PA Post launch featured on WITF’s Smart Talk
The launch of PA Post was the topic of conversation on today’s episode of WITF’s Smart Talk, a public affairs show on central Pennsylvania’s public radio station.
Smart Talk host Scott LaMar discussed the new site with WITF President and CEO Kathleen Pavelko and Multimedia News Director Tim Lambert, who also serves as an editor for the project. Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, joined us from Texas to discuss his experience launching a digital news organization whose deep coverage of Texas served as an inspiration for the PA Post digital model.
Listen to the show:
Read the Transcript (edited for clarity):
Scott LaMar: Welcome to Smart Talk. I’m Scott LaMar. Trusted news and information — that’s part of WITF’s mission.
A new source for news that is sure to gain trust is PA Post — a digital-first, citizen-focused news organization created by WITF. PA Post makes its debut today. To talk more about PA Post and what news consumers can expect from it, our guest today is Kathleen Pavelko, WITF’s president and CEO. Kathleen, always good to have you on the program.
Kathleen Pavelko: Great to be back on this very important day.
LaMar: And also joining us is WITF’s multimedia news director, who will act as editor for PA Post, Tim Lambert. Tim, you just got off the air and here you are again.
Tim Lambert: Yeah that’s right. I’m glad to be here.
LaMar: So if you have a question or comment as we discuss PA Post this morning, give us a call at 1-800-729- 7532. Send an e-mail to email@example.com or on Twitter. We are @SmartTalkWITF. Again, the phone number 1-800-729-7532. All right, so Kathleen let’s start with the basics. How would you describe PA Post?
Pavelko: Well if you describe it journalistically, it is digital-first. Meaning the content is created for use on the platforms that you prefer: your cellphone, your smartphone, your laptop, whatever it might be. It’s fact-based, it’s nonpartisan and it is multimedia. So it could be text. It could be audio. It could be video. It’s all of those formats. Whatever makes most sense for the story we’re telling. Philosophically though, the goal here is to connect this giant, fragmented state we call the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with a truly statewide news organization where we can share the problems that we have, and I hope, share some solutions.
LaMar: So how does that come about?
Pavelko: You know, WITF has been in this business covering state politics and policy since 1964 since we went on the air. So we’ve been in that business for a long time. We’re also in the business of networking and and distributing across the state — Public Radio Network and the commercial radio network. But it became clear to us that distribution through analog methods, through broadcast methods was insufficient and we needed to be digital first and truly, truly statewide. So we looked around for some models and we’re going to hear a little bit more about one of those models later in the interview that’s The Texas Tribune. But it was very clear to us what we needed to do and when we put together our strategic plan two years ago, it was right at the top of the list.
LaMar: I mentioned in the introduction that today PA Post debuts. Is the website online right now?
Pavelko: Minutes ago, Scott. Minutes ago. That’s papost.org. And it’s a fabulous site. It’s going to evolve, OK. This is day one. Everybody give us just the little bit of a break, OK. (laughs) But if you check the top of the website, you’re going to see stories. You’re going to see our podcast. You’re going to see a sign up for our e-newsletter. It’s a very clean, easily navigated website: papost.org.
LaMar: So, maybe during the program as you’re listening to our description and our discussion of PA Post, go to it — papost.org. You discuss this…you kind of touched on the overarching issues that we would be covering, but let’s focus a little bit more. Give us some examples of the kind of focus of PA Post.
Pavelko: Tim, talk about the stories we got a lot under way and a lot that we’re planning.
Lambert: Yeah. First of all, we are welcoming PA Post’s first full-time reporter today, Ed Mahon. You may know him from the York Daily Record. (He) does some great investigative work,so we’re thrilled to have Ed join us today on day one of the launch of PA Post. What you’re seeing is a little bit of an evolution of what WITF has been doing over the last few years with our news department. About five or six years ago, we launched StateImpact Pennsylvania with our partners at WHYY in Philadelphia and NPR to cover the Commonwealth’s energy economy and really take a look statewide at how natural gas drilling, coal mining, nuclear energy, solar energy, sort of impacted the state.
But tying it all together, one of the things to remember that PA Post is really trying to do simply is to bring Pennsylvania to Pennsylvanians. There isn’t really a true network across the state that does that. You have some great news organizations but they’re based in Pittsburgh. They’re based in Philadelphia. What we’re looking to do is get into those underreported stories across Pennsylvania and tie them into how it impacts you. How policy impacts you. You’ve seen that sort of reporting with Transforming Health. We hope to bring our health coverage to a statewide level as well. Education. We’re looking at politics and policy. At accountability. The energy. The environment. So, there are a lot of stories that we hope to delve into in the coming months.
LaMar: When you say underreported stories … most of the time when something’s reported it’s just based on time, space, resources, that kind of thing. Give an example of underreported stories that PA Post will be covered.
Lambert: I don’t want to give away too much here. But what we’re trying to do is we’re going to try to look at stories that … look, it’s no secret that the the media industry has been undergoing a lot of change, both good and bad. And the bad part of that is boots on the ground have been lost. There have been severe staff reductions that media organizations across the commonwealth, for various reasons. We’re trying to fill the gaps now and to take a look at stories that aren’t being looked at. There is a small but powerful reporting group at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. Those guys do a lot of great work — guys and gals. This is a little bit of a reinforcement. They can’t get into every single story that happens, so we’re going to try to take a look at trends, maybe what state agencies are doing a little more, follow the money a little more, as well. So, I think that PA Post is evolving, but that’s what we’re going to kind of focus on — especially with the election coming up in November.
LaMar: Kathleen you mentioned this, and Tim just talked about it too … what other media organizations are doing. Two questions: One is how is PA Post different than what other media organizations are doing, and two, there are partnerships involved with PA Post. Let’s start with what’s unique about this.
Pavelko: PA Post is different from many of the other digital news organizations that are out there, because in addition to creating our own content and distributing it through a variety of both commercial and noncommercial media partners, we will also distribute content from select partners. So, we will provide a distribution network for some of the most talented news organizations who are at the moment limited to their region. So that could be the Philadelphia Inquirer and it could be the (Pittsburgh) Post Gazette. It could be the Patriot-News right here. But their best content distributed statewide. We’ll will work on stories together too. The biggest stories really require that kind of collaboration. We’re also going to have very robust events and face-to-face process. We will be talking to the citizens of Pennsylvania and listening to the citizens of Pennsylvania. That’s critical. And you know what? We’re going to we’re going to sneak in some media literacy and some civics education throughout. People really need to understand the legal underpinnings for example of particular policies. And we’re going to make sure that that context and that background is provided in a way that’s fun as well as educational.
LaMar: You mentioned right up front that there are a lot of issues, a lot of stories that we can’t cover just from a broadcast standpoint but with PA Post, there is more than just the online component.
Pavelko: Oh, absolutely. We have an existing public radio network. There are seven public radio stations in Pennsylvania and one in New York that carry the work that we currently do. Katie Meyer is our state (Capitol) bureau chief. And we have a commercial radio network that will serve as a promotional partner for PA Post. So, we’ve got mechanisms layered on mechanisms formats layered on formats distribution mechanisms.
LaMar: OK. So obviously you know this is something that is unique and new to Pennsylvania, but I have to say that you know just from what I’ve observed with all the planning that has gone into place over the last year or so, maybe even longer than that, that there are some other models out there.
Pavelko: Look, we, we shamelessly stole … OK, we borrowed from The Texas Tribune. Evan Smith is the CEO of The Texas Tribune. And as we investigated what they had done in Texas, based in Austin but serving that gigantic state, nine years ago it was clear to us we had a lot to learn. And in addition to being generous with his staff time, Evan came and spent the whole day with board and staff here last December.
LaMar: And Evan Smith is on the line with us right now. He is the president and founder of the Texas Tribune. Mr. Smith, welcome to the program.
Evan Smith: Well, good morning all, and how happy I am to be here on your big day. Congratulations to all of you guys and everybody in Pennsylvania.
LaMar: Well, congratulations to you, because The Texas Tribune, since you were here last December, and as Kathleen described we have been borrowing your model, we all in our content department have been looking at The Texas Tribune on a regular basis, and just a fantastic sight and so much news. How did this all come about in 2009 for you?
Smith: Well it’s a lot of what you just heard from my friends in Pennsylvania about the lack of use of the lack of enough, you know, the problem of not having enough news and enough news coverage are really important issues for the people of the state, and decided to step up and try to solve that problem. I looked out at the landscape — here, a state that is growing quickly and changing dynamically where the issues are getting more complicated, not less, more complex, not less. We care about the same things you all care about: public education, transportation, health care to immigration. And yet the number of reporters at our state capitol was dropping pretty quickly, the number of news organizations covering this stuff was dropping pretty quickly. It was clear that the for-profit model for covering this kind of news was not working. And so we needed to create a new one and we stood on the shoulders of public radio and public television and creating a nonprofit organization funded ideally by the stakeholders. By the end users — individuals corporations and corporate sponsors — to go out in the world and do this work regardless of whether you could make a buck off because even if something is not profitable that doesn’t mean it’s not important or valuable for the community. That was the premise. Again, very much like what I’m hearing from you all about the need in Pennsylvania and the innovative solution you’ve come up with. We said these are not issues that can go uncovered. We’ve got to figure out a way to do this, and so we’ve got a group together to start and said we’re going to make a go of building a new model for content and a new model for the business side. We are almost nine years into this — what I still consider to be an experiment. Although it’s succeeding, we’ve certainly not succeeded finally but it’s succeeding. We went from 17 full-time employees, 11 reporters on the first day in our big capital here in Austin to about 80 full- and part-time employees. Thirty five or more reporters at any given time in our newsroom. We still have the most reporters covering the state capitol of any news organization now in the entire country, for-profit or nonprofit, fifth straight year. And we have raised enough money to make this a sustainable enterprise. We can do this kind of public service journalism. We can afford to pay for it. We can hire great people. We can do accountability journalism for the people of Texas. As I know you will do for the people of Pennsylvania.
Pavelko: You know Evan, the success of The Texas Tribune — the development of the business model that as you say is succeeding and you’re continuing to work on it — was an inspiration. The quality of the work that The Texas Tribune does plus the sustainability that you’ve demonstrated really gave my board and my staff and me the sense of confidence that we could move ahead with PA Post. The path that you forged, and are still forging, really made a difference to us. Now I just noticed that you’ve launched your, what you call your first strategic plan, from now through 2025. And let me just say that you don’t make any small plans. You’re going to double practically everything that you’re doing now. Have I got that right?
Smith: Yeah, you do. You know I think from the very beginning our idea — we’re all baseball fans here at The Texas Tribune, and our unofficial motto for this organization has been The Texas Tribune does not hit singles. That there’s no point really in doing this work unless you’re going to go big. And we have always had very ambitious goals far beyond what we or anybody else thought we were capable of. And you know with hard work and vision and I think a willingness to try things knowing that sometimes they may not work, we have been able to exceed expectations pretty consistently for nine years. And so we’re putting a marker in the ground here and saying we’re going to double our audience between now and 2025. We’re going to significantly increase our number of members. We’re going to really ramp up the revenue generation here to be able to invest in technology and other aspects of the business. From the very beginning it’s been innovation, it’s been disruption and it’s been collaboration at the center of everything we do. And again I hear the same thing. I mean, I’ve already spent some time on the PA Post site this morning, of course I’ve heard everything that you’ve said before today and today about what you intend to do and I think it’s very much in the same vein. Can’t do things the same way that we’ve always done them. Running in place is not option. You’ve got to work very closely with other news organizations, and I love the idea of you all creating what is essentially a distribution network for the best content of the other news organizations around the state, because you all are in this together. It’s hang separately or survive together from a media (standpoint).
Smith: And the reality is that the people of this state Texas, and of your state Pennsylvania, they care about what’s happening in other parts of the state. And they understand that they have a stake — people in Pittsburgh have a stake in what happens in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia pardon me, people in Philadelphia have a stake in what happens in York and in Harrisburg. You are connecting people with this organization and providing people with access to information. Low information voters tend to be bad citizens; they tend to be non-productive citizens. What we all need in all of our communities are more thoughtful, productive, and engaged citizens. Sounds to me like you’re on the way to getting that to be the case in Pennsylvania.
LaMar: Mr. Smith, you know, let’s face it. When Texas Tribune debuted in 2009, it was a much different media and political atmosphere than what we live in today. The media has come under a lot of criticism. We’ve been called a lot of things. So how important is it, and Kathleen I want to have you weigh in on this as well, Tim, you too. How important is it for a Texas Tribune for a PA Post. You just said that we’re all in this together. We’re not competing with one another out there, we’re collaborating to bring the best news and information, factual information, to the listeners, the readers, the news consumers out there. Talk about how that media landscape change has occurred over the last eight years, last nine years and why it’s so important.
Smith: Well, a decade ago when I came in to work every day, the default setting was, people out in the world trusted the work of the media. Today when I come in to work the default setting is people don’t trust the work of the media. That’s not specific to the Texas Tribune, it won’t be specific to PA Post, but generally speaking, confidence and faith in the media’s credibility has declined. Part of that is a cellphone — as my teenagers say, you know, we’ve created this problem for ourselves — but part of it is that the world has changed and people have exploited the opportunity to make us a villain or to make us a foil. And they’ve gone after the media broadly and given people reason to doubt whether the work that we do is fair, thorough and accurate. And that’s a mountain that we have to scale every single day. And I think the knowledge that you have to scale that mountain that you’re hitting that default every single day is helpful because it means you’ve got to work that much harder to ensure that everything you do is exactly right, is completely fair. That’s one big difference. I would just quickly add that another big difference is the technology landscape is changing so quickly. When we launched a little less than nine years ago there was no Instagram, there was no Snapchat, the first tablet had not been released by Apple. We thought we were on the cutting edge and it turns out we were in the Stone Age, all this stuff is moving so quickly that all of us in this business have got to try to move as quickly as we can to keep up with all those changes.
Pavelko: And Evan, to build on what you’ve said about the environment, there are ways to fight back on this. There are ways to re-establish trust. We think some of the ways are — include transparency. Transparency about who funds us. A lot of it is also what I call show your work. Tim leads a news team that on a quarterly regular basis does a story about how they did a story to explain the techniques that we use. If people don’t understand how we do what we do, they won’t necessarily trust the what of what we do.
Lambert: And we were part of the Trusting News project, which was a 12-week pilot program, and in fact I’ll be flying to Evan’s neck of the woods in Austin tomorrow to take part with some of our Trusting News partners to assess how we were able to achieve any goals or what we came up short with, in trying to explain our work and trying to explain what we may have missed or asking you for assistance and what perspective might be missing from a story. So we tried a lot of different tools to try to get our work out there and be transparent in how we do our job. So if people had an idea of how journalism actually works instead of just thinking that we sit around all day and make stories up. And that’s not how it works. I mean, it’s a lot of work. Katie Meyer is in Somerset County covering the dedication of the flight 93 Tower of Voices and she’ll be there for the commemoration event tomorrow. She was up until midnight last night getting her story just right so we could, so listeners could enjoy it this morning and learn about how those passengers and crew members are being honored.
LaMar: Let’s take a phone call—
Smith: I want to make one more point if I can, and that is that all news has been nationalized. There is no truly local news anymore because of the way that news is disseminated out in the world through 24-hour cable news and through social media. You know, people in Texas care about the Conner Lamb race every bit as much as people in Pennsylvania do. People in Texas care about the Bob Casey-Lou Barletta Senate race every bit as much as people in Pennsylvania. And so it’s that much more important to have a trusted, ambitious, aggressive, robust accountability journalism organization on the ground telling the stories of Pennsylvania because truly speaking to a much wider world. I just think that’s maybe one other additional difference between now and 10 years ago. I don’t know that was the case 10 years ago. It is absolutely a case today.
LaMar: Let’s take a call from Jim in Enola. Jim, you’re on the air.
Jim (caller): Hi Scott. Nice to talk to you, also my friends Tim and Kathleen. I think this is a wonderful idea and extremely needed right now. Unfortunately, as you all know, newspapers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are really in decline. It was just announced that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is not going to publish every day like the paper’s news did a while ago. Another point I want to make real quickly is, I think in the minds of the public there’s just not enough clarity as to what good objective media and what is bad biased media. To say it another way, there’s too many people out there who think the WITF is the same as say InfoWars, and that it’s just not true. And the other thing I want to say is that this kind of work just doesn’t come for free. I know you guys are not fund-raising, but people who care about this need to do like me and support WITF. Thanks for listening to me.
LaMar: All right, Jim, thank you very much for your call.
Pavelko: Yeah, look, quality journalism is maybe distributed free, but it isn’t free. It’s costly. And when you go to papost.org there’s a support button and we hope you’ll consider a one-time or a monthly contribution. There are all kinds of ways to connect with PA Post that I think every interaction is going to help you understand better the work that we do and trust it more. Starting next Monday we’re going to have a daily email newsletter. It’s called In Context, and if you go to papost.org right now you can sign up for it, so you’ll receive the very first edition next Monday. We have a newly re-configured weekly podcast — it’s called State of the State. That’s going to launch September 27th. So stay tuned for each new development as it goes along, and we hope that through a variety of events. None of them quite so large as the Texas festival, which is the Texas Tribune’s premier event, but lots of panel discussions and interactions. One of our signature events is called News and Brews, and I think you know what that means. It’s quite popular. Look, it’s an informal opportunity to interact with our reporters to talk about the issues of the day and to enjoy an adult beverage.
Lambert: And one of the things to remember too, I think we should make clear about PA Post, is that this is not going to be a daily website where you’re going to get the daily grind of stories that come out from the Capitol and come out from all the different parts of Pennsylvania. This is going to be a site where you’re going to have a main story hopefully once a day, that’s the goal. Deep dives over the course of, of several months, but also we’re going to, we’re going to highlight some of our partners’ work as well, but if you’re going to come to the site and expect to see something every day you know three or four hours there’s going to be something new, that’s just not what kind of site this is. We’re going to take a very nuanced look at issues affecting Pennsylvania. So we want to put the time and effort into those telling those stories and not have to rush through with those quick hits and, you know, go for clicks. We’re looking to, you know, create conversation around our work.
LaMar: Papost.org is the website and I’d encourage you if you haven’t already to go to papost.org, take a look, sign up for the newsletter, and so much good information, so much coming out of this. Kathleen Pavelko, WITF’s president and CEO, WITF’s multimedia news director and editor of PA Post Tim Lambert, Evan Smith president and founder of The Texas Tribune. I thank all of you for being here today.