Seattle’s shrinking local media will be stretched even thinner in the new year, after several local media firms announced consolidations, layoffs, and contractions that will leave fewer reporters to cover the growing city. Crosscut, whose editors and news reporters are all white men, says the move will improve its “diversity of voices,” but neither entity has plans to add any full-time reporting staff.
Last week, after KUOW announced that it was absorbing KPLU and the Stranger revealed that Seattle Weekly plans to lay off most of its editorial staff, Crosscut, the eight-year-old local news site, announced it would be absorbed by KCTS, the local PBS affiliate. Although technically a merger, the move means Crosscut will be “under the umbrella” of the larger TV station, as the official announcement put it, and will dissolve its governing board of directors and give up its independent nonprofit status. Contributions to Crosscut will still go to Crosscut, but the joint venture, to be called Cascade Public Media, will be headed by KCTS CEO Robert Dunlop and be accountable to KCTS’ board.
Crosscut and KCTS have taken pains to sell the merger as a mutual win, saying it will give Crosscut’s journalists access to KCTS’ resources and “expertise” and allow them to do more in-depth journalism and video production. In announcing the move, Crosscut trotted out a parade of former editors and publishers, including founder David Brewster, who issued the following curiously worded statement: “Synergy, news across multiple platforms, a broader funding base, shared traditions of media in the public interest…. What’s not to love?” Brewster continued: “That Crosscut is teaming up with KCTS, long a prime media asset in the Northwest, makes a huge amount of sense for both organizations. It bodes well for a stronger, stabler future for local journalism.”
Does it? Crosscut editor Greg Hanscom, who just took the reins earlier this year, acknowledges that Crosscut will “definitely be the junior of the two” partners, but says the new joint venture will give Crosscut access to more digital and video resources and, importantly, money. “The thing the merger does is, suddenly we have all these resources at our disposal for building this business model that we’ve started,” Hanscom says.
Crosscut has a tumultuous financial history, and the merger reignited questions about whether the organization (which former Weekly publisher David Brewster founded as a for-profit company in 2007 before restructuring it as a nonprofit one year later when ad revenues fell short of expectations) was financially viable. Although both KCTS and Crosscut declined to answer questions about Crosscut’s solvency, Hanscom says the joint venture allows Crosscut to turn into a “professional media organization that pays real salaries and offers real benefits and pays freelance writers what they’re worth. To do that, we’re going to need about twice the money that we currently have.” KCTS certainly has the money–in 2014, the station had nearly half a million dollars in profits–but its commitment to local journalism is far less clear.
Both KCTS and Crosscut have emphasized that the merger will improve local reporting and require “no layoffs”; in fact, Hanscom says, Crosscut will now be able to double its freelance budget (historically, many of Crosscut’s writers have been unpaid) and bring one social media producer to full-time status. In its own statement about the merger, KCTS said “local journalism and content are getting a much needed boost” from the absorption of Crosscut into the established public television company. “A Good Day for Local Journalism,” the announcement proclaimed.
However, that sunny spin ignores the fact that KCTS already laid off almost all of its editorial production staff back in May, in a bloodletting that Joel Connelly called the “Thursday Night Massacre.” The layoffs were part of a shift at KCTS toward national PBS programming like PBS NewsHour and Masterpiece Classic, supplemented by reports from freelance writers and photographers. One victim of the cuts was KCTS’ short-lived weekly public affairs program, “In Close,” on which KUOW producer Deborah Wang and a panel of local pundits discussed the news of the week.
I sent KCTS communications director Hilda Cullen, who preferred to communicate by email, a list of seven questions about the merger. Cullen provided brief answers to two of them, including one about the role of freelance reporters and production staff at the station, and referred the rest to Hanscom. In her responses, Cullen confirmed that “KCTS 9 contracts with freelance multi-media journalists to create content for KCTS 9 and KCTS9.org,” and said KCTS does have “personnel on staff who create original content.”
However, she would not provide a list of current staff, saying only, “we don’t publish our staff list,” and did not respond to a request for further information about why a public TV station keeps its staff list secret.
Hanscom was much more expansive. He told me most of the conversations Crosscut has had with KCTS over the last two months have been “about ‘Can Crosscut still be Crosscut even if we join forces?'” Answering his own rhetorical question, Hanscom says, “I will not claim it’s free from risks,” but “I feel really good, honestly, that KCTS and Crosscut are going to be able to do their own things. I’ve got a lot of assurances from Rob Dunlop that we will remain editorially independent.”
One final issue I wanted to ask both Hanscom and Cullen about was diversity. Although Cullen did not respond to my question, “Will any efforts be made to improve the gender or racial diversity of editorial staffing at either Crosscut or KCTS?,” Hanscom (who, like all the full-time editorial staff at Crosscut, is a white man) did. Hanscom was reportedly hired, in part, to bring more diverse voices to Crosscut, and he said he hopes to do that by bringing on a broader cast of freelancers and, potentially, reporters (although neither Crosscut nor KCTS has any plans to add full-time reporters to the staff of the new joint venture), and by partnering with other publications with more diverse staffs, such as the South Seattle Emerald and the International Examiner.
“There’s no denying that the old white dude factor is a little glaring around here,” Hanscom says. “What I can say there is that we already have really shifted our attention to diversifying the voices that are in Crosscut. If you were to pick back through the last four months with a fine-tooth comb you would find more women and people of color like Samantha Larson, Ana Sophia Knauf, and Reagan Jackson.” They’re also doing a year-long series about race, Hanscom says, featuring voices like Raymond Fenton, a former Crosscut intern who heads up the Black Student Union at Lewis and Clark University. As for gender diversity, Hanscom says, “We’ve been limited on that front because our freelance budget has been limited and our staff is mostly male, but I think that if you look at the little freelance money that we have had to dole out, much of that has gone to women.” With that freelance budget set to quadruple, he adds, readers should expect to see more diverse voices represented on the site.
I’ll reserve judgment on that claim until the new regime has been in place a few months, but I will note that “greater diversity” is the kind of feel-good goal media companies often adopt then abandon when it proves more difficult than issuing an aspirational mission statement. For now, it’s worth noting that of 24 stories currently on Crosscut’s politics page, 23 are written by white men.