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Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution
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Jan. 4, 2010, 1 p.m.

What opportunities are there in broadcast for nonprofit news?

The AP’s Andrew Vanacore had an easily digestible story over the holidays about the problems about to befall nation’s local TV stations — and how they could spell the end of “free” TV.

Turns out, the nation’s big four TV networks are pondering ways that they can cut local affiliates out of the revenue stream by selling their signal directly to cable TV providers. Vanacore writes:

Pay-TV providers are paying the networks only for the stations the networks own. That amounts to a little less than a third of the TV audience, which means local affiliates recoup two-thirds of the fees. If a network operated purely as a cable channel and cut the affiliates out, the network could get the fees for the entire pay-TV audience.

He goes on to say: “If forced to go independent, affiliates would have to air their own programming, including local news and syndicated shows.” But I’m not so sure about the news part. Given a choice between paying the cost of producing local news and airing another segment of “Wheel of Fortune,” I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’ll do what they need to stay afloat.

The forces undermining the local broadcast model are different than those that are pummeling the newspaper advertising-and-subscription model; the relationships among networks, stations, cable companies and advertisers aren’t as easily disrupted by the Internet. But the bottom line for local civic affairs coverage is pretty much the same: The local news that broadcasters have provided as a public service — though arguably not in the same depth as newspapers — is going to get cut back even more. Call it the legacy media flu; there’s no cure except to lower expectations.

So what to do? In the world of words, nonprofits have emerged to help fill the void, and they have been particularly successful at the local and regional level, as reported earlier this month.

This is where I leave my comfort zone, as I have no professional experience in the broadcast arena. But it seems to me that there is a natural opportunity for nonprofits to help fill the void in broadcast as well by shouldering some of the cost of producing local TV news. At the same time, local stations would do well to seek out and nurture these relationships.

It’s already happening at some local stations. On Dec. 18, KHOU in Houston aired a segment about members of Congress taking trips at the expense of interest groups. The report was based almost entirely on reporting by Andrew Kreighbaum of The Texas Tribune, the new nonprofit based in Austin. The only significant cost to KHOU (owned by Belo Corp.) was the time it took to interview Kreighbaum and have its own reporter do a voice-over.

POSTED     Jan. 4, 2010, 1 p.m.
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