Hard to Find:  Local News Expansion

May 04, 2018

It’s tough to find major moments of optimism these days as local communities evolve into news deserts, starved of local journalism by shrinking news organizations.

However, on Thursday, WLVT-TV, a community-owned public television station in Bethlehem, Pa., more commonly known as PBS39, scored an eyebrow-raising win.  It announced that it was hiring 12 journalists to cover in-depth community news in its Lehigh Valley area, just north of Philadelphia.

Now, mind you, 12 journalists can rival the headcount in the newsrooms of most metro commercial television stations, minus the sports and weather staff.

PBS39 intends for 10 of these new hires, its “Reporter Corps,” to be professional, multimedia journalists “embedded” in the 10 counties it reaches, meaning they will live in the county they cover – or already are living there.

The other two have already been hired. Managing Editor Jim Deegan brings knowledge of the area from his long tenure as a top editor of the Express-Times in Easton, Pa. Monica Evans comes from the Fox affiliate in Kansas City, Mo., to be executive producer and host of a new nightly local news program.

PBS39’s community news stories will first appear online, then in September move to a 6:30 p.m. airtime, Monday through Friday, bumping the current nightly business report. Plans are afoot to re-air the program on another channel at 9 p.m.

Local public broadcasters have great potential to report community news that is rapidly vanishing as newspapers cut back on reporters and editorial space. But public media stations seldom have the resources to staff a newsroom.

A few public radio and television stations – in Colorado and St. Louis, and more recently in New York City, Los Angeles and Philadelphia – have sought to build that capacity by acquiring a local news startup.

But few stations have tried to create an entire newsroom from whole cloth.

“From what we can tell, we cannot find any place in the entire U.S. that has taken on this big of a responsibility to do community journalism where we are actually hiring 12 people all in one shot,” said Jim Macdonald, PBS39’s director of marketing.

PBS39 is funding this expansion from the proceeds of an FCC auction where it sold off some of its spectrum for wireless carriers. It netted $82 million in that deal.

CEO Tim Fallon calls the expansion plans “the biggest, single, non-capital investment PBS39 has made.”

Yoni Greenbaum, who was hired last fall to be chief content officer, bringing experience from the NBC station in Philadelphia and from Philly.com, says he wants the new reporters to be focused on in-depth storytelling, including solutions-based and accountability journalism.

PBS39 covers two counties that the Philadelphia media market covers.  There are two other public broadcasters in the overall region, WHYY in Philadelphia and WVIA in Pittston, Pa. The local newspaper is the Allentown Morning Call, owned by Tribune Media.  “I think they will watch this cautiously,” Greenbaum said.

However, he stresses that PBS39 is not looking to compete. There are no plans to cover weather, sports or crime news.

Existing news organizations “are doing a heroic job with what they have, but they need help. I see this as help,” he said, adding that the station is open to partnerships or content sharing.

“I think public television and stations like us could be really powerful answers to struggling newspapers,” he said.

I agree.