The Making of A Successful Broadcast Partnership

This is a guest post by Scott Lewis, the CEO of the Voice of San Diego.  He also writes a blog on local politics in the San Diego area.

Kevin Davis, INN’s chief executive, asked me to write a brief explanation of our working relationship with NBC, which The New York Times highlighted on Dec. 31.  I’m going to take it as a Q&A as he had a few specific questions.

Q: What were your objectives when you first started your relationship with KNSD? How would you rate the success of your relationship now against those objectives?

A: The most important thing to keep in mind about our arrangement with NBC is that it is not a new thing or even something that began in the last year. We’ve been working with NBC as a news partner since 2006.

At first it began like many partnerships do: As a simple meeting. We visited NBC San Diego leaders and discussed how we might be able to share story ideas and in return get publicity and recognition for our efforts. At the beginning, the partnership had basically three parts (none of which were formal or contractual):

1) We let NBC producers know when we had breaking or investigative pieces on the way and they would often assign reporters and producers to the same story and we would release it simultaneously.

2) We began sending our reporters and editors to the studio or working with their reporters on air in other settings to provide analysis and background if not actual reporting.

3) We provided each other content or links on our respective websites.

Since then we’ve worked more and more closely with them. And last year we started talking about more ambitious ideas and a more formal relationship. NBC’s news director had an idea for a regular segment hosted by VOSD Editor Andrew Donohue and I. At the same time, we had the idea to launch a Fact Check on the site. So we combined it and that became the San Diego Fact Check, which runs on Friday evenings.

We also proposed orchestrating a new segment for NBC, one we eventually called “San Diego Explained.” Now, three-minute pieces explaining some complex part of San Diego public policy or a controversy in town runs every Tuesday evening.

We also agreed to make our reporters available as often as possible. Because this would all require significant resources from our staff, our board insisted we work out a cost-recovery deal and NBC agreed to a monthly fee.

It’s my understanding that NBC has been successful in selling the segments to its sponsors. So it has had the benefit of positively impacting the quality of their product while also performing a public service and not negatively impacting the bottom line.

For us, we had three objectives.

The first was to make sure the collaboration was pursuant to our mission. And it is. It allows us to take our fact checks, our explainers and our investigations to a broader audience and using tools that sometimes better achieve what we’re trying to do.

The second was to market our organization better and improve its presence in the community consciousness. It has undoubtedly succeeded in that regard.
The third was to recover some of the costs of the collaboration. 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.

Q: How long did it take for you to put the deal together and what time/resource commitment does it take?

A: Again, we’ve been working with NBC San Diego for five years. But it took us about eight months after conceiving of this new strategy to actually begin implementing the segments and formal relationship.

Reporters spend about a workday and a half on the weekly San Diego Explained series. We spend about four staff hours recording and preparing the Fact Check script. Reporters spend maybe three more hours a week traveling to and participating in in-studio broadcasts. (Remember, we’re already doing the fact checking itself for our website. The work cited here is to turn it into a TV script.)

Q: When did you become aware of Comcast’s new stated objective to leverage nonprofits in their localized journalism strategy and what guidance would you have for INN members in taking advantage of this development?

A: I had fielded inquiries from the FCC about our partnership for several weeks. But I didn’t know it had become part of the deal until Comcast’s letter came out on Christmas Eve and a critic of the merger e-mailed to ask me details about our collaboration.

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.

In order for another INN member to build this, they’d have to recreate the rapport we’ve been able to build organically with local NBC leaders over five years. But to start right away, I’d suggest they begin just with these concepts: explainers, fact checks and in-studio analysis.