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February 19, 2018

"Public Media" $100 Million Plan: 100 Journalists Per City

We’ve seen lots of motion in the public radio world over the last year. We’ve seen 12 topical sites prominently launched in major cities, under the rubric of Project Argo. We’ve seen National Public Radio building out a state-of-the-art internal wire (the NPR API), facilitating the sharing of national, global and local stories among public radio stations. We’ve seen the Corporation for Public Broadcasting fund various new initiatives, including the Local Journalism Centers, aimed at improving regional issues reporting. We’ve seen Boston’s WBUR, the Bay Area’s KQED, the Twin Cities’s MPRNews.org and L.A.’s KPCC all launch standalone news sites over the last year, moving beyond the programming brochure look that has long characterized public radio on the web.

All that, though, may be prologue. Four leading public radio stations have been meeting frequently, forming an ad hoc “alliance for public media,” and they’ve got big plans.

The largest notion: Expand regional “public media” news operations to 100 reporters and editors per market in four to six markets — and soon. That’s “public radio” grown into “public media”, meaning that these news operations would be digital-first, text-heavy and video-ready, while porting over the audio from radio. In other words, not re-purposed “radio” news, but the kind of standalone, multi-platform news operations we’re starting to see, as with TBD in Washington, D.C.

The initial four stations involved in the alliance planning are WNYC in New York, WBEZ in Chicago, KPCC in Los Angeles and Minnesota Public Radio, in the Twin Cities, says Bill Kling, current (and now retiring, “MPR’s Bill Kling Steps Down — and Up — From Public Radio“) president and CEO of the American Public Media Group (APMG), the parent of the L.A. and Twin Cities stations, as well as a major syndicator of public radio programming.

One hundred “public media” reporters and editors in a market is a huge increase. Among those four stations, the news staff now ranges from 12 to 30 each. It’s tough to count precisely because these are legacy radio operations, and radio requires different job descriptions than digital news. Still, at those numbers, the alliance members are aiming at adding more than 300 reporters and editors in four markets, if the plans succeed. Kling says the positions created “would be a very good job for people who love journalism,” in the six figures with full benefits.

Kling and his colleagues are strategizing their plans and foundation asks — and his hope is that funding can be locked down by next June, when he formally steps from his APMG post. He says his post-retirement plan is to focus on the building out of public media. If it is, hiring could commence by mid-2011.

How much funding?

The plan will cost about $5 million per market per year, says Kling, or $25 million for a five-year funding plan, which is what the group aims to obtain. So that’s $100 million if four markets can be launched; $150 million, it it’s six markets. After the first four markets, Kling says, “we’d go on to five, six, seven, eight.”

Isn’t that a lot of money to raise?

“It’s a wing of an art museum, or maybe half a wing,” says Kling, who has plied the foundation trade for a long time, and knows its byways well. He’s not being flippant. We’ve seen the foundation community, led by the Knight Foundation, but also joined by numerous others, putting money into journalism. The art museum analogy is a useful one. MinnPost’s Joel Kramer first made the point well a couple of years ago: substantial local journalism may no longer be solely a creature of the market; it’s a “public good,” like art, or education, or public health. So maybe foundation investments may be formed around a wing….and a prayer. The prayer: In year six, they’ll be sufficient non-foundation funding to sustain these enterprise.

“Anyone who bets against Bill Kling should think twice,” Alberto Ibarguen, CEO of the Knight Foundation, told me. “He’s a great positive force in American journalism. He’s passionate, but he’s a realist. He’s made a career of being able to find spaces where other people haven’t found them.” But, will Knight, a leader in re-juicing journalism, fund the alliance? “I’m always interested in what Bill Kling is thinking,” says Ibarguen, who adds that the biggest question facing the venture is — no surprise — sustainability and viability. He notes, though, the great change in public — and funder — perception. “If you’d done this five years ago, I’d have said, ‘no’. Now, Americans are far more aware of the [news] crisis.”

Kling believes that sustainable funding is no mystery. It’s more of the same, building substantially on the business model that has built public radio overall to more than 27 million listeners a week, up 50% over a decade.

Just as newspapers have been supported by the two-legged business model of advertising and circulation, public radio has been supported by membership and underwriting, which, if you think about it, are just different ways of defining circulation and advertising.

Kling believes that growth in membership and underwriting will be driven two ways. First, superior local news products will grow audiences and loyalty, essentially offering a better value proposition for membership — and higher-rate membership and underwriting. Second, he believes “public media” can build on the best practices of public radio fundraising.

“According to our internal analysis, if the top 25 markets all raised [funds] at the same rate as the top performer, they’d raise $410 million a year more — or enough to pay for 160 reporters in each of those cities,” says Kling. Of course, that top performer is Kling’s Minnesota Public Radio, and the statement shows you a lot about the aggressiveness of Kling and the alliance push. No longer is it enough to be a feel-good, public radio station offering a little jazz, a little news and community bulletin boards; the public news emergency demands a sophisticated business-like response to the times.

That aggressiveness, of course, has created some rough relationships over the years in public radio. In the alphabet soup of NPR, APM, CPB, PRX, PRI and more, the push and pull has slowed or defeated plans of public radio stations to work and play well together. Now, though, my conversations with many people in public radio indicate that the stars are aligning better than they have before. There is certainly still trepidation about NPR’s national role — and whether it could take listeners away from stations by directly streaming programs like All Things Considered or Morning Edition — and there’s the big station/little station suspicions, but overall things are better than they used to be.

Kling, who has been something of a lightning rod for controversy, while acting as a pioneer in the business, takes pains to say that his relationship with National Public Radio hasn’t been better. “Vivian Schiller is a fabulous leader,” he says of the new NPR president, who along with Digital Media G.M Kinsey Wilson (former USA Today editor-in-chief), has set the organization on a different trajectory, since signing on in January, 2009.

So why public media-nee-public radio? Why now? Kling recognizes the great dimunition in local reporting strength, both in his home Twin Cities, where both dailies have been through bankruptcy and cutback, and nationally. (Check out Kling’s presentation at the Aspen Institute on the topic, here.)

“Just like every great city wants a great football team or a great symphony, every city should have a great public media company,” he says. He says he’s supportive of the NPR and CPB initiatives, but “I’m concerned about incrementalism.” He’s never been accused of thinking small, and this initiative is no different.

For a radio guy, he talks the language of print newsies, talking about the need to shelter news operations from commercial and powerful interests: “They need a heat shield to protect them.” In part, that’s why he emphasizes “structure” in talking about how to get the alliance off the ground. His own APM stations, and both WBEZ and WNYC, have independent boards; many other public radio stations still are governed by colleges or other entities; Kling believes that inhibits their ability to assume their needed local news roles.

So Kling is aiming to “lift people’s sights to what we can do.”

Should the alliance effort succeed , it will transform how we think about local journalism and its possibility. It will raise lots of questions, among them how and where public media fit with the older, publicly oriented media — newspapers. Among those first questions are these:

  • Will a big local public media presence be competition for dailies and/or the basis for new kinds of partnership?
  • If 100 is a target number in Chicago and L.A., what’s a good number for Austin, Albany  and Albuquerque, and where will the money come from to jumpstart journalism in those midsized markets?
  • Where does public TV fit here, as we see tectonic movement beginning there as well, with this week’s announcement that L.A. KCET is bidding adieu to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS)?
  • How will these plays affect the burgeoning Bay Citizen/Texas Tribune/MinnPost/Voice of San Diego/Chicago News Cooperative ventures? Can they work cooperatively with these stations, something that hasn’t worked out in the Twin Cities, for instance?
  • Where’s the New York Times connection, as that national/global news entity looks for new ways to get local?
  • And, what’s the going-forward relationship with National Public Radio, itself in re-invention? If NPR and a growing alliance of the most independent  (WNYC and WBEZ both are major players, given their national programming, and have chafed at NPR power over the years) public radio stations can find increasingly common ground, costs can be reduced and content offerings to audiences enlarged. If old battles are replayed, those advantages would be squandered. Another way to ask the question: Can leadership come both out of D.C. and out of the top markets?

Those are just tip-of-the-iceberg questions, as this new ship of journalism is designed in drydock.

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