Unique partnership sets Erie News Now apart during COVID

September 24, 2020 02:30

2020 has presented local newsrooms a catch-22. An ongoing series of crises is increasing the urgent demand for news and information. Those same crises are forcing newsrooms to tighten their belts.

The local broadcast industry lost jobs overall in 2019, and local TV news managers cited staffing challenges as their second biggest threat going into 2020. Since then, layoffs, furloughs and hiring freezes have been the industry’s headline.

Now thanks to a prescient idea, one station in Erie, Pennsylvania, is filling an audience information gap and a staffing gap.

Erie News Now flipped the script by pursuing a unique partnership that taps into a growing segment of the local news industry often underutilized by broadcasters, particularly local TV.

This March, Erie News Now and the nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) teamed up to hire an MMJ to focus specifically on financial challenges faced especially by underserved lower income communities.

I spoke to Brian Trauring, Executive Vice President of Erie News Now’s parent company, Lilly Broadcasting, and David Wallis, Managing Director of the EHRP, to learn more about the unique collaboration.

Though Trauring and Wallis germinated the idea at RTDNA’s San Antonio conference last summer, well before COVID, it took on increased urgency as the economic consequences of the pandemic radiated across the country. “It’s interesting to me that we started this before the pandemic hit, and now…with the economic consequences that are so severe, it turned out to be absolutely the right time,” Trauring said.

Doing good journalism
They hired Isaac Petkac, an Erie-area native with deep familiarity with the area and an empathetic ear born of a family background in mental health and wellness.

Trauring and Wallis recalled an email exchange at the time saying, “he’s going to be very, very busy.” And Erie News Now’s News Director, Scott MacDowell, says Petkac has been, reporting on “hot button” issues including unemployment and evictions. When an eviction mortarium was coming to an end in early September, Pentak did reports on every newscast that week, including reporting when filings for evictions doubled in the county in just two hours. “If we had not had a dedicated reporter on this beat,” Trauring wondered, “would we have gotten this information?”

The approach, looking at economic solutions and placing the numbers in the context of real people, has led Petkac’s Facebook Live reports to generate as many as 17,000 views and dozens of comments.

“It’s just been a terrific part of our reporting on COVID-19,” Trauring said. He pointed out that the traditions of TV news and even audience research don’t typically identify economic hardship as a key topic to cover, but it’s an important one in Rust Belt markets like Erie.

That’s a gospel Wallis has been preaching since 2012.

Missions align
The EHRP has a dual mission: reporting about economic struggles and helping independent and un- or underemployed journalists thrive. For the first, the group has produced award-winning work with numerous digital news outlets and an Emmy-winning documentary.

For the second, Wallis likened the work, particularly this year, to “putting a lot of band aids on gushing wounds.” He estimates 36,000 journalists have been laid off or furloughed since the pandemic began, creating overwhelming demand for emergency grants from the project’s relief fund, which raised $100,000 in just days when layoffs began.

People are hurting, Wallis says – being evicted, losing insurance – as economic challenges “cross any partisan line there is,” affecting colleagues in journalism and across our communities.

That includes local broadcasters, who have been facing growing economic challenges (another threat commonly cited by news directors). Wallis says that chasm of lost revenue will have to be filled, at least to some extent, by the non-profit sector.           

The platform-agnostic EHRP has long wanted to make inroads in local TV – still among the most relied on and trusted sources of news – and found the right partner in Lilly’s Erie station.

The team at Lilly recognized the need for this type of reporting, Trauring said, while Wallis and EHRP recognized the station’s need for editorial independence.  

Overcoming potential roadblocks
Trauring cited the extraordinarily high value local TV news places on independence – indeed, it is a guiding principle of RTDNA’s industry standard Code of Ethics – as one reason many news managers are wary of partnerships and collaborations. Especially when financial backing is part of the mix, it’s natural – and important – to consider potential influences on content, even if unintended. Trauring mused that the need to protect independence doesn’t tend to let itself to pursuing non-traditional collaborations.

But EHRP tapped the expertise of former Hearst Television news executive Candy Altman to help the project speak the language of TV news, which, combined with Wallis’s own strong journalism credentials, made it an enticing partner.

As such, EHRP provides funding for Petkac’s position, coaching and feedback on news products from Altman, and, when needed, background information from its team of researchers. Erie News Now retains editorial independence and acknowledges the partnership in each news piece “NPR-style.”
It’s been working for both partners.

He’s been doing good journalism,” Wallis said of Petkac’s work so far, illustrating how broadcasters and non-profits “can create partnerships that ultimately benefit both broadcasters and their viewership.”

Trauring agreed, adding that “it’s never been a more important time for journalists to present content relevant to viewers’ and listeners’ daily lives.”

Next steps for newsrooms
News directors report, in the latest RTDNA newsroom survey, that as hiring has slowed, they’ve sought creative solutions like reorganizing workflows, cross-platform training and shifting newsroom culture to a more digital mindset. A few even mentioned hiring former newspaper reporters – a key EHRP aim and something RTDNA Executive Director Dan Shelley called on broadcasters to do earlier this year.

Fewer have sought new partnerships like Lilly and the EHRP’s, but these opportunities are growing. Wallis said EHRP hopes to replicate the partnership, especially in a small market or community affected by the contraction of news media. Other nonprofit news organizations are growing, too. Report for America has placed hundreds of journalists in local broadcast and digital newsrooms. The organization is accepting applications for 2021 newsroom hosts now. Engagement consultancy Hearken is launching an Election SOS Fellowship program to place election reporters in newsrooms.

Will local TV newsrooms take advantage?

For the industry to survive and thrive, Trauring, backed by what news directors reported in RTDNA’s newsroom survey and what local news executives said in a recent RTDNA town hall, says newsrooms must provide actionable, relevant information to news audiences. Otherwise, they’ll go elsewhere.

Non-profit collaborations are poised to help local newsrooms escape their supply and demand catch-22 and fill that critical information need.