When Will Comcast Demand Our Firstborn?

The NBC 10/WHYY partnership is great for the cable giant. For Philly, not so much.

NBC 10 anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah delivered the news with the biggest TV smile in her arsenal. “We have an exciting new partnership to tell you about. NBC 10 is teaming up with WHYY public radio and its community website Newsworks.” Anchor Dawn Timmeney sat next to Renee smiling and nodding in agreement as she continued. “It’s all in an effort to create innovative ways of gathering and reporting the news.”

Anything can be made to sound positive when delivered by two smiling news women from a nice bright, shiny news desk. But this new alliance between NBC 10 and Newsworks is fraught with real concerns on both sides of the partnership.

Lets start with NBC 10, which is owned and operated by NBC, which was recently swallowed up by Philadelphia-based cable giant Comcast. Before the takeover, NBC cut its 10 TV stations to the bone, including NBC 10 in Philly, to get them ready for market. Comcast has re-invested in the stations, but the staff is still not back to its pre-takeover level.

The New York Times sees the partnerships between NBC stations and nonprofit news-gathering operations as a way to make up for the shortfall. In a December 6th piece called “For Local NBC Stations, Collaborative Journalism,” Brian Stelter wrote, “The partnerships will in some cases allow the stations to cover more news and conduct more investigations without adding more staff directly.”

So Comcast may have found an “innovative” way of getting a nonprofit company to do the work that it would normally have to pay a union member to do. Most NBC 10 news employees are covered by the unions AFTRA, IBEW or IATSE.

NBC is paying for the services of WHYY and Newsworks with a donation. How much? That has not been disclosed. The Newsworks website, “in the interest of transparency,” has a “How we’re funded” page, but the site does not list the NBC contribution yet.

Most of the funding to Newsworks and WHYY comes from private contributions, but some comes from the government. Do those private contributors have a problem with funding the news coverage for an NBC station? Should taxpayers be helping Comcast keep expenses low by sourcing out work to nonprofits?

WHYY, and now Newsworks, has always operated as an independent voice in a media world dominated by corporate interests. While WHYY does receive corporate donations, it has never been in a “partnership” with a media conglomerate to “gather and deliver the news.” How much influence will Comcast and/or NBC 10 now have on what Newsworks covers? On the most basic level, can WHYY and Newsworks now be trusted to report on Philadelphia’s largest company?

WHHY president and CEO Bill Marrazzo recently boasted, “We just don’t compromise or negotiate on the presentation of our journalistic integrity. We allow our reporters to make those decisions, not our funders.”

Now Marrazzo not only has a “funder,” but a “news-gathering partner.” And it’s Comcast, for crying out loud. It could be argued that just by entering into this relationship, Marrazzo has already made a small compromise. It will be up to him to make certain it is not a bigger one.