It won't come as a surprise to many when, later this month, the Federal Communications Commission approves Comcast's plan to buy NBC Universal and the 10 local affiliates that the network owns.
But when the order comes out, look for a late Christmas present from Comcast: As first reported by The New York Times, the cable giant will lay out an ambitious plan to partner with nonprofit news organizations in at least five communities in which NBC owns stations (see the list below) for at least three years.
In a letter to the FCC sent two days before Christmas, Comcast spelled out some of the details of its plan. The partnerships, Comcast said, would include "story development, sharing of news footage and other content resources, financial support, in-kind contributions, shared use of technical facilities and personnel, on-air opportunities, promotional assistance, and cross-linking/embedding of websites."
Notably absent was any formal commitment of financial resources. But those kinds of specifics are likely to be forthcoming, assuming the FCC approves the deal. As Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice told me Tuesday evening: "Look for the order when it comes out. There will probably more detail in there."
The partnerships are an attempt to respond to the hollowing out of local TV newsrooms as the broadcast affiliate model continues to crumble. Comcast says it is committed to "hyperlocalism," which it defines as "local news, local public affairs, and other public interest programming," and to providing "free, over-the-air broadcast service" through the 10 NBC-owned affiliates.
The letter goes on to explain that the partnerships would be modeled after the working relationship between nonprofit voiceofsandiego.org and KNSD, the NBC-owned affiliate in San Diego. That partnership began as an informal sharing agreement in 2006 and since has grown to include some financial support from KNSD, as Scott Lewis, CEO of voiceofsandiego.org, explains in an interview with Investigative News Network.
Lewis is cautiously optimistic about what could develop. The arrangement with KNSD works so well, he said, because it is built on relationships and trust that have evolved over time. And he notes that while the model cannot be thrust on unwilling or uninterested parties, it certainly can be replicated by those who see its potential.
"By investing in it, if it worked, it could be a mutually beneficial innovation," Lewis told me in an email. "Public gets better more in-depth stories and fact checks on local news like the ones we help with. And NBC is able to make it at least pay for itself. And then groups like ours can have it as part of their portfolio of distributors for our content, which is then just one part of our revenue portfolio."
Indeed, there is precedent for cooperation beyond San Diego. Texas Tribune, for example, has cooperated with KHOU in Houston, lending out its reporters to discuss public affairs stories. And in the print arena, ProPublica has established relationships with newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. As Lewis notes, the key for nonprofits is getting partners to see the value in supporting the nonprofit as a community asset.
Whether Comcast will commit real resources to the partnerships remains to be seen, but indications are that it will -- if only because it must do so to win FCC approval of its NBC deal. Some data points:
* Through its Future of Media initiative, the FCC has expressed a strong interest in fostering new models for underwriting public-affairs journalism.
* Notably, it was the FCC -- not Comcast -- that contacted Lewis to learn about the relationship with KNSD.
* The Dec. 23 letter from Comcast lays out a detailed plan for reporting to the FCC every six months for three years on how well the partnerships are faring -- not the kind work most companies take on unless they have to.
Does it matter whether it took some nudging from the FCC for Comcast to recognize the gem of a partnership it will gain in San Diego? Or that as NBC's new owner, it can help build an innovative, private-sector response to the decline of local public affairs reporting? Not at all. A gift is a gift, regardless of any ulterior motive, and Comcast's offering could well become a model for others to emulate.
NBC owned and operated stations:
KNBC Los Angeles
KNSD San Diego
KNTV San Jose
KXAS Fort Worth
WNBC New York
WRC Washington DC
WVIT Hartford-New Haven