November 12, 2009

As news organizations reduce staffs and spend less time and money reporting in-depth stories, many journalists worry about the future of local investigative journalism and the extent to which the public will be exposed to hard-hitting news happening in their own backyards.

Some public radio and TV stations, however, are finding a way to help fill the void.

Just last week, KQED Public Radio said it will be partnering with the Center for Investigative Reporting‘s California Watch to produce more investigative stories throughout the state. Colorado Public TV announced a similar partnership with Colorado Public News at the end of last month.

The journalists involved say these partnerships underscore the value of collaboration during a time of uncertainty in the industry, while giving the stations an opportunity to produce local investigative stories that they wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to report on their own.

The need for these types of stories is particularly relevant in a city like Denver, which lost the Rocky Mountain News last year. Hoping to continue providing Denver residents with local, in-depth news, former Rocky Mountain News investigative reporter Ann Imse started Colorado Public News in collaboration with Colorado Public TV (CPTV).

“We’re concentrating on providing in-depth, investigative reporting, which is rapidly disappearing from our market, and which we believe our community has missed,” Imse said.

A one-time prototype version of the site, which launched on Nov. 2, features a “special report” on what Colorado residents can do if they are without health insurance. If it raises enough money, the site would feature at least one major investigative story each week. The stories would then be produced for television and aired in a weekly, half-hour segment on Colorado Public TV.

The challenge is figuring out where the money will come from, and whether this kind of initiative is even viable.

Developing a donor base for public radio/TV partnerships

CPTV is providing 24 percent of the full year, full staff budget of $2.2 million. That contribution is in-kind, Imse explained, meaning that Colorado Public News doesn’t have to raise that money from the public to pay for a 501(c)(3), offices, utilities, Web servers, libel insurance and more.

Colorado Public News needs to raise $400,000 in cash to pay for salaries, and will not start producing weekly stories until it raises the money, which would cover the cost of six staffers for six months. Ultimately, Imse hopes to raise enough money to hire a total of 12 full-time journalists who would work with Colorado Public TV to produce stories for both Internet and broadcast.
“Bottom line,” Imse said, “is that Colorado Public TV is providing virtually all the overhead, so we have to raise much less cash than that we would otherwise.”
The team so far includes three former Rocky Mountain News jourrnalists — Imse, video journalist Sonya Doctorian and Pulitzer Prize winning photographer and video journalist Joe Mahoney. Doctorian said that although the viability of Colorado Public News is uncertain, she’s embracing the opportunity to help shape this new type of business model.

“I think there’s strength in numbers,” Doctorian said. “Through partnerships we can achieve perhaps a critical mass around this idea of local journalism with depth and significance.”

Wick Rowland, CEO and president of Colorado Public TV, said the station plans to raise money for Colorado Public News by expanding its existing donor base to reach new audiences and donors.

“We believe that there are people who will be keenly interested” in this content, said Rowland, who noted that the station has wanted to televise more local investigative stories but hasn’t had the resources to do so.

Typically, the station airs eight or nine public affairs-related stories per week, but most of them consist of round-table discussions or expert panels — not stories that the station’s staff reports.

“Imagine you’ve got a doughnut with a hole in the middle,” said Rowland, who is also dean emeritus and professor emeritus of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado. “Week in and week out we have well-informed activists, journalists and pundits on our shows, but what has been missing is the reported vehicle of in-depth investigative journalism.”

Why public stations need to provide more local coverage

The Colorado partnership is in line with what former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. said journalism needs. Downie, who recently co-wrote a report on the restructuring of American journalism, said the Center for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has encouraged similar collaborations that are being considered around the country, and would like the CPB to mandate local news coverage by all public radio and television stations.

“Public media news coverage needs to grow as commercial media news staffs shrink,” Downie said. “And, because most local news organizations in the future will be much smaller than metropolitan newspaper staffs were in the past, collaborations among local news organizations are necessary to make the best use of local news reporting resources.”

Downie acknowledged the partnership between California Watch and KQED-TV as an example of an initiative that he hopes more local radio stations will pursue. Starting Nov. 19, California Watch journalists’ stories will be produced for “The California Report,” a KQED program that’s distributed to 28 public radio stations throughout California.

Both groups have hired investigative journalist Michael Montgomery to produce the stories, and plan to split the cost of his salary. They’ll share the written and audio content that’s produced and pool editorial resources. In an effort to make it easier to collaborate on projects, California Watch’s Sacramento-based reporters will share office space with KQED’s Capitol Bureau.

“This partnership provides us with a greater distribution network that would be impossible to otherwise emulate,” said Robert Rosenthal, director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. “Really our model is to … tell a story in multiple platforms and get it to as wide of an audience as we can instead of dictating how people are going to get it.”

The model presents KQED with an opportunity to balance some of its national coverage with more local news. Scott Walton, executive director of communications at KQED, said that about 80 percent of the station’s content is national.

Montgomery, formerly a producer at American RadioWorks, referred to the station’s new partnership as a positive step toward helping public radio stations establish themselves as local investigative news providers.  

“I think there’s been a feeling that investigative work is a highly specialized part of journalism, and it’s tended to fall to newspapers and specialized units within those newspapers,” Montgomery said. “When people think of investigative reporting, they don’t immediately think of public radio, but I really think that’s changing.”

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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