Seattle once had a golden age of television news, particularly when KING was led by the Bullitt family and Ancil Payne, and when KOMO was owned by the Ken Fisher family. The PBS station, KCTS-9, also had an ambitious period when Mike Kirk was producing notable, national-bound documentaries, and the station had big ambitions.
(Disclosure: I was the founding editor/publisher of Crosscut in 2007, though I have had no connection at all with the nonprofit website since it joined KCTS in 2015).
KING and KOMO are today both conventional in their news coverage and part of national chains, Tegna and Sinclair respectively. By overreaching and racking up debt, KCTS went into a long hibernation, healing its finances and suspending local programming. That changed when Paula Reynolds became a strong board chair of KCTS in 2014. The dynamic Reynolds built a more ambitious board, eased out Moss Bresnahan as longtime executive director, acquired Crosscut.com at a fire sale, and hired a new CEO, Ron Dunlop from commercial television, KOMO.
However, Reynolds departed after one year, and the station experienced indigestion with its new expanded newsroom of Crosscut journalists. There were messy dismissals of some popular and controversial writers, as well as unionization of the combined KCTS and Crosscut organizations, known as Cascade Public Media. Now, there are signs of a new spurt of energy: handsome new headquarters on First Hill (to be occupied in January), the hiring of a new top editor, Ryan Famuliner from the respected University of Missouri journalism program and its stations. A natural question comes up: Has Cascade once again become ready to (re)launch?
When KCTS acquired Crosscut.com in 2015, there was strong KCTS board skepticism about the financial strain and concerns about the supposed benefits of the merger. Nor was it immediately clear what the station intended from its expansions (one of which was a quickly rebuffed overture to KPLU, an NPR radio station that became KNKX.) One KCTS goal was to cover the news again, after a long hiatus for getting out of an ambition-fueled debt. Another was to create more intellectual product to sell to underwriters and to produce documentaries that could be purchased nationally. Another goal was to create a diversified media company more appealing to young audiences. That would mean leveraging the combined resources of the website into short-form television features, podcasts, streaming, and events. The new facility will help, and its upgraded technical resources will make that array of products more feasible.
For a time, the tension between the “print” side of the company, particularly Crosscut as a news website, slowed the transition to feeding more material into documentaries and news programs on the broadcast side. Those Crosscut editors who resisted the “feeder” status have mostly departed, and more reporters have been hired who are comfortable with visual media. The new hire of Ryan Famuliner as digital director, replacing the unhappy Mark Baumgarten as managing editor, is an indication in those titles of the new multimedia direction. David Lee, also a filmmaker, is the top editor, and Donna Gordon Blankinship, formerly with the Seattle Times, is the news editor.
Cascade Public Media CEO Rob Dunlop says one of the big benefits of the new arrangement is the promotional success of Mossback (Knute Berger) as writer, lecturer, podcaster, short-form television producer, and personality. Dunlop admires that synergy and says he will soon apply the Mossback formula to other telegenic authors in food (Rachel Belle) and arts (Brangien Davis). Dunlop touts another new aspect: “In the past five years, we’ve expanded our slate of civic events and we see this new location as a way to grow the audiences for those events with easier access for a broader array of people.”
Cascade Public Media, recently rebranded as “Cascade PBS,” for years occupied the large building at the northeast corner of Seattle Center. The city government, which owns the land, wants to redevelop the site (maybe for arts, maybe for a hotel) and so booted out KCTS when the lease expired. KCTS, which had raised the money to improve the building (now too large for the station), got no money for selling the building and had to come up with the $23 million for purchasing its new location on Broadway, the former home of Childhaven.
The new four-story building at Alder and Broadway has been handsomely fitted out; it has underground parking and an empty top floor for future growth. A large open deck, the former playground, provides outdoor and party space, and the new building has a big room (250 seats) for community gatherings and collaborations, which will be a new direction for outreach and “community-led media.” The many desks in the new headquarters will be lightly used because many employees will work at home. It will house a newsroom of 34 (12 of whom do reporting).
As for the future direction of Cascade PBS, there will clearly be more mixed-media personalities and digital programs and community outreach. Crosscut now has a four-person investigative unit, and it plans to beef up governmental reporting. One of the built-in problems for the newsroom is retaining reporters who develop solid reputations and sources. David Kroman, once a must-read star, was hired for the transportation beat at the Seattle Times; the influential activist political writer, Katie Wilson, was cut when the station oddly eliminated opinion writing; and a popular environmental reporter, Hannah Weinberger, was originally dismissed, then reinstated on the investigative unit, and has since departed to work for the state Department of Transportation.
Those sudden cuts of five staffers earlier this year (of which three were rehired, and some went on to new jobs) distressed the staff and were part of the tensions that led to the departure of managing editor Baumgarten and the unionization of the newsroom by IBEW Local 46 and the Newspaper Guild. “A new agreement with IBEW became effective July 1, 2023 through June 30, 2028. An agreement with the Newspaper Guild is in effect for the period November 30, 2021 through September 30, 2024,” explains Rob Dunlop.
It’s not clear whether these changes will add up to a new focus and vitality for Cascade PBS. The newsroom is pulled in many directions — multiple media outlets, cultivating corporate donors, a media-light board of 19, and shifting diversity and funding priorities. Crosscut might have aspired to be a “second daily,” but it has become content to cede major stories to others and to focus on soft features and neglected topics. Nor have there been a revival of news-of-the-week panels, once a feature of the television station, and shake-things-up documentaries. Crosscut.com has an average monthly unique audience of 200,000, while the television station attracts 1.1 million monthly viewers, according to Dunlop.
In talking with editors David Lee and Ryan Famuliner, both imported from out-of-town media, I perceive an emphasis on serving the core audience and members/supporters and a desire for stories with positive “community impact” as opposed to “hard truths.” The 16-year-old Crosscut was acquired to shake up the famously siloed KCTS staff, but my view is that Crosscut has instead made a long forced march into the relatively timid mindset of public media. And further, that the original goal of goosing KCTS into a television channel of strong public impact has been lost in the maze of new media opportunities and priorities.
That said, I am impressed by the new 46,000-square-foot home (fully owned by Cascade), the size of the media company’s operation ($30 million annual budget for coming year, staff of 125), the scope of its signal (including Canada), and its ability to purchase the new building and to fit it out handsomely.
The company is all dressed up and ready (once again) to rumble. Stay tuned.