Friday, October 15, 2010

WBEZ: News Giant?

Posted By on 10.15.10 at 08:30 AM

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A couple of years ago some WBEZ staffers told me their station was missing a bet. They wanted to seize the day, I wrote, "responding to the crumbling of Chicago's newspapers by spending the money it would take to turn itself into the city's preeminent news source. 'That should be our mission,' says one staffer."

Today, possibly it is.

"Four leading public radio stations have been meeting frequently, forming an ad hoc 'alliance for public media,' and they’ve got big plans," media savant Ken Doctor said this week on his blog, Newsonomics. The stations are WBEZ, WNYC in New York, KPCC in Los Angeles, and Minnesota Public Radio in Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

"The largest notion," Doctor went on: "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."

Doctor said the alliance is being driven by Bill Kling, president and CEO of the American Public Media Group, "the parent of the L.A. and Twin Cities stations, as well as a major syndicator of public radio programming." Doctor observed, "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. [WBEZ would be at the high end.] 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."

You're asking, how could WBEZ possibly afford anything like this? Didn't it just pass the hat on the air again, asking for enough money not to let its current standards slide?

Kling thinks the money is there for the taking, and Doctor seems to agree with him. His blog post continued:

[Kling's] 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...

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.

After reading Doctor, I called WBEZ. Nobody there got back to me, but instead, general manager Torey Malatia sent an e-mail to his staff. He filled them in on Kling's idea, said he's talked to Kling about it, and called it "perhaps a pipedream, but a great idea nonetheless." But he wondered where the money would come from, and he said 100 new reporters shouldn't be taken literally: it's Kling's way of making the point that he's promoting a big idea, a transformational idea, an idea that would cost a ton of money. So the WBEZ staff should think of 100 more reporters as being about "individualized, meaningful community service, not a hiring binge for its own sake."

It sounds to me as if Kling is proposing a hiring binge for the sake of amazing local journalism. But Malatia didn't say no.

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