Will the media cutbacks affect you?

In the first hour of MPR’s Midmorning, we’re going to talk about how to handle tough times in a particular business — ours. With the worsening economy, news organizations are cutting staffs. How is a commitment to a viewer, listener, or reader to be maintained? What ethical challenges do these times pose? Do you care?

I’ll be live-blogging in the studio with Kerri Miller and we’ll be joined on the program by Alicia Shepard, the ombudsman for National Public Radio and Clark Hoyt, Public editor for the New York Times.

I’ll be reading your comments and insight during the broadcast.

You might also be interested in reading former NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin’s latest blog post comparing public radio in Canada and the U.S.

Live-blogging

9:02 a.m. – We’re starting with Alicia in the first half hour. Kerri says she’s been taking a lot of heat over the budget cuts at NPR. Apparently people have been suggesting NPR used the economy to get rid of shows and people it wanted to get rid of. Some have suggested a racial motive, which as least gets to the concern that a decades-old attempt to make newsrooms more diverse will be wiped out in this economy.

9:07 a.m. - Recommended reading: The future of journalism.

9:08 a.m. – Why didn’t NPR use buyouts instead of layoffs. Because NPR was afraid they’d lose people they didn’t want to lose, says Shepard. She says buyouts are a more humane way of eliminating people. “But I’m out of my pay grade in talking about those specifics.”

9:10 a.m. – Where did the Joan Kroc money go? The St. Paul native gave millions of dollars to NPR (none to her hometown public radio operation, for the record). “The perception was that NPR is rolling in money and that’s not true,” she says. The Kroc money went into an endowment that was to generate $10 million a year. Here’s Shepard’s column on the cutbacks.

9:16 a,m. Shepard is defending NPR’s acceptance of Homeland Security underwriting. She gives props to listeners for responding quickly when they hear something they don’t like. She mentioned WalMart underwriting announcements.

9:20 a.m. – We’re going to get to Gaza coverage in a minute. In the past, this has been a huge debate at NPR.

9:22 a.m. – Caller on “underwriting issue.” Sounds like local underwriting on MPR… spots promoted clean coal. When membership renewal time came up, she was aggravated. “It was boosterism for clean coal, which I think is an oxymoron.” She e-mailed in her complaint asking what the guidelines are. Got a response back she said was unsatisfactory; that corporate sponsorships were important to the budget. She has not renewed her membership and acknowledges she listens to the programming.

The underwriting messages, however, came from NPR, Kerri says. So what do listeners to about that. The impact of the caller not renewing is taken out on Minnesota, while the responsibility for the problem is with NPR. What’s a listener to do?

9:26 a.m. - — Kind of wondering where the future of journalism discussion went.

9:28 a.m. - I’ve been waiting to relay a reader comment on diversity, but they’ve gone back to the phones. Would like to get it on before Alicia is cut loose.

9:29 a.m. – Shepard says an ombudsman would never do any lobbying. Then the connection to NPR went down. Budget cuts.

9:30 a.m. – Clark Hoyt joins us regarding coverage in the Times of the Israeli bombing of Gaza. Gotta give Kerri credit here. Hoyt is answering her question, Kerri is talking off mic to the producer about what happened to Shepard, Hoyt completes his answer and Kerri smoothly goes to her followup question. She obviously was listening to Hoyt’s answer while talking.

9:33 a.m. – Hoyt says “there’s a great awareness” in the newsroom that people are skeptical of news organizations. “They (editors) are very concerned about presenting a true picture of what is happening.”

9:34 a.m. – Shepard rejoins the discussion. I have assumed the role of potted plant.

9:35 a.m. - Shepard says NPR has created a Middle East page on its Web site in order to say to listeners, “look at the totality of our coverage” whenever there’s an accusation of bias in an individual story from the Middle East. She says it’s difficult in a 4-minute piece to provide all of the elements and context of a story.

9:37 a.m. – Should people who report the news also give their opinion? Hoyt says this came up in coverage of the meltdown. He was troubled by having reporters covering aspects of the bailout, and writing columns on the same pages about what should happen. “To me that poses an insoluble conflict.”

This has been an issue for me, too. But in a different way. The columns do nothing more than make public an opinion that may be held by a reporter. Not publishing it doesn’t eliminate the opnion, it just eliminates your knowledge of it. That’s not saying the opinion influences the reporting, however. Quite often, just the opposite is true.

9:40 a.m. - Shepard says allegations of bias occupy most of her time. “There may be bias,” Hoyt says, “but the only way you can judge that is only over a period of time.” He notes a recent front-page article in the NYT on Bush’s role in the housing problem. “I got lots of messages saying ‘this is outrageous. There goes the Times… Bush bashing.”

Here is the article. Hoyt says nobody apparently considered that “this was Part 16″ of a series.

9:43 a.m. - The problem of live-blogging. My question on diversity now won’t fit where the conversation is. Bummer.

9:44 a.m. – Reading comments and thinking that a valuable discussion would have is if people don’t renew memberships to public radio stations, how that does anything but increase the likelihood the person — who usually still listens to public radio — will grow more dissatisfied because resources are further removed from news or programming because of declining budgets?

Methinks public radio should do more to give the public more options on how to influence programming without destroying it.

9:47 a.m. - Hoyt is talking about the story in the New York Times that — to my analysis — clearly led people to assume McCain was having an affair. Apparently there’s a lawsuit filed over this so Hoyt can’t talk about it. I’ve talked about it quite a bit.

9:53 a.m. - I popped in on the show to ask how people can influence a newsroom short of destroying the journalism therein. There must be a way short of “the nuclear option,” as Kerri says. “People go immediately to maximum power,” says Hoyt. “People go to angriest option right away.” He blames the Internet. “It’s not a proportionate kind of response, usually,” he says.

Shepard says there’s a powerlessness among listeners and readers. “At the end of the conversation, someone will say, ‘thank you for listening.’ People want to be heard,” she says.

Let me point out here that I think this blog just served a valuable role in an otherwise broader conversation, and it came as a result of what you wrote. Newsroom blogs, it seems to me, are the avenue for a better relationship with the news consumer.

“Reporters can be very thin skinned and resistant to criticism. We need to thicken up the skin and engage with readers more directly,” says Hoyt.

“Journalism is done with the greatest sense of integrity,” says Shepard. “But mistakes will be made.”

This concludes the program. I don’t think we really ever got to the journalism aspect of things. — the business of journalism, perhaps.

  • Elizabeth

    Both NPR and MPR are vitally important. I thank you for the great work you guys do. Am always sorry to hear of budget cuts of course. However one does appreciate the fact that prudent budget management is necessary.

  • Valerie

    I appreciate this conversation today. And the comment posted by Elizabeth.

  • Greg

    Does NPR-Alicia see NPR in a finances driven trend towards “news repeating” similar to FOX and CNN in order to provide content hours for broadcast? I think that would be a mis-step, unless the effort is to provide news feeds, similar to BBC, from Asia, Australia, India, China in order to provide the “same news” with the alternate society’s different perspective. Otherwise be well.

  • david zuhn

    Regarding sponsorships vs. advertising, I realize this isn’t relevant to the immediate show (as this is purely an MPR issue), but am I the only one who thinks that all of the promotion for non-show related events at the Fitzgerald crosses the line from sponsorship to advertising?

    Recently we had a barrage of ads for the Steele family Christmas concert. Not related to any specific show, and not limited to a simple announcers voice (like the typical sponsorship piece). They sound like something that would be on any radio station with the KNOW demographics.

    In fact, a co-worker came in from out of town and had asked me for the local public radio station. A couple of days later he asked again, wondering why I had suggested a station “with all those concert commercials” instead of a non-commercial station he had expected.

  • wendell

    I had to agree with the person who wrote in asking if authors paid to get on shows. I did not renew my membership last year because I mainly listen during the 9am hour driving home and was tired of hearing how midmorning was “all about books” and the plugs for the midmorning book club or what the host is reading.

    Is this petty of me? probably. but it’s been frustrating me for quite some time.

  • Valerie Arganbright

    David — thanks for you comments about promotion of events at the Fitzgerald Theater.

    The Fitz is part of MPR (an extension, really) and we promote on-stage events at the Fitz just like we promote on-air programming.

    I will take your point back to our shop — is the promotion of events at the Fitz too much. Thanks for that question.

    Valerie Arganbright

    Membership, MPR

  • wendell

    I’m not thinking about cutting off my own nose. I listen much less than I used to. This used to be all I had on my radio in the car. I pop in once in a while to see if it’s changed. It hasn’t so I switch away. that comment today kept me listening though. I will stop all together though after this broadcast. That way I’m not leeching something away without paying for it.

  • Valerie Arganbright

    Wendell — thanks for participating in this live blog today. And for your question. And I’m sorry that we are frustrating you.

    Before I go on — just to be very clear — we do not pay authors.

    Also, we have been told, through the years, by members and listeners, that books are a very big part of their lives and that they appreciate the shows that include authors/books. So, I very much appreciate a your POV.

    Again — we’ll bring this topic up in our conversations.

    And thanks for being a member in the past — and please consider rejoining.

    Valerie Arganbright

    Membership, MPR

  • Carol

    I hoped someone would address the practice of having Bill Kling on the air essentially lobbying for the station’s view about the light rail route. I find that problematic, and I know many others who have made similar comments. Is there any scrutiny of those comments, or any attention to the propriety of using airtime for promoting the station’s own interests in that manner?

  • Bob Collins

    Journalism in a time of declining revenue?

    Anybody?

  • Mark

    I was struck in the conversation by the comparison of failing to contribute financially to MPR as a “nuclear option”. Historically I was a strong supporter and MPR enthusiast. A few years back, I started to think, for a variety of reasons, that our interests were diverging, due to changes on both sides. At the same time, a variety of other new voices, online and elsewhere, seemed in need of support. And so I first skipped a year…then found it had been a few years since I’d contributed.

    I still value MPR, and I listen, though less than historically. My lack of support is in some sense a response to what I’ve been hearing. But as MPR isn’t entitled to the money, I don’t consider the decision so inflammatory to be a “nuclear option”.

  • mary

    Very interesting show today with comments from your listeners and by the ombudspersons and the ethicist. One detail neglected by the first part of the program, when questioning the reasons a listener might not renew membership, but certainly, embedded in the subject, is the failing economy. Many of your listeners have lost income, and need to reconsider voluntary expenses.

    A related issue occurs to me. It is a very important time to be sure the people who represent MPR and NPR, even and especially, those who answer the phones, know how to demonstrate concern and politeness to listeners/callers. I have encountered rudeness and sometimes a discounting, if not disparaging attitude. I recently called to ask for information about a particular show, and was hastened off the phone in that way. Though it is not my practice to complain, I did write a short note about that incident, and have received no reply. A listener, whether a member or not, does not deserve rudeness, and may be turned off enough from voluntary giving.

  • bigalmn

    The key point here was never really discussed much at all. It goes well beyond MPR to all news organizations including and especially print news organizations.

    Most of the indepth web content today comes from print news organizations. They are laying of people in record numbers. This means fewer reporters who are trained to find the real story will look at each story as it come up.

    It is easy to blog on the web without full information, but it takes a lot of time and yes, money to get to the real stories.

    Our democracy is dependent on truth. In many cases the truth only comes out when a reporter is trying to get to the bottom of the story. If we only have one reporter or maybe even no reporters on a key story, we then lose part of our democracy because the story is never told.

    Everyone wants the Internet to be free so companies are giving away what used to be paid for in a subscription. Internet search advertising usually just pays for the service not the stories. We need to find ways to support this type of journalism so it does not go away.

    Then what we will end up with is a news cast filled with programming like WCCO’s Good Question. More entertainment than real value.

  • Bob Collins

    Exactly, Mary, which is why the question of what happens to journalism in a failing economy is so important. Including the question of whether it matters?

    //Mark says: I was struck in the conversation by the comparison of failing to contribute financially to MPR as a “nuclear option”.

    That’s not the context. The context wasn’t failing to contribute to MPR, it was the question of expressing displeasure about a particular aspect of journalism by failing to — in this case — buy a newspaper, or contribute to public broadcasting. And the question I raised was is there a way to give the public power to influence a newsroom.

    No one ever said or suggested that MPR or any other news organization has a right to anybody’s money. The question was whether there was a way to influence a news organization short of destroying it.

    But to your point, if someone withdraws their support of public radio BECAUSE the quality of programming doesn’t mean their standards, but still listens, there should be an understanding that they’ve hastened the demise of the remaining journalism that they found satisfactory enough to continue to consume.

    So I think it’s important to involve a listener (or reader in the case of newspapers) earlier before the “nuclear option” is invoked.

    Let’s face it. You may not like MPR as much as you used to, but if you’re not supporting it BECAUSE of that, you’re doing your part to effect a reaction that will only make you even more disappointed.

    There should be a mechanism in place that doesn’t create that situation because, as near as I can tell, it doesn’t serve any positive purpose for anyone.

    There’s a lot of clapping and joy about the coming demise of the Star Tribune, but nobody’s having a conversation that even while clapping, it remains the most powerful information tool in our region. So what’s the plan for being informed after its death? Have people thought that far ahead?

  • Valerie Arganbright

    Mary,

    Thank you for insight into your experience with MPR (and NPR, if it applies).

    I apologize that we fell short of your expectations. That’s not our aim and we were clearly off target.

    We’ll address this post haste.

    Valerie Arganbright

    Membership, MPR

  • Valerie Arganbright

    Carol,

    Thanks for posting. The questions you raise about how we scutinize on air messages and our attention to the propriety of using airtime for promoting the station’s own interests are worthy of a response. And you also say that you find the messages about LRT problematic.

    These questions have been raised internally and I’d

    be happy to talk with you about this. Here’s my phone number — 651.290.1357.

    Thanks.

    Valerie Arganbright

    Membership, MPR

  • Paul

    Bob asks,

    “Journalism in a time of declining revenue?

    Anybody?”

    Content matters. Obviously, good stories reported well boost listeners, which boosts donations. As I’ve said previously, don’t be afraid to step away from the status quo and be the voice in the wilderness on occasion. For instance, why not find someone who’s NOT from Detroit to talk about the US car industry? I don’t remember the last time MPR or NPR were ahead of the curve on a major story, I’m not trying to insult you I’m just saying you don’t have to be one of those who got it wrong with everyone else all time. You could have had a series that explained how people with IRAs can move money and where to move it to in a financial crises instead of having nothing but advisers who told people NOT to move money. There are people who could have explained how to change strategies instead of telling everyone not change strategies. If you’d been airing that kind of advice, saving people money, I think your listenership may have increased.

    You could consider combining forces with other public news rooms. I think Democracy Now! is free to any public radio station that want’s to stream it for instance. Free speech Radio, Native American News, Counter Spin, these are ready to broadcast options that don’t require any staff work on your part. I bring this up because frankly, I have all but stopped listening to MPR. I think you really need to start shaking things up. You might also be able to do something with KFAI, link up more with Minnpost, work together across platforms. You can save money and expand and diversify your coverage. You can also post stories and links to stories on the Local Indi Media website. Have some Anarchists on and cross post links. I posted a link to your story about the Electo Shock guy a while back, 250 people read that story.

    I think part of your problem is NPR and I don’t know what you can do about that. I’m not saying anyone needs to lose their jobs, but some re-tasking is in order. The morning and afternoon feeds are repetitive and boring. I won’t mention specific shows but the magic is gone in several cases, I don’t think you can fix NPR and MPR. You want to think about cutting some of that stuff lose until they get it sorted out.

    I read the papers cited by the Canadian guy. He recommends PDs listen to their own programing. You may want to listen to other programing as well. Now this is just me, but I find myself listening a lot to Radio Netherlands programs. I like the stories they cover, the way they cover them, and they are accurate and reliable sources of information. I also listen to the BBC News Hour. Maybe you could listen to them and see if you want to change your sound a little. If MPR sounded more like that, I’d be listening, and if I was listening, I’d be donating.

  • Jim

    This is the only place I could find to make a comment so here goes.

    I’m drivng to work this morning and I flip over to KNOW and I hear a caller asking about bias in the the emphasis on Iran’s potential nukes but little on Isreal’s actual nukes. The repsonse immediately characterized the question as a complaint, then referred to it as an accusation.

    Thus illustrating a perfect example of bias in the news media. Not to mention how touchy they are.

  • david zuhn

    “Journalism in a time of declining revenue?”

    That direction of the conversation probably went away because of the immediate introduction of the Kroc money, the DHS sponsorships, and other comparison of ads v. sponsorships. Once the subject of money is brought forward, the subject will stay on money issues, especially when the guests are the ombudsmen for their respective organizations. While they do concern themselves with the journalism itself, it’s usually in concert with the journalistic connections with the rest of the organization and not focused in narrowly on the news itself.

    Bring in the news directors, and ask them how they see the changes in the news given a declining budget. Then I suspect you’ll see more focus on the journalism itself.

    In the meantime, a conversation with an NPR ombudsman will bring in all sorts of issues related to the declining revenue side, which is exactly what happened.

  • Heather

    Bob, this is only tangentially related, but will there be a “Rock the Cradle” event this year? I don’t see it on the schedule, and honestly, I’m worried about it. It’s a great event.

    Thanks!

  • Bob Collins

    Yes. I saw it on the company bulletin board that they were looking for more employees to volunteer. Sun Jan 25.

  • Heather

    Thank you! See you there?