Long-form coverage of specific issues, otherwise known as investigative journalism, appears to be back in vogue among television stations across the country. However, Project Baltimore -- a new initiative from WBFF, Sinclair's Fox affiliate in Baltimore, Maryland -- is in the mindset of company management a groundbreaker for what any coverage of this nature can accomplish.
Project Baltimore is an ongoing investigation of public schools in the Baltimore area, a system now getting more than $1.3 billion per fiscal year from local and state sources. Despite that funding level -- among the highest per student in the nation -- Baltimore continues to suffer a high rate of student drop-outs, a low rate of graduation and declining student test scores from year to year, according to Sinclair Broadcast Group Vice President of News Scott Livingston. Under a team of seven journalists led by veteran reporter Chris Papst, Project Baltimore will have an ongoing presence on WBFF's nightly newscasts for the next year -- and likely beyond.
"People have wanted more in this city for kids for decades," Papst explains. "It's never happened. We want to expose why and be the mouthpiece for parents who want something better."
At the same time, Livingston and Papst want to separate WBFF from other local stations by breaking stories on issues like education in an ongoing, substantial way with context. "If it takes a couple of years to expose both the problems and the solutions here, that's what it will take," Livingston promises. "This is all about saving public education. If we don't, who will?"
Spotlight, last year's Academy Award-winning film dramatizing The Boston Globe's comprehensive, connect-the-dots inquiry into sexual abuse committed by leading members of the city's priesthood, serves as the reference point for Papst's team. Project Baltimore is unfolding its investigation on a topic-by-topic basis, starting with how the annual Maryland and Baltimore budgets for education are allocated. Five stories have run on WBFF so far, scheduled during its Monday and Wednesday 10 p.m. newscasts (the most-watched from week to week, according to Livingston). In the coming months, reports will scope out the state of school facilities, violence, the impact of unions, teacher pay and after-school programs.
Viewers are invited to respond at the end of each report by e-mail or calling a special hotline. The reports and reaction to them get additional exposure on WBFF's website.
While bringing incidents of wasteful spending or lack of resources to light, Papst and his colleagues will explore what does work inside the school system and tap the expertise of other Sinclair stations to see how (and if) Baltimore's issues are successfully handled elsewhere. "Let's see what's going on for hundreds of thousands of kids that are in Cleveland's schools, or San Antonio's schools," he proposes.
"I'm proud this will be a deep-dive effort into this subject," adds WBFF General Manager Bill Fanshawe. "This could end up being one of the best public service projects of the year anywhere, and we'll be there every step of the way." So far, Papst and his investigative team have not encountered roadblocks or red tape from local/state government officials or education management. "No one has denied access yet," he says. "People want to be on the right side of this subject, and everyone wants the situation to get better. This crisis is not happening because of one person, one incident or one anything. This is an institutional onion we're peeling."
Stage two of Project Baltimore -- a monthly primetime town hall meeting uniting teachers, school/city leadership and parents -- will begin next month. Each event will originate from a local school, church or public facility and get televised live. Sinclair is exploring the possibility of corporate sponsorship for these events. A social media outreach is also under consideration, as is exposure on Full Measure, the half-hour Sunday morning newsmagazine Sinclair distributes among members of its station group.
Whatever the results from Project Baltimore, count on other Sinclair stations to leverage long-form in this manner, sooner rather than later. "We could roll out something like this in every market," Livingston muses. "In this TV environment, you now have to offer viewers more context and relevance for their lives. You have to get bold."
Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of columns about various projects at Sinclair, the television industry's largest station owner.
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