CONCORD, N.H. — Bill Binnie and his team won’t name names, but they’ve heard from several potential presidential candidates curious about what’s happening inside a converted brick schoolhouse in the middle of New Hampshire’s capital city.
Here’s the answer: Binnie, a successful investment banker and failed US Senate candidate, has turned a former elementary school into the headquarters of a multiplatform media operation called NH1. An evening newscast launched this week, and a website is on the way. By the end of the year, seven of Binnie Media’s radio stations will also broadcast from inside the building, a configuration that has the potential to change New Hampshire’s news landscape just in time for the 2016 primary.
“You’ll be able to walk down this hallway, if you’re a politician, and you’ll be able to talk to the entire state,” Binnie said one recent afternoon. “Anyone who wants to be president of the United States will walk into this building. You’re going to come here because of our incredible media footprint.”
At a time when most newsrooms are shrinking, Binnie Media is doing the opposite, doubling staff to 120 in the past year and recruiting top journalists like former CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser and veteran political reporter Kevin Landrigan, who was laid off when The Telegraph of Nashua closed its New Hampshire State House bureau earlier this year. Binnie has also attracted a number of other seasoned journalists from cash-strapped local papers.
To pay for the operation, Binnie Media is gambling that political candidates will bring their money as well as their campaign messages to NH1. Executive vice president Lee Kinberg won’t say exactly how much the company expects to make from political advertising, but the revenue potential is high.
“Look no further than what some of our competitors have been able to accomplish,” he said.
Manchester-based WMUR, the only network-affiliated TV station in the state, receives significant income from political advertising. In 2012, for instance, candidates from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont bought ad time, as did a number of political action committees. Presidential candidates also spent big. According to Federal Communications Commission documents, President Obama’s campaign spent $1.3 million on 1,116 ad spots on WMUR between Oct. 1, 2012, and Election Day.
Although the 2016 primary is many months away, some political money is already landing in NH1’s coffers — even before the new news programming began. FCC files show that US Senator Jeanne Shaheen and her challenger, Scott Brown, have both purchased ad time, and Americans for Prosperity has spent about $41,000 since early August. Also on the list of customers: Massachusetts treasurer candidate Deborah Goldberg.
Money and an experienced corps of local reporters could help NH1 build an audience, but Dean Spiliotes, a civic scholar at Southern New Hampshire University, said it’s hard to persuade people to change their media habits. Still, he said, Binnie’s investment has the potential to be a “game changer” if it succeeds.
“What’s going to be the editorial voice? Is it something that’s going to appeal to people in New Hampshire?” he said. “They’re saying all the right things. They seem to have the resources to do it. It’s going to take a while to see if it becomes part of people’s viewing.”
Spiliotes lives near Binnie Media’s new headquarters. and, like many people in New Hampshire, he’s watched the construction with interest. Binnie bought the old Walker School building from the Concord School District for $900,000 in 2012 and soon began renovations.
“It has all these idiosyncrasies,” said Binnie. “To put in these modern studios was a real challenge.”
Work crews spent months installing structural reinforcements, stringing miles of wire above the ceiling tiles and raising dozens of door handles that had been placed low enough for elementary school students to reach. The old auditorium houses the TV studio. Soundproof radio studios stand where classrooms used to be. What was once the kindergarten is now the “dogbone,” a knot of desks where the editorial team produces stories for radio, TV, and the Web.
It’s a far cry from the first incarnation of Binnie Media, one that was built around an unaffiliated TV station in Derry, that Binnie bought in 2011 and renamed WBIN. A few local reporters filed nightly dispatches, but those newscasts stopped more than a year ago.
The new NH1 went live Monday evening with blue and green graphics, an overview of the Brown-Shaheen Senate race, and the first in a series of stories about the effects of a year-old law legalizing medical marijuana in New Hampshire.
Preparing for that first show was a process that started many weeks before. On one August afternoon, the staff hustled to prepare for a practice session, adjusting neckties and fiddling with software as Binnie politely shooed a work crew out of the studio. The vibe was part techy startup, part theater troupe on opening night.
“It’s a great energy here,” news director Robb Atkinson said after ducking into a control room to make sure everything was working as planned.
Helping seasoned journalists learn new roles is challenging, but modern technology has made Atkinson’s job easier. While existing news organizations must adjust clunky software and outdated production routines for a digital world, NH1 is equipped entirely with equipment designed for modern communications.
“It would be very difficult for a station that’s been doing business for 50 years to replicate what we’re doing unless it knocked down the building and started over,” Atkinson said.