A conference room in the new KPBS newsroom. Photo: Jim Brady
A conference room in the new KPBS newsroom. Photo: Jim Brady
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It’s no secret that American journalism as taught and practiced in the 20th century—a marriage of centrally produced print and broadcasting reports—has given way to “new media,” characterized by blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook posts and Twitter feeds.

The transition has been messy, with scores of traditional media outlets consolidating or folding outright. Many journalists have mourned the death of their profession. Others, however, have watched expectantly to see what shape the next era of
mass communication will take.

They might do well to take a look at KPBS, San Diego State’s own professional news operation. The university’s 50-year-old public service broadcasting affiliate is blazing a trail for 21st century communication outlets by converging radio, television and online news in an effort to provide the kind of in-depth coverage and thoughtful analysis all too often lost in the shift to unfiltered user-generated news feeds.

A unique position

As a local news outlet, KPBS is in a unique position of growth and success,” said general manager Tom Karlo, an SDSU television production graduate who began his career at the station in the late 70s as a student intern. “We’re probably one of the last organizations to provide local news analysis that lets people know what’s going on, offers perspective and understanding, and keeps listeners more informed when they go to the ballot box.”

Long reputed as a leader in the public broadcasting industry, KPBS has focused on issues-oriented news for the past 20 years. Five years ago it pumped up its Web news presence to equal standing with radio and television. With Karlo’s promotion in 2009, KPBS set out to fulfill his vision of becoming the region’s primary news and information source by converging new operations.

“When I became general manager I made the decision to take the separate departments of radio, television, and online news and merge them into one content division,” Karlo said. “Now we have approximately 40 people who work on content creation that can be distributed across all platforms.”

Achieving Karlo’s vision required a managerial reorganization, staff training and some serious remodeling of the KPBS facilities. Karlo took the role of support raiser while KPBS veteran Deanna Mackey moved up to station manager, responsible for supervising staff and operations.

Converging news platforms

Mackey, who led the launch of the online news department in 2006, sees the move to full convergence of news gathering efforts as a logical next step.

She said reporters experienced primarily in radio or television have learned how to write for the web and vice versa. Private donors have paid for this cross-platform training and allowed the station to double its reporting team from six to 12, plus student interns.

In addition, thanks to a $2.5 million gift from Joan and Irwin Jacobs, the entire second floor of the KPBS building has been rebuilt as an open work area. The renovation brought all 40 members of the KPBS news team together for the first time and provided each with the tools to create online, radio or video content at individual work stations.

Serving many audiences

Giant screens hang from three walls, giving an ultramodern feel to what Karlo calls “the newsroom of the future.” Media convergence has now led to physical convergence with special emphasis on local stories and border issues—covered by a dedicated team of bilingual reporters assigned to the “Fronteras Changing Americas Desk.”

“This pioneering approach allows us to go beyond fragmented, 140- character reports and do in-depth analysis,” explained Suzanne Marmion, KPBS director of news and editorial strategy.

“We can take a 4-minute video package and put it on the radio. So one reporter has served two audiences—the senior viewers who prefer television and the Boomers who like radio. In 20 minutes we can rewrite that story in AP style for the Web, which skews a little younger than the Boomers.”

Nightly news for San Diego

A seasoned public broadcasting journalist and educator, Marmion had recently returned from reporting in Africa for National Public Radio (NPR) and was teaching journalism at Columbia University, her alma mater, when she heard about the transition underway at KPBS.

“The industry was in crisis,” she recalled. “I thought, maybe it’s time to get out and teach fulltime. Then I saw the opening for this job at KPBS, and I thought, wow, nobody [else] in our industry is thinking about full convergence.”

KPBS radio listeners began to notice the intensified focus on reporting and analysis in May, with a schedule switch adding more news and informational programming. The transition culminated in September with the launch of “KPBS Evening Edition,” a nightly half-hour television news and analysis program.

As the metamorphosis of mass media continues worldwide, Marmion sees KPBS’s commitment to presenting old-fashioned news and analysis in a whole new way as a hopeful harbinger for the future.

“Public media are the good guys,” she said. “If anyone is going to save journalism, it’s going to be PBS and NPR. We have the potential to pull off something amazing.”

Stay tuned.

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"I Believe" 30 second spot
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Shot throughout San Diego County, the spot features various community members repeating parts of the "I Believe That We Will Win" chant. Along the way, energy builds as the chant is joined by famous Aztecs such as Ralph Rubio and Mayor Jerry Sanders.

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Spring 2012 360 Magazine
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