusual and credits the volunteers for helping to make its work. He describes them as “people who really want to be there. The quality is higher than what I’ve sometimes seen at weekend newscasts in some markets.”

Corporate underwriting and an annual sustaining foundation grant do not cover the show’s production costs, so the station uses about $150,000 of its annual Community Service Grant to support it. That wouldn’t fly at some stations, Sanford said, but it’s fine with him.

State funding for public television in Minnesota has gone up significantly in recent years, and “I think we’re one of the reasons,” Sanford said. The newscast, he said, “really puts us on the radar screen.”

In addition to increases in state subsidies for its operations and capital equipment expenses — the former grew by nearly 50 percent from fiscal 2012 to 2015 — the station has received annual funding for Minnesota-based arts, culture and history productions since 2010. This fiscal year, its grant from Minnesota’s Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage is $368,932.

The state also contributed nearly $3 million to the building of a new $4.3 million facility, scheduled to open in 2015.

While the station does not pay for audience data, Sanford suspects that many donors contribute to the station because they like Lakeland News. It’s one of the first things viewers bring up when he meets them on the street, Sanford said. Other members become aware of the station through the newscast and then join for other reasons. “It’s one of those storefront kinds of shows that puts us on the map,” he said.

Unlike other big public stations such as KPBS in San Diego that are moving toward a news and public affairs model, Lakeland does not spread the costs of its newsgathering across a radio operation; it tried to acquire a license but was unsuccessful. Video streams of the broadcast are posted to the station’s website, alongside promotions for Masterpiece and The Roosevelts.

Lakeland Public TV is about to undertake the process of reassessing the needs of its far-flung viewership again. About $500,000 of the current $5 million capital campaign will go next year to a Program Future Fund. Part of the money will be used to explore — through focus groups and other research — what local viewers want to see on the station in coming years, and “the remainder will help with startup costs associated with new local content based on the research we do,” Sanford said.