Nonprofit news orgs see validation, new funding in Comcast-NBC merger

In approving the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal on Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission has endorsed, at least in principle, a proposal to forge new partnerships between at least four NBC TV stations around the country and local nonprofit news outlets.

For the journalists working to build nonprofit news organizations around the country — many of which are still in their infancy — Comcast’s offer to foster such partnerships validates their role in the news economy.

“That sends a message to the entire broadcast industry that nonprofits like ours and Voice of San Diego should be taken seriously as a supplier of in-depth investigative reporting,” said Joe Bergantino, director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

In December, Comcast said that if the FCC approved its merger with NBC Universal, it would establish partnerships between NBC TV stations and “locally focused” nonprofit news orgs in 5 of the 10 markets in which it owns and operates stations.

The model is the arrangement between voiceofsandiego.org and KNSD, which cooperate to produce regular fact-checking segments, explainers on public policy and other features. (San Diego counts as one of the five markets.)

Tuesday’s news release from the FCC appears to endorse the proposal, stating that “some of its NBC stations will enter into cooperative arrangements with locally focused nonprofit news organizations.”

It’s unclear whether the FCC accepted Comcast’s offer as proposed. A spokesperson is looking into it, but confirmation may have to wait until the FCC releases the official order.

Although voiceofsandiego.org is a destination news site, the proposal could be particularly attractive to nonprofits that aim to be public-service content providers for existing news outlets. Among others, that’s the approach of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, The Connecticut Mirror, and InvestigateWest.

Several people I spoke with said they already have partnerships with print organizations — the Connecticut Mirror’s nine newspaper partners represent about 35 percent of newspaper circulation in the state — as well as radio stations, and they’re pursuing similar deals with public and commercial broadcasters.

Why NBC would partner with nonprofit sites

It looks like there are plenty of potential partners in those 10 NBC markets. The Investigative News Network, an association of 51 nonprofit news organizations, has members in eight of those cities. In addition, there are some nonprofit news orgs in those areas that aren’t INN members, such as ProPublica in New York and The Connecticut Mirror in Hartford. (I didn’t find a nonprofit news org in Dallas-Fort Worth, though The Texas Tribune, which covers politics & public policy from Austin, is a potential partner.)

“A lot of the greatest reporting innovation is happening in the nonprofit Web sector,” said Steve Waldman, a senior adviser to the chairman of the FCC who has been studying the state of the news media and how communities get information. “But very few have developed sustainable business models yet.”

“Commercial media has distribution and money and gaps in their reporting,” Waldman said, “and the nonprofits have strong specialties in reporting but weaknesses in distribution and revenue. So it seems like a perfect match.”

(Waldman and I spoke before official FCC approval was granted and we discussed commercial-nonprofit partnerships in general, not the Comcast-NBC deal in particular.)

Lane Michaelsen, news director for NBC’s Miami O&O WTVJ, said he hasn’t worked with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting or BrowardBulldog,org, both of which are based nearby. But he sees room for such partnerships.

Most of these arrangements in the past, Michaelsen said, have been between traditional news orgs — TV stations working with newspapers, for instance. But those relationships have eroded in recent years as they compete with each other online.

“You would almost need each other more now, but the competition is keeping that from happening,” he said. “You really want to look for a partner who does something different from you.”

For example, most TV reporting is geared to what happened today, he said. “What partners can help you with is that enterprise reporting.”

Scott Lewis, CEO of voiceofsandiego.org, wrote about his arrangement with KNSD after Comcast referenced it in its letter to the FCC. Lewis described it this way:

“Partnerships only work when both sides recognize that they can’t do something they want to do. In other words, we would love to do a lot of video work, but can’t afford it. NBC can do plenty of video work but maybe doesn’t have all the analysts and ‘sense makers’ they’d like to turn them into engaging segments. We have invested a lot in smart reporters working on only those types of things.”

The financial details will be key

There are plenty of qualifiers in Comcast’s proposal. For one, it doesn’t specify whether the stations will pay for content, though it does state that the partnerships would be similar to the one in San Diego in “financial support” and “in-kind contributions,” among other requirements.

Lewis wrote that voiceofsandiego.org receives some money from the NBC station for its work. “It still costs us more to produce this content than NBC pays us. But with a diversity of revenue sources and a staff with a diversity of talents, this works out well for all.”

Money will be key, said Brant Houston, the former head of Investigative Reporters and Editors who’s involved with several nonprofit news outlets.

“For these nonprofits to survive, they need to get paid for really good content,” Houston said. “If you look at what broadcasters have paid consultants for story ideas, there should be enough money to compensate the nonprofits fairly and at a market rate.”

Some nonprofits charge for their services, essentially offering a subscription service to their clients. (In an interesting twist, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting includes with each story a training module to help reporters at the commercial partner learn how to do such work themselves.)

Others offer their stories for free, believing it’s more important to get the material before audiences and using that placement to attract donations and foundation support.

What’s next

The NBC stations can choose which organizations to work with based on their availability, standards of journalism and professionalism. And Comcast promised to maintain those relationships for three years from the date that all five partnerships are set up. (It’s not clear if all those requirements are in the official FCC order.)

Those were among the reasons that Josh Stearns of Free Press argued against making much of Comcast’s promises.

Even so, Kevin Davis, CEO and executive director of the Investigative News Network, said he’s encouraged by the proposal and will encourage his members in those markets to reach out to the NBC stations.

If he has any reservations, it’s that Comcast is dictating this from the corporate level, whereas the San Diego partnership came from the people who will actually be the partners.

“That kind of practical, bottoms-up approach is where innovation will happen,” Davis said. “It’s very hard to innovate at the top.”

CORRECTION: Josh Stearns’ name was misspelled in the original version of this post.

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