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The Star Tribune Hears a Who

Saving journalism wonkfestapaloozas are bumping up against each other in our calendars. Can’t attend each and every one?; take in its webcast, live or archived! As Salon CEO Richard Gingras has sagely suggested: "The future of news is a future of conferences about the future of news".

Minnesota Public Radio’s version – The Future of News – took place Monday.  For those of us with printer’s ink still draining from our systems, it offered something a bit different, a peek into a parallel medium – public radio – as it struggles to define its future in a digital world. If you pricked up your ears Monday, you could hear some new answers to the question of who might pick up the lost local reporting slack.

The session featured an uncommon level of head-to-head competitive spirit, and that’s welcome. Better to have real arguments in the room, rather than at the wine-and-cheese reception.

The competitive quote of the day: “Over time, MPR will be the Star Tribune’s number one competitor,” said Mike Sweeney, the board chairman of the paper, who’s been in that position for a couple of months.

Sweeney – a newspaper newbie plucked by the post-bankruptcy, lenders-turned-owners of the Star Tribune -- is the managing partner of the Minneapolis private equity firm of Goldner Hawn Johnson & Morrison. He'd  already laid down the gauntlet in his own pages (convenient to own a press), the morning of the conference, early on creating a bit of frisson in the room.

In print, he’d said: "MPR is making a blatant land grab by calling into question the viability of existing news organizations in Minnesota....The fact that they're funded with government money and are now trying to extend their reach is, I think, beyond the pale," Sweeney said.

There it was, a good local case history, illuminating much of the abstract discussion about the future of the trade, a debate that’s raged all year.

Profit. Non-profit. Advertising models. Membership models. Government support. Market-driven news.

Some participants had joked about how MPR was putting on a self-serving conference, one that asked the question about the future of news and came pre-equipped with the two-word answer: Public Radio. Not untrue, but the conference managed to bring not only Sweeney and Strib editor Nancy Barnes into the room and onto panels. It is also brought in Joel Kramer, publisher of MinnPost (as well as Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis), knowing that Kramer might be (and was) vocal about MPR’s unwillingness to partner with MinnPost.

If Sweeney came concerned, he might have left more worried.  Yes, Public Radio’s legacy business is radio, and, more recently, audio, via podcast and streaming. What Sweeney heard, though, was a larger Who, public radio’s nascent attempts to assert itself as a major online (and then presumably mobile) news player throughout the country.

Tuesday, MPR head Bill Kling  – who’s created the gold standard for public radio news in Minnesota (and re-built Southern California’s KPCC in a similar fashion over the last decade) – followed up the conference by pitching major funder Corporation for Public Broadcasting on his wider vision.

Everything you'd need to start an alternative media company, we've got," he told me, ticking off technology, company infrastructure, funding apparatus and more.  "What's missing is the leadership," he added summing up his ambitions to fill the vacuum left be cratering dailies. Bill Kling has never lacked ambition and his ambitious message to the CPB: it's now time to shape up and shore up the wide range of public radio outlets around the country and push them into the news business.  

A few of those stations are big players, driving lots of new content production and community involvement. Many, though, are simply conduits for NPR and American Public Media (the parent of Minnesota Public Radio and L.A.'s KPCC, and a creator of business program Marketplace, and other shows) programming.

Kling’s push is more than talk. Consider just three emerging news initiatives coming out of public radio:

  •  NPR recently announced a $3M (CPB and the increasingly ubiquitous Knight Foundation) to fund "blogger/curators" in 12 cities,  similar to MPR's new NewsBobber I mentioned recently.
  • MPR itself got a $5M individual grant – to be matched over time – to strengthen its own news operations, announced by Kling on Monday. The intention: a new $10 million endowment to support MPR journalism. Today, MPR boasts the largest news staff in local public radio, 70 in total, with 21 of them having reporting feet on the street. (As Chris Worthington, managing director for MPR's regional news points out, it takes lots of production personnel to get radio news on air.)
  • A Local Journalism Center program will be announced soon by CPB. $5 million in funding will allow for the creation of four or five regional, multi-state centers, with a handful of staffers each, to help local public radio stations do better origination, editing and sharing of stories of regional concern, both on air and online.

Beyond that, national NPR is a beehive of activity. In July, it relaunched its npr.org site, under the new team of Vivian Schiller (ex of NYT) and Kinsey Wilson (ex of USA Today). They are now taking another shot at welding together a true national network between and among NPR, its high-profile metro radio stations (including WNYC, WBUR, KQED and more), the Minnesota-based APM/MPR power center and the more than 300 member stations overall. Also on the NPR agenda: the technology guts to help power a network, including a common platform and content repository, built on a single taxonomy.

So is a threat to daily newspapers? Is it a promise to readers and listeners of news?

On the plus side, we see that public radio news people have values most similar to their daily brethren -- public service journalism with some degree of depth and breadth. In fact, newspaper people, including Kinsey Wilson, Chris Worthington and KQED's Bruce Koon are now running some of the news operations; MPR itself counts nine former Saint Paul Pioneer Press alums among its staff.  Public radio has some heavy hitters behind it, including CPB, now operating in league with a more friendly Congress and Administration.

On the negative side, public radio news is still quite small. MPR's 70 news staffers compare intriguingly to the Star Tribune's 275 (about 110 of those report the news). The Pioneer Press -- a painfully obvious no-show at the summit and in the coverage of it, though it happened but a half-dozen blocks from its office -- has a staff of 135.  KQED, serving Northern California, has but 21 staffers in news at this point. In addition, it's not hard to hear the echoes of newspaper transition angst among the public radio people; moving from radio and audio to online can be as mind-bending as moving from print to online. Are they really ready for the transition? NPR and MPR's attempt to bring along the rest of public radio may be a bit of a pushmi-pullyu routine. Finally, public radio's own business model -- though far less dependent on commercial support -- is wobbly as the worlds of membership, sponsorship and foundations shake as well.

The diversion, however direct or circuitous, of public funds to grow public radio news seems like a small issue to me. I'm fairly agnostic on how good journalism gets funded, though the notion of Congress “saving” journalism gives me hives. Ironically, in the midst of the hot-button health care debate, let’s acknowledge that public radio is one of the original Public Options, in place for decades. Begun to provide information alternatives, it has succeeded wildly, and provides a key part of many of our news diets. Its audience isn’t shrinking; it’s growing and now reaches more than 30 million Americans a week.

The Twin Cities can well emerge as a great test bed for the hybrid journalism to come. Joel Kramer's MinnPost has rightly become a national model of high-quality, local online journalism. MPR boasts a one-of-a-kind regional news operation. The Daily Planet offers a unique aggregation of local user-gen. Two dailies remain. My suggestion and challenge for them all: Before you go to the mattresses, in a war of words and attrition, look to how you can collectively use the new tools of the trade -- smart content management, cross-promotion, win-win aggregation, pro-am bridges, savvy syndication, regional sales networks and more -- to produce more worthy-of-Lake Wobegon above-average journalism, rather than less.