Mike Fancher / Times executive editor
Investigative team already had its eye on troubles at KCTS
KCTS-TV: Who needs it?
Seattle Times TV critic Kay McFadden posed the provocative question in a 1999 column. She wrote, "That's what Northwest viewers may be wondering these days as Seattle's public-television station lurches toward local self-obliteration."
McFadden asserted that KCTS was providing less public-affairs coverage than the commercial stations in Seattle were. "And these days, most of them do it better."
The question came to mind late last year when The Times started receiving anonymous complaints from former employees and people inside KCTS. They asked us to investigate the way the station was run by its president, Burnill "Burnie" Clark, and oversight by its board.
The Times assigned McFadden and investigative reporter Cheryl Phillips to probe the situation. They had written a story for today's newspaper, which said:
"Under the longtime leadership of Burnill Clark, KCTS has abandoned or starved its local productions, defaulting on its mandate. The station has piled up millions in operating deficits and cannot pay its bills. It owes $229,000 in rent to the city of Seattle, $2.8 million in back dues to the Public Broadcasting system, and its cash deficit tops $1.2 million.
"Much of the blame, according to employees, former executives and the station's own paid consultants, lies with Clark, who runs the public entity like a private fiefdom. They say the 62-year-old KCTS president, who makes $268,000 a year, does not tolerate opposing opinions and dominates a weak board of directors."
But on Thursday, Clark abruptly announced he is retiring after 16 years at the station's helm. He also said the station would scale back production of national shows and would lay off up to 25 percent of its staff, about 35 jobs.
So, The Times published much of its investigation on Friday. Today we offer strategies that have worked elsewhere and that could help KCTS move forward.
Friday's report was a tough story to get. "The amount of obfuscation and secrecy from a public-television station was absolutely jaw-dropping," McFadden said.
"KCTS resisted us at nearly every step in obtaining financial information. CEO Burnie Clark even sent a memo to the board and advisory panel reminding members that 'KCTS policy' was to refer press inquiries to his publicist."
The Times goes after a story like this knowing it must be thorough and precise, which is one reason we paired the television expert, McFadden, with an investigative expert, Phillips.
"We can't expect each reporter to be a utility infielder, pitcher, manager and home-run hitter," explained editor James Neff, who heads what we call the spotlight investigative team and who oversaw this investigation.
Phillips said the story was complex because it dealt with many years of finances. "That led us to confer with several experts from the accounting, nonprofits and television industries. That guidance was critical to making sure we analyzed KCTS documents accurately.
"Kay brought a deep knowledge of the television world to this project, which helped immensely. She also has developed strong sources within the industry and was able to put KCTS' woes in context as well as help examine how the station's programming compared to public stations elsewhere," she added.
Given the demands of her role as TV critic, McFadden concedes this story was beyond her reach when she first posed the "who needs" question. "What I didn't have at first was the time and skills to take on the story alone. That had to wait for the creation of our spotlight investigative team and the availability of the amazingly dogged Cheryl Phillips.
"Cheryl has a vast knowledge of investigative techniques, ranging from where to find stuff to how to get sources to talk. She also is a whiz at reading spreadsheets and other financial information."
"I just knew about TV: how the deal-making works, what good programs are supposed to look like, and the specific history of public television from past to present."
McFadden added, "Temperamentally, we're completely different. She has the patient, nit-picking eye for detail; I'm the one with all the impassioned opinion. This actually makes for a very good balance."
Neff called them "your classic salt-and-pepper team." He added that he thinks the collaborative investigative technique "is working really wonderfully."
Both reporters praised those inside KCTS who brought the concerns to light. "Readers should know that the honorable role of whistle-blower is alive and well. Had some of our sources not had the courage to come forward, this story wouldn't have been as good," McFadden said.
Kudos, too, to the Seattle Weekly for its reporting on the topic. Since the initial whistle-blowing, Weekly reporter Nina Shapiro has written several stories about the station's financial and leadership problems.
The Weekly's stories and our investigation are examples of the role of the press as independent watchdog. Our guidelines to staff members say, "Hold those with power accountable and call readers to action. Look for stories that compel readers and community leaders to act. Challenge authority. Give voice to the powerless. Right wrongs."
Which brings us back to McFadden's original question from 1999. Who needs KCTS? Why should readers care about this story?
Philips responded, "KCTS receives about $10 million a year in individual contributions. Many of its 129,000 subscribers give because they believe in the promise of public television and what it can give to a community. These are not all wealthy people; a $40 individual pledge or a $70 family pledge is a significant gift for some.
"In addition, KCTS receives federal tax money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. When the station is mismanaged, that tax money and those public gifts are wasted and the entire community is the poorer."
McFadden added, "Beyond the fiscal interest, though, people here should have a public-television station that does them proud. KCTS in its present state is a meager, feeble reflection of this region's cultural and civic life."
We all need KCTS.
Inside the Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to email@example.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists