San Francisco’s KQED is embarking on two partnerships you might not expect from a well-established public broadcaster: one with just-launched Huffington Post San Francisco, the other with four hyperlocal news sites as part of J-Lab’s Networked Journalism Project.
The J-Lab confab got started more than a year ago and culminated Wednesday in partnerships with Berkeleyside, Oakland Local, NeighborWebSJ, and SF Public Press. KQED will feature stories from those partners on air and at KQED’s news site. The station will also train reporters and bloggers to be radio-ready.
“One of the new realizations in the journalism world today is this notion that the ability for single institutions to do it all has been threatened considerably,” Bruce Koon, KQED’s news director, told me. “We’re a regional news entity that serves the area broadly, in terms of the nine-county Bay Area. We can’t get deep into neighborhoods necessarily, but that’s what a lot of these new emerging news sites and blogs are doing. Is there a model in which we can help surface and distribute the kind of great journalism they’re beginning to do to a wider audience?”
As part of J-Lab’s grant from the Knight Foundation, KQED has hired a half-time community news coordinator, Molly Samuel, who servers as sort of an external managing editor. She keeps tabs on the stories partners are working on and and flags the ones that deserve extra attention. Some of those stories are pitched at the morning news meeting and turn into on-air debriefs during All Things Considered.
KQED is historically big on partnerships. With CIR’s California Watch, the station shares the cost of a reporter working for both organizations. California Report, KQED’s 16-year-old statewide newsmagazine, has long featured stories from partner stations.
As public radio goes, KQED is as mainstream as it gets: 50 years old and the most-listened-to station in San Francisco.
“The actual working out of these collaborations and networks is not an easy task. It involves questions of, ‘What’s the tolerance level of one institution for a different value system or another?’” Koon said. “That’s particularly true between traditional and legacy media and a lot of the new emerging news organizations.”
That’s one reason why the station’s other new arrangement, with The Huffington Post, may strike some as unusual. That deal came together in one month — no onerous contracts, just a handshake agreement.
“What’s been really interesting and, to me, innovative about this partnership is it’s very much been about throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks,” said Ian Hill, KQED’s online community engagement specialist. “We’re sharing content with them and address any issues that might come up — any link problems, any branding issues — as we go along. So it’s — risky isn’t the right word, but I guess it’s the word I’m looking for.”
KQED provides stories from its popular food blog, Bay Area Bites, to HuffPo’s new San Francisco vertical. The outlets agreed to an (undisclosed) ratio when it comes to how HuffPo treats those stories: Some entries are reposted whole, while others appear as one of those deliciously clickable “visual links” on the home page. “If it is something that they want to take, they will then look at their percentage and determine if they owe us a link or if they can take it for a post,” Hill said. “The links, from our perspective, are really the things that drive traffic. The posts are great for…reaching a new audience and maybe putting our content out in front of Huffington Post readers who may not know about Bay Area Bites.” Huffington Post editors, always needing to feed the beast, get free content. No money changes hands.
Hill would not provide specific numbers, but he said linked posts get an immediate traffic bump, sometimes as much as 50 percent over average posts.
It’s a funny alliance, isn’t it? If KQED’s public-radio instincts are to speak softly and slow down, HuffPo’s are quite the opposite. And if KQED’s reporters are veteran journalists, the hyperlocal news are often powered by 20-something college grads.
“I think our market demands something different than maybe what people will think of typical, quote-unquote ‘typical,’ public media. We actually have an audience that I think trends younger than a lot of public media stations,” Hill said. “And now that I’m thinking about it, it’s kind of interesting — I don’t think we even really discussed the fact that this is an opportunity to maybe reach out to a different audience.”
Koon, the news director, said the fear of failure is what holds back innovation in public media. He stresses the “project” in Network Journalism Project because it allows room to fail.
“It’s so important for public radio or public TV or public broadcasting to get things right, because our stakeholders are our members, the people who subscribe to us, that we often put ourselves in that situation: Well, we can’t fail, we can’t be wrong,” Koon said. “And we’re not sacrificing that, we don’t want to sacrifice that, but we also know that we need to have ways to experiment and innovate so that we can deal with the changing news environment that’s out there.”