Months after leaving ABC6, investigative reporter Jim Hummel was chatting about his future over lunch with public relations guru Dante Bellini. Plans to take up with WJAR's news team, long the ratings leader in the Providence market, had evaporated with the downturn in the economy. And Hummel was trying to figure out what was next. Something independent. Some sort of TV on the Web. But how to attract viewers?
"I left that lunch and 15 minutes later, I got a text from him -- 'I got it, call me,' " said Hummel.
Bellini's idea: a partnership with WPRO, the conservative talk radio station. It was, in a way, a natural fit. Hummel had worked as a fill-in host at the station for several years.
And for the reporter, who announced the launch of the non-profit Hummel Report last week, the tie to 'PRO promises a high-profile platform that has proved elusive for other nascent, web-based media ventures.
Hummel will promote his stories on the air every Thursday. Hosts may play audio from his pieces from time to time. And the full reports -- with video and audio -- will run on the 'PRO website and hummelreport.com.
But if the tie to talk radio has its advantages, it carries certain liabilities, too. The partnership with the right-leaning station inevitably raises questions about objectivity. And the link to Hummel's other major partner in the venture, conservative think tank Ocean State Policy Research Institute, is of even greater concern in the industry.
"I think that can be, at least [in terms of] perception, problematic," said Jim Taricani, a long-time investigative reporter at WJAR.
Hummel, who worked as a Providence Journal reporter before moving to television, said he will maintain complete editorial independence. "My pieces will speak for themselves," he said, "as they have for 30 years."
Industry types see they will watch his reports with interest. And not just for any political slant. The emerging non-profit model, they say, presents an opportunity for a different sort of reporting.
Hummel, known at ABC6 for his "You Paid For It" segment exposing government waste, has the opportunity to turn the relative freedom of a non-profit venture into in-depth government accountability reporting that goes beyond the state-worker-sleeping-on-the-job fare that drives standard television news.
"That would be a real service to the public," Taricani said.
Of course, the venture has to stay afloat if Hummel is to take it in any sort of interesting direction. He has seed funding from conservative businessman John Hazen White, Jr, but is looking for more backing.
Any other donors would fall into a three-tiered system, he said: larger corporate backers getting promotional consideration on WPRO, businesses making smaller tax-deductible gifts, and members of the Hummel Club -- viewers making donations as small as $2 per week who will get breaking news e-mails and insider scoops.
Hummel and Bill Felkner, founder and president of OSPRI, said several businesses have expressed interest in underwriting the venture.
But there are hurdles. Hummel said some business owners want to see the product in action before they donate. Others, Felkner said, have voiced concern that sponsorship of investigative reports could upset customers or complicate their dealings with local or state government.