News summit

From left, Steve York, Barry Fulmer, Cary Stemle, Brendan McCarthy and Gabe Bullard.

My immediate reaction after 90 minutes of listening to chiefs of news operations at WDRB and Louisville Public Media is this — that’s nice work if you can get it.

The local Society of Professional Journalists hosted a panel at the Louisville Public Media headquarters Tuesday, with WDRB-TV news director Barry Fulmer, Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting chief Brendan McCarthy and WFPL-FM news director Gabe Bullard.

Cary Stemle, former LEO editor, was the moderator.

Much of the panel’s discussion was about how the new hires at both outlets would be producing the time-consuming, in-depth quality journalism that they believe the public wants and demands.

With many of the new staffers in place for a while now, there’s not a lot of work out there, yet. There’s little urgency to produce this content, to feed the beast, despite all this manpower.

There was no new news here — we reported months ago about WDRB-TV’s raid of the Courier-Journal newsroom and of the fund-raising and hiring of personnel at Louisville Public Media. The newsroom bosses talked extensively about why they believe they’re doing the right thing for the community, and that’s to do good journalism.

The only media operations that are aggressively hiring reporters are touting their commitment to journalism and seem less concerned with paying for it. And from all indications, the burden of producing content for daily deadlines won’t be a part of the job description at either place.

When asked how they’ll know if they’re successful, there was little clarity.

I asked the question that I get from anyone paying attention to local media — how is WDRB-TV justifying paying at least five additional salaries tied to its web site?

Bill Lamb, the WDRB-TV president, sitting in the audience right in front of me, said the new hires were financed completely before their first day on the job, beginning with the 2012 additions of sportswriters Eric Crawford and Rick Bozich, and continuing with the more recent hirings of three additional reporters from the C-J.

“The first obligation of a business is to survive,“ Lamb said. “The money for them was there before they were there. We talked to advertisers and got their support before or just after they walked in the door.”

Fulmer said the new staff has a tough task ahead. Even though the new reporters have had few bylines in their first weeks at the station, he said everything is on schedule.

“Our goal is to provide content that offers depth unlike what TV has traditionally done,” said Fulmer, who is credited with the previously-unheard-of idea of luring Bozich and Crawford from the C-J to WDRB. “We haven’t figured it all out yet, but you have to sustain what you invested.”

He said the station’s web site has seen traffic skyrocket since Bozich and Crawford were hired, and how many TV stations are de-emphasizing sports. WDRB went the other way, keeping five sports reporters on staff, compared with other stations that get by with two or three.

Brendan McCarthy, brought in from New Orleans to run KCIR, said that his mission is to do good journalism without concern about how it’s being financed.

“We’re good, we’re not going anywhere for a few years,” McCarthy said. “We do journalism without fear or favor.”

Asked how he’d react if a potentially damaging story was offered about Ed Hart, one of two primary contributors to the Center (the David Jones family foundation, C.E.S., is the other), McCarthy said he’d investigate the story and tell anyone who objected to “stick it.”

But thus far, with former C-J staffers R. G. Dunlop and Mark Schaver on board, there just doesn’t seem to be much volume. McCarthy pointed to LPM’s in-depth coverage of a sex scandal in state government as an example of what can be done with all these resources.

(Editor’s note: Last August, KCIR investigative reporters Jonathan Meador and R.G. Dunlop broke the story of sexual harassment allegations against former Rep. John Arnold of Union County in far Western Kentucky. However, most of the follow-up reporting was done by the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Courier-Journal. Arnold was forced to resign in September.)

Which is really an old-school luxury in journalism, working on time-consuming long-form stories without the burden of feeding the media beast every day. It seems to be closer to the model that has decimated the newspaper.

Don’t take those sentiments as a criticism — on the contrary. The two organizations say they have a business model that will work (more web advertising at WDRB, more public-funded content at LPM) to produce quality journalism and contribute to the bottom line.

The two dozen audience members were largely made up of members of the staffs of the two organizations, along with a handful of SPJ members. Notably no one from the C-J or a competing TV station was there to challenge the panelists claims, which included a barrage of politely worded attacks, especially on the local paper’s demise.

I asked WFPL’s Bullard, after the panel, his thoughts on why there weren’t more local journalists at a panel that explored the biggest thing happening in their industry,

“I thought the panel was great, and the fact that it went on for 90 minutes backs up my theory that the topics we hit on would warrant more regular conversations,” Bullard wrote. “I was surprised to not see more journalists from other outlets there, too.

“We weren’t exactly giving away confidential strategies or secret plans, but it never hurts to hear how colleagues think. Everyone is doing something interesting. I’m pretty curious about it all.”

Here’s a link to a recording of the event, courtesy of Gabe Bullard.