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Paying for the news
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***Correction: This blog post has been corrected from an earlier version.  It was not my intent to directly quote NPR President Vivian Schiller as saying NPR's new business model is "web first, then radio."  This idea was originally brought to my attention by an article in the trade publication Current, and was referencing a new local/national web partnership idea.  The copy below has been changed to reflect this, and the link to the article in question is found below***

Is the news free?  Geez, I hope not.  I mean, for about 20 years, I've been doing fundraising on public radio stations saying,"The news isn't free!"  Saying that the type of programming NPR and WNPR provide can't be found elsewhere.  That only your contribution can keep it alive.  

That's why our mini-dustup with Hartford Courant columnist Rick Green was so thought-provoking.  For those of you who haven't seen it, last Thursday Green posted this entry on his CT Confidential blog.  In it, he cited a memo obtained by Jim Romanesko at Poynter.org from NPR's Director of Morning Programming Ellen McDonnell.  Here's what it says:

As of April 1 NPR is cancelling all newspaper subscriptions. We are making some arrangments to get the Wall Street Journal either on line or hard copy. You have until tomorrow to appeal this if there is a solid reason why you should be exempt. This is a cost saving measure company wide.

And, here's what Green wrote right after: Memo to self: cancel pledges to WFCR and WNPR.

Ouch.

Whether NPR's memo was "sleazy" as Green suggested, or just an obvious cost-saving measure at a company undergoing major financial crisis, is a matter of interpretation.  On one hand, if I was a veteran reporter and columnist at a newspaper which has made drastic cuts to its news operation in the last year, I'd be pretty sensitive about other news operations saying it's okay to get content for free on the internet.  The Courant's future is very uncertain, and it's among many papers struggling to make money with it's website.  

Green told me the memo "rang his bell" and that he found it "heartbreaking" that NPR was doing this.  "Because, if anybody knows about the cost of news, it's the journalists who make NPR happen," he said.

On the other hand, public radio doesn't feel we're part of the cause of the newspaper industry collapse - and, we've got our own problems.  Late last year, NPR cut 7% of it's workforce, and cancelled two shows - including a program aired by WNPR(Day to Day). WNPR also laid off personnel this year, and goes into a March fundraiser needing to raise $225,000 just to pay our bills this fiscal year.  Fundraising has been down across the board in the public media system - which is not surprising, given the recession's impact on personal pocketbooks and corporate philanthropic accounts alike.

Now, there is a distinction to be made here.  NPR is not WNPR, or WFCR or any other member station.  WNPR pays NPR (and the BBC, PRI and American Public Media) more than a half-million dollars for national programming, which we air over our local transmitters and web service.  We have to raise money to pay those bills, plus the costs of covering local and regional news, and producing programs like Where We Live and The Faith Middleton Show.  

According to Kim Grehn, VP of Radio for our parent organization, CPBN, we also continue to pay the Courant roughly $1000 a year for daily delivery of the paper.  That's a fraction of what we pay The Associated Press for their wire services - about 24 grand a year.  Basically, we've got a lot of bills relating to the news we provide, but our business model has stayed pretty much the same: Ask listeners to give what they can in support.  Ask corporations to underwrite programming they and their customers value.  Hope it works.  Repeat next year.

But back to the main question posed by Rick Green's blog: If NPR says it's okay not to pay for news they can get online, how can we ask people to pay for the news they get on the radio?  It's a pretty sensitive question, as evidenced by the response Green's blog post got from WFCR General Manager Martin Miller.  And today, NPR came out with it's own statement on the issue:    

NPR Statement Regarding Newspaper Subscriptions

NPR made the decision to change its newspaper delivery service from a print to an online subscription for most of its publications because we could save almost $100,000 while still meeting staff needs. 

All NPR staff will still have access to the NPR research library which houses more than eighty print magazines and journals as well as print copies of New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal.  The library also has access to many major research databases that offer our journalists and staff unlimited access to breaking news and archived content from a multitude of news sources. 

NPR is strongly committed to the highest quality of journalism everywhere, and are pleased that most publishers offer free online access to their content for us at NPR – as well as all readers.  

The statement probably bolsters the case made by Rick Green and others who defend newspapers.  Much of the news that gets onto wire services, into radio news reports and television talk shows is first reported by newspapers.  When they can't make money through subscriptions and advertising, they can't pay reporters to gather that news.  Then, we all suffer.  Now, we can't blame NPR or anyone else in this economic time for cutting costs any place possible, but the fact that "publishers offer free online access to their content" is a reality today...that may be gone tomorrow.  Luckily, if there is a tomorrow for the news business, NPR is trying to be part of it.  

Fast Company asks "Will NPR Save the News?" in its new issue, and it's a fair question.  The network's new President Vivian Schiller comes from the New York Times online division with a mandate to overhaul it's web service. She told the trade magazine Current, “This has to be done. This is the most important thing we can be doing.”  But, she doesn't want to give up on NPR's basic journalistic goal, telling Fast Company, "Major mainstream stories are increasingly going uncovered. And I think it might be the nonprofit journalism world that meets that huge market need, which is also a basic need of a democratic society and an information-based economy."

In our recent conversation about newspapers and political coverage with recently laid-off reporters Mark Pazniokas and Greg Hladky, some listeners suggested a more "public" model for newspapers, with "government funding, like the BBC."  While nothing can be ruled out, it made me chuckle.  For years, public radio has gone on air, talking about its "unusual business model" that relies on small amounts of government funding, and lots of support from dedicated fans. We eschew the pull of "commercialism" in favor of a kind of populist notion: News for the people...that is beholden to no one.  This model demands repeated requests for funding, and elicits chronic uncertainty about the future. That newspapers might ever see public broadcasting's idealistic model as a stable formula for success is, in itself, a telling statement about how much media has changed. 

Meanwhile, this week Rick Green and I engaged in what many others see as the real model for media moving forward: The Collaboration.  He's said on many occasions he likes the work we do, and we feel the same way.  He's been a guest on the show several times, talking about a wide range of topics.  He joined me for an hour long conversation on Where We Live about heroin in Connecticut's suburbs.  We referenced the newspaper's excellent series of stories on the topic, we opened the airwaves to listeners, advocates and narcotics officers, and then he gave us a shout-out on his blog.  It was a moment of high-level synergy between two news outlets, born of the 20th Century - supposedly battling in a new media landscape over the scarce resources our citizens have left to give.  

It's the future.  Get used to it.  

 


 

NPR cancels newspaper subscriptions

 It's interesting that NPR's new hire from the NYT's digital realm, Vivian Schiller, is
quoted by you as saying there are "mainstream stories" not being reported.  I can think,
offhand, of two NPR has failed to report recently: in the runup to the Iraq War, the
comments of major intelligence officials in the US, UK and Australia that the intel was
not indicating what we were being told regarding WMDs (the names, familiar to BBC
and Australian radio listeners are Greg Thielmann, Dr. Brian Jones, and Andrew Willikie),
and the culpability of the US Army Corps of Engineers in the faulty design and
construction of the levees and floodwalls, the catastrophic breaching of which led to the
flooding of New Orleans in 2005.  In the first case, publicly funded broadcasters, as well
as privately funded newspapers, in other countries put on the Internet news we couldn't
get from NPR.  In the second instance, local commercial publishers (The Times-Picayune,
Gambit Weekly) and broadcasters (WWL radio and WWL-TV, separately owned) told
New Orleanians what the rest of the country didn't know.  And we should give to
support NPR why again?