There were no big plans, at the outset, to put Nesi on television. He was a blogger. But that changed as he churned out one insightful post after another on two big stories: the state's sweeping pension reform push and, later, the collapse of the taxpayer-backed 38 Studios video game company.
These were stories at the nexus of government and economics — Nesi's sweet spot. And he was breaking news and providing much-needed context: consulting nationally renowned economists and video game experts, and diving into the history and structure of state and local pension plans.
Nesi, 28, now makes appearances on the evening news. He's a regular panelist on Newsmakers, the weekend public affairs show hosted by White. And he has his own show, Executive Suite, interviewing local business leaders.
His on-air appearances bolster what station managers hope is a "virtuous circle," with television pointing to the blog pointing to social media and around again — screen to screen to screen.
Patrick Wholey, who took over as WPRI's general manager two months ago, invoked that circle repeatedly when I pressed him on whether an investment in on-line journalism — golocalprov's Dan McGowan will soon join Nesi as the station's second digital reporter — really makes sense for a company that still gets the vast majority of its revenue from on-air advertising.
"We don't necessarily see it as digital [on the one hand] and on-air [on the other]," he said. "We see it as multi-screen. It's producing original content, local content, for all of our screens."
With the web and television increasingly intertwined — WPRI's campaign-season debates began on television, included bonus questions on wpri.com, and inspired plenty of reaction on Twitter — it's nearly impossible to tease out the value of this or that investment.
How much has Nesi added to the station's brand? How much will McGowan, who seems less likely to be on television, contribute?
How much can any personality move the needle, for that matter, when long-standing viewing habits and the relative strength of the networks' prime time lineups — Chicago Fire is a better lead-in to the 11 pm news than Nashville — play such large roles in shaping the ratings?
It's hard to know.
But thus far, WPRI's bet on quality and innovation seems to be paying off. The station may trail its chief rival in the ratings — WJAR aired the four highest ranking local and national news broadcasts between 5 and 7 pm in November, according to Nielsen — but it has closed the gap significantly in recent years.
And with the news business in flux, there is an argument for investing in a web-based future while the station can still afford it.
"The great challenge for any evolving business is, will you spend money and try to develop opportunities before you absolutely have to?" says Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. "If you do, you can create a name, a brand, and market share before anybody else."
The competition is moving a bit more cautiously. Vic Vetters, general manager at WJAR, says the station will be unveiling a new website soon. But the emphasis will be on improved presentation of television's traditional strength — breaking news — and not in-depth reporting.