Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Aug. 1, 2019, 9:45 a.m.
Reporting & Production

What does a solutions-focused newscast on public TV look like? PBS39 has been at it for nearly a year

“It wasn’t, like, ‘bam bam soundbite soundbite you’re done.'”

This was a serious case of lemons and (potentially) lemonade.

After landing $82 million through the extremely fortuitous spectrum auction, Yoni Greenbaum had quite a recipe as chief content officer. PBS39, serving the greater Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania, was going to do the opposite of what some other local TV news outlets do.

Instead of focusing on the flashes and bangs of car crashes and fear-striking crime, PBS39’s nightly newscast would focus on solutions to the area’s local issues. (No mention of the not-real Momo challenge, as far as I could find.) Instead of anchors with multi-million dollar contracts, the newscast would be led by reporters who live in the counties they cover, with no single figurehead. Instead of sports or weather, there would be organ donation quests, first responder training funding, and a leadership-focused summer camp for middle school girls. I wrote about the station’s ambitions before it launched last year:

“Our goal is a newscast that is complementary to the commercial news. We’re not going to do the weather, traffic, crime, and sports scores, but rather take more of a solutions-process-accountability journalism approach,” Greenbaum told me. “We’re really looking for the ‘why’ in the story and going to the second-day story.”

For example, instead of rattling off which school districts are closed in a snowstorm, he said, the newscast would focus on the issues created when the schools are closed, like how many kids won’t be able to receive government-subsidized meals. The 30-minute show will not have an anchor or the typical quick pace of commercial TV news: Stories will typically range from three to six minutes.

So how’s it going?

September 17 will mark one year since PBS39 News Tonight began airing, holding the 6:30 p.m. weekday timeslot — based in Bethlehem, Penn. and reaching airwaves from Staten Island to Harrisburg. A few reporters out of the group’s hearty dozen contribute features, and one managing editor puts together the 28-minute newscast without relying on day-turn stories. The station has also partnered with local college classes to produce special content like a 30-minute feature on trade schools in the area, co-hosted debates for local elections, and organized forums exploring issues like criminal justice reform. “Our core is women age 25 to 54, heavily African American households with children under the age of 18 and annual income of $75,000 per year or less,” Greenbaum said. “When we launched, I said we’re not going to pay attention to Nielsen, but we do pay a lot of attention to Nielsen.”

There are some things you just can’t escape in this world, and audience data is one of them. (It’s particularly helpful for finding out who your audience actually is when you’re trying to serve them!) The rebroadcast-newscast at 11 p.m. is tied for first place as the most-watched late night news in Nielsen ratings, according to Greenbaum.

But making lemonade is sometimes hard work. Greenbaum has said that the newscast initially was “softer than we wanted it to be,” and he wants to improve the graphic quality in the newscast. The team is also looking to switch up their beats from their geographic basis — related to each reporter living in the county they report on, but stymied by the fact that not everyone can relate to the circumstances across eastern Pennsylvania — to a more topical focus.

“Part of the challenge is just the sheer volume of content you have to create. The ability to go after some of the deeper stories remains elusive to us at the moment,” Greenbaum said. “One example is in a city like Allentown, a major metropolitan area but one of the poorest cities in the state, there’re lots of healthcare resources. If a kid needs to go to the doctor, it’s maybe one to two hours out of school. If you go up to Carbon County in the coal belt, to go to the doctor, a kid is out of school for a full day. If you talk to superintendents in Carbon County there are dozens of kids missing school for basic illnesses. There’s a significant story we could be doing, but if you’re covering a municipal or classic county beat it’s hard to find the time to do that and feeding the beast.”

Still, the PBS39 reporters I talked to described the generosity of time as a perk compared to commercial stations.

“It wasn’t, like, ‘bam bam soundbite soundbite you’re done,'” said Brittany Sweeney, the Berks County reporter and previously an anchor in an area in northeastern Pennsylvania for six years before joining PBS39. “It’s helpful that we can talk to more people and hear more voices in our stories than your typical one- to two-minute package.”

“We are trying to take our time and tell a complete story. For us, it’s the everyday work we do, but for that person or that organization, this is their moment and they want as much of their info as possible to be told in the correct way,” Staci Inez said. (Greenbaum said that, in the newscast’s first 10 months, PBS39’s reporters have talked to 300 people who had never interacted with a journalist before.) Inez joined PBS39 in February from a South Carolina station after two reporters left. “The feedback I’ve heard is they only let their kids watch PBS39 — our news is the only news they’ll watch because they know it’s not going to be a fire here or a shooting here or a stabbing here.”

Local TV news still plays an outsized role in media consumption (though its viewership continues to decline) and it hasn’t seen as much cutting as newspapers face — the nearby Reading Eagle filed for bankruptcy. Greenbaum thinks there’s more than enough room for public television to step in with local news:

“On the whole notion of the death of local journalism, I think public TV gets overlooked in this conversation,” he said, adding that he worked in newspapers for over a decade before switching to TV. “While there’s not a lot of us [in public TV] doing local journalism, hopefully more will stand up and take the chance we’ve taken here in Bethlehem. But at the same time, the industry does a disservice by only focusing on the decline of newspapers.”

POSTED     Aug. 1, 2019, 9:45 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
The cable news network plans to launch a new subscription product — details TBD — by the end of 2024. Will Mark Thompson repeat his New York Times success, or is CNN too different a brand to get people spending?
Errol Morris on whether you should be afraid of generative AI in documentaries
“Our task is to get back to the real world, to the extent that it is recoverable.”
In the world’s tech capital, Gazetteer SF is staying off platforms to produce good local journalism
“Thank goodness that the mandate will never be to look what’s getting the most Twitter likes.”