Originally published on March 25, 2013
By Sarah Albert
How a public broadcasting operation and a nonprofit investigative news outfit decided to join forces.
When Denver’s Rocky Mountain News went under in 2009, a handful of the laid-off journalists started nonprofit news organizations. Among them was Laura Frank who launched I-News, a nonprofit investigative outlet. But it took help from Doug Price and Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver to make it possible for Frank to pull off the kind of public service journalism she was dying to do.
“This conversation started in the darkest of days,” says Price, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS. Early in 2009, Rocky Mountain PBS had to lay off around half of its workforce. But it still wanted to focus on public service journalism. Price and others felt as though their responsibility as a nonprofit was to make the community better. “We had lapsed into a position where we thought of ourselves as the nonprofit branch of the media, not as the media branch of the nonprofit community,” he says.
So when Price and his board met with Frank, a solution emerged: Rocky Mountain PBS would become I-News’ fiscal agent and offer office space. In return, it would receive powerful content. I-News stories also appear in many Colorado news outlets.
Now, four years later, Rocky Mountain PBS and I-News are officially merging along with KUVO, an NPR affiliate in Denver known for its jazz and blues as well as public affairs programming. “Rocky Mountain PBS came to us with the proposal,” Frank says. “I think they saw what impact the journalism that I-News was doing was having. They decided that public media ought to be doing public service journalism.”
It took Rocky Mountain PBS until last year to stabilize its finances. Once that happened, Price and other executives started to think about where to go next. “We wanted to build on our strength in arts and culture, continue our legacy as an educational resource, and be a player in community service journalism,” Price says. “We felt like I-News fit nicely into that, and they really wanted to be a part of it.”
Frank accepted a position on Rocky Mountain PBS’ senior team as vice president of news, and I-News (it is keeping the name) now fills the need for an investigative news element of Rocky Mountain PBS. “Rather than thinking about it as an abdication of what they do, it’s an enhancement of what they do,” Price says.
Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University and a major force in nonprofit journalism, believes the merger makes perfect sense. “If you’re a scrappy new upstart nonprofit doing spectacular work, and you’re a large PBS station that needs content, it’s obvious why they’d want to work together,” he says.
Lewis says that collaboration by nonprofit news outlets is a relatively recent phenomenon. “The major newspaper outlets need content because they have empty newsrooms, and so they would partner with a nonprofit,” he says. “The idea of nonprofits partnering is kind of a subset of this general collaboration.”
Kevin Davis, CEO of the Investigative News Network, a consortium of more than 60 nonprofit news organizations, is also a fan of the new combination. “Not only is there strength in numbers, but mergers add to the capacity and potential impact of the journalism,” he says. “Investigative News Network was founded almost four years ago for the very reason that nonprofits realized that in order to be sustainable in the long run, they need to work together.”
He adds, “Most nonprofits are far smaller in size, resources and budgets than for-profits. They don’t have corporate backbone that for-profits do.”
Rocky Mountain PBS has also signed memorandums of understanding with KUNC, KRCC and KVNF, three of the five largest nonprofit radio stations in Colorado. I-News had already been disseminating its stories over these stations. But thanks to the new arrangements, I-News will receive help in reporting stories as well as distributing them.
“Collaboration is the new competition,” Price says. “Now we have a large newsroom that’s built on collaboration, which decreases the cost for all of us.”
Davis says the new amalgamation may be the first of many. “These are the first mergers of Investigative News Network members that we’re experiencing,” he says. “So at this time we have nothing but good hopes for the success of this. I think there will probably be an increased amount of these kind of mergers because it’s hard to do quality journalism and run a mission-driven nonprofit with limited resources.”
The first I-News story after the merger was announced in late Janaury, “Losing Ground,” focused on the economic regression of black and Hispanic families over the last 30 years. It was showcased on the front pages of the Sunday editions of many newspapers throughout Colorado as well as on numerous radio and television newscasts. Price says he believes it was the most widely disseminated investigative project in the history of the state.
I-News joined libraries and universities in setting up events where Colorado residents could discuss the story’s findings. “We think community engagement is a huge part of making clear to the public the value of public service journalism, and it’s something we didn’t really have the capacity to do before,” Frank says.
With any merger, there are inherent risks. “When you lose autonomy, you are subject to a lot of what-ifs,” Davis says. “There are no guarantees that they’re going to continue to focus on your project. Nonprofits are designed to live beyond the founders and the individuals that run them. What’s going to happen down the road?”
But, as Lewis points out, “Risk-adverse people don’t start organizations.”
In order for the merger to be considered a success from its point of views, Rocky Mountain PBS says it wants to see its membership base and its average gift grow by 10 percent. “The value that this adds to the organization should allow us to grow by that much,” Price says.
For Frank and the I-News team, “The greatest value is being able to sustain in- depth public service journalism, because we have the infrastructure to do that. Investigative reporting is expensive and risky. Being able to merge with an organization that has the infrastructure in place, and you bring in the journalism and an injection of energy, and it’s sort of a perfect marriage.”
Sarah Albert is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.