What does a solution-oriented news broadcast on public television look like? PBS39 has been with the »Nieman Journalism Lab for almost a year
This was a serious case of lemons and (possibly) lemonade.
After landing $ 82 million through the extremely random frequency auction, Yoni Greenbaum had quite a recipe as chief content officer. PBS39, which serves the greater Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania, would do the opposite of what some other local television news channels do.
Rather than focusing on the lightning bolts and bangs from car accidents and horrific crimes, PBS39’s nightly newscast focused on solutions to local problems in the area. (As far as I could tell, there is no mention of the non-real Momo Challenge.) Instead of anchors with multi-million dollar contracts, the newscast would be run by reporters living in the counties they cover without a single billboard. Instead of sports or the weather, there were organ donation quests, funds for the training of first aiders and a guided summer camp for middle school students. I wrote about the station’s ambitions before it launched last year:
“Our goal is a news broadcast that complements the commercial news. We’re not going to do the weather, traffic, crime and sports scores, but rather take a journalistic approach to solutions, process ownership and accountability, ”Greenbaum said. “We’re really looking for the ‘why’ of the story and going to the story of the second day.”
For example, rather than worrying about which school districts are closed in a snowstorm, the newscast would focus on the problems that arise when schools close, such as how many children cannot receive government-subsidized meals. The 30-minute show won’t have an anchor or the typical fast pace of commercial television news: the stories typically last three to six minutes.
How are you?
September 17 marks a year since PBS39 News Tonight began broadcasting, with the weekday time slot at 6:30 pm in Bethlehem, Penn. and reaching air waves from Staten Island to Harrisburg. A couple of reporters from the group’s hearty dozen contribute, and a senior editor puts together the 28-minute newscast without relying on daily stories. The station has also partnered with local college classes to produce specialized content such as a 30-minute reportage on commercial schools in the area, co-hosting debates for local elections, and organizing forums on topics such as criminal justice reform. “Our core is women ages 25 to 54, heavily African American households with children under 18 years old and incomes of $ 75,000 a year or less,” said Greenbaum. “When we started, I said we are not going to pay any attention to Nielsen, but we are paying a lot of attention to Nielsen.”
There are some things that simply cannot be escaped in this world and audience data is one of them. (This is especially helpful for figuring out who your audience actually is when you’re trying to serve them!) The 11 p.m. news bullet ranks first in Nielsen reviews as the most-watched late-night news item, according to Greenbaum.
But making lemonade is hard work sometimes. Greenbaum has said that the newscast was initially “softer than we wanted it to be” and he wants to improve the graphics quality on the newscast. The team also seeks to change their beats based on geography – based on every reporter who lives in the county they cover, but the fact that not everyone can relate to the circumstances in eastern Pennsylvania – to switch to a more up-to-date focus.
“Part of the challenge is just the sheer volume of content you have to create. The ability to follow some of the deeper stories is hard to pin down right now, ”said Greenbaum. “An example is a city like Allentown, a large metropolitan area but one of the poorest cities in the state. There are many resources available for healthcare. If a child needs to see a doctor, it may be an hour or two outside of school. If you go to Carbon County in the coal belt to see a doctor, a kid will be out of school for an entire day. If you talk to superintendents in Carbon County, dozens of kids are missing out on basic illness school. There is one major story we could make, but when you’re covering a communal or classic county beat it’s hard to find the time for it and feed the beast. “
Still, the PBS39 reporters I spoke to described the generosity of the time as an advantage over commercial broadcasters.
“It wasn’t like you finished,” said Brittany Sweeney, the Berks County reporter and previously anchored in an area of northeast Pennsylvania for six years before joining PBS39. “It helps that we can talk to more people and hear more voices in our stories than in a typical one- to two-minute package.”
“We try to take our time and tell a complete story. For us it is the daily work that we do, but for this person or organization this is their moment and they want as much information as possible to be told correctly, ”said Staci Inez. (Greenbaum said PBS39 reporters spoke to 300 people in the first 10 months of the newscast who had never interacted with a journalist before.) Inez joined PBS39 from a South Carolina station in February after two reporters left were. “The feedback I have heard is that they only let their kids see PBS39 – our messages are the only messages they’ll see because they know it won’t be fire or shooting or stabbing here.”
Local television news still plays an oversized role in media consumption (although viewership continues to decline) and it hasn’t been cut as much as it has been in the newspapers – the nearby Reading Eagle filed for bankruptcy. Greenbaum believes public television has more than enough space to cover local news:
“Regarding the death of local journalism, I think public television is being overlooked in this conversation,” he said, adding that he worked in newspapers for over a decade before switching to television. “While there aren’t many of us [in public TV] If we do local journalism, hopefully more will stand up and take the opportunity we took here in Bethlehem. At the same time, the industry is doing a disservice by only focusing on the demise of newspapers. “