Public Radio Quickly Emerging as New Local Player
Important Details: The Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) is an above-average news market. It ranks highly in measures such as regular internet access, college graduates and high-income households. It boasts two metropolitan dailies, a rarity across the country.
Now it’s quickly becoming an American testbed for new journalism models, as those dailies, one (the Star Tribune) just emerging from bankruptcy, continue to slim down in staff. Over the summer, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) — the largest regional public radio news operation with 70 full-time staffers — launched its own competitive foray into regional and local news, MPR News Q. MPR’s sites are now growing rapidly, running at a monthly rate of about 4.3 million page views and 180,000 unique users a month. The new MPR news site — separated online from the traditional radio program guide — is the area’s newest entrant, following MinnPost, which was launched two years ago by former Twin Cities print journalists. It, too, has grown significantly to about 800,000 monthly page views and more than 200,000 unique users.
Against that backdrop, MPR hosted a Future of the News Summit in Saint Paul last week. The ambitious goal: to explore and begin to map out a prominent position across the U.S. for public radio in filling a perceived news vacuum, one engendered by the reduction of the American daily newsroom workforce by at least 20% since 2007.
“Everything you’d need to start an alternative media company, we’ve got,” Bill Kling told me. Kling is the CEO of the American Public Media Group, which is the parent of MPR, and he holds a powerful position in U.S. public broadcasting through his organization’s programming and syndication business. He itemized the organizational strengths and backbone it could provide to a network of news-building public radio stations: technology, company infrastructure, funding apparatus and more. “What’s missing is the leadership.” he added.
Kling used the Monday summit to take his case public. We can see, already, a number of steps toward public radio — national and local — emerging as a more important (and competitive) online news players.
At least four initiatives are worth noting:
- National Public Radio is a beehive of online activity. In July, it relaunched its npr.org site, under the team of new CEO Vivian Schiller, former general manager of New York Times Digital, and Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president and general manager of Digital Media and former editor of USA Today. They are now taking steps to create a national network between and among NPR and its more than 300 member stations overall. A key part of the new NPR agenda: the platform to power a network, including a common content repository, built on a single taxonomy.
- NPR recently announced a $3 million fund to hire “blogger/curators” in 12 cities.
- MPR itself received a $5 million grant – to be matched over time – to strengthen its own news operations, building toward a new $10 million endowment.
- A Local Journalism Center program will be announced soon by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (a major funder of public radio), using another $5 million in funding to allow for the creation of four or five regional, multi-state centers, with a handful of staffers each. The goal: to help local public radio stations do better origination, editing and sharing of stories of regional concern, both on air and online.
Implications: Michael Sweeney, the new chair of a new post-bankruptcy Star Tribune board, participated in the news summit. He made clear his objection to a partially taxpayer-funded operation, Minnesota Public Radio, competing with private news enterprise. While Outsell sees his point, it seems that question was settled long ago, as National Public Radio and most local stations have been getting government grants for decades. It’s the Media Public Option, not that different from the Healthcare Public Option that’s now so contentiously under debate in Congress.
Of course the Star Tribune, itself forced to layoff another 100 employees recently to try to find sustainable profitability, sees MPR as competitive. It’s curious. MPR is competitive for news consumers, listeners and now readers online. It doesn’t compete much for advertising, however, as it seeks “sponsorship” funds; inevitably marketers have to make choices.
Outsell believes that in this unexpectedly hyper-competitive news environment, the Star Tribune (and its cross-metro newspaper competitor the St. Paul Pioneer Press) could take a page from what’s happening in other cities as the Seattle Times, Miam Herald, and Charlotte Observer figure out how to work with other emerging local media. Aggregation is one play for the dailies, but certainly the ability to sell networked advertising, to facilitate revenue-multiplying distribution and syndication — to be the profitable big brother — is one possible strategy.
It’s no accident that so many print journalists either thrown out of work, or persuaded to try something new by the daily industry’s instability, are setting up what can be seen as competitive shops. “Beating them” is one strategy; getting them to join in a larger win-win scenario may make more sense for everyone — including the readers.