WYPR, news startup agree to editorial, operational partnership

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Nathan Sterner

WYPR in Baltimore and the nonprofit news startup The Baltimore Banner announced a joint operating agreement Thursday in a bid to bolster local news in the city. 

The partnership will include content sharing and joint editorial efforts, including plans to create podcasts and radio programming together. But WYPR CEO LaFontaine Oliver told Current the deal goes much deeper than editorial collaboration.  

Oliver

It will encompass “everything and it’s as big as we can imagine and make it,” Oliver said. The two organizations will be “thinking about ways that we can partner, we can collaborate, and then, even further in some areas, where can we actually integrate?” 

The Baltimore Banner, a fast-growing, well-funded news startup, will cover topics such as local government, culture and the arts in the city and eventually the state. Despite being a nascent organization, it already employs 60 staffers and is on a hiring spree to build its newsroom. 

The Banner was founded last year by Stewart Bainum, Jr., chairman of Maryland-based Choice Hotels International, who is providing startup funding. The outlet started publishing a pre-launch newsletter early this year. The website will launch within weeks, according to CEO Imtiaz Patel.  

The partnership with WYPR is in the early stages, but the organizations agreed to explore ways to work together on everything — from marketing and events to sales and backend technology, Oliver said. WYPR worked with Public Media Company on the deal. 

The two newsrooms will initially collaborate on election coverage, Patel said. His goal is to build upon that coverage later this year with other collaborative products, including podcasts and reporting projects. The joint operating agreement has an initial term of three years but renews automatically, he said. 

Baltimore Banner leaders were looking to partner with an outlet that shares its mission, Patel said. Additionally they wanted a partner that publishes in a different medium, specifically audio. “And, frankly, from our perspective, our partnership with WYPR lends us a little bit of credibility as well,” he said.

Patel sees the partnership as an opportunity to bolster both newsrooms and provide operational efficiencies. But he thinks the “bigger opportunity” will be to “reach more people in more ways, which really does help us build up our brand together, which should translate into sustainability as well.”

Oliver, who also serves as chair of the NPR board, has been in talks with Bainum since last year, when the outlet was founded, he said. 

The startup has hired staff from national outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, where editor-in-chief Kimi Yoshino previously worked as managing editor. Two-thirds of the staff work in the newsroom; Patel hopes to add another 30-35 people to the news team this year. “We are literally making two to four offers every week,” he said. 

“They’ve hired a really talented group of folks, not just in the newsroom, but in all areas of the organization,” Oliver said. “Their newsroom today is already bigger than ours. And they’re not officially launched yet.” 

In addition to providing startup funding for the Banner, Bainum chairs the Venetoulis Institute for Local News, the nonprofit that operates the news organization. In February Bainum told Poynter that he plans to raise or give $50 million over three-and-a-half years. 

Bainum had previously made a bid to buy the Baltimore Sun and convert it into a nonprofit. He later bid on the Tribune Company before it was acquired by Alden Global Capital. He pivoted to found The Baltimore Banner after both bids failed. 

The Baltimore Banner is investing in the partnership to help WYPR “build up the capacity to do more audio because we’re going to have significant needs around audio and podcasting,” Patel said. He declined to say how much the Banner is investing.  

WYPR is the second public media outlet to announce a partnership with a nonprofit news outlet within the past week. KERA in Dallas announced its own journalism partnership with the Fort Worth Report Thursday. 

Reflecting on the uptick in public media partnerships with nonprofit news outlets, Oliver said one of the key motivations is the need to reach new and underserved audiences on “whatever platforms they may roam on.”

At the same time, he sees “a bit of a market failure happening in the for-profit, commercial news side of things. You’re seeing more and more interest and more and more investment in local nonprofit news across the country.”

“There’s some real opportunity there for public media to be a part of that, because we’ve been in these communities doing this work and championing local news and journalism for many years,” Oliver said. 

With the important role that local news plays in supporting civic life and democracy “we’re going to have to try different things in order to really be able to serve our communities,” Oliver said. “And public media organizations are looking out and they’re saying, ‘Okay, you know what? Who can we partner with?”

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