A second state news feed arises from Florida funding rift

By Alicia Shepard

A dispute over state funding of Florida pubcasters has prompted Miami’s WLRN to create a new system for sharing news stories among pubradio stations.

Eight stations serving the state’s largest markets have signed onto the Florida News Exchange, a digital network for content sharing that the Miami station launched in September. It’s modeled after the Northwest News Network, a reporting collaborative of stations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Its formation is a direct challenge to the Florida Public Radio Network operated by WFSU in Tallahassee, the state capital — the only Florida pubcaster to be spared from a complete loss of state funding this year.

So far the Miami station is the only one to drop its use of that news service, which charges an annual fee of nothing.

Established in 1975, FPRN is one of the oldest existing pubradio networks and one of the first that enabled stations to share news stories. Yet concerns about the quality of its news coverage and limitations of its old File Transfer Protocol (FTP) distribution system prompted stations to look at other models for news collaboration.

The need for collaboration was highlighted last year when Florida pubradio stations scrambled to cover the  Gulf Coast oil spill — and four stations separately reported and produced stories about the spill’s effects on sea turtles. News directors of several stations agreed that they could have produced better coverage if they’d coordinated their efforts, according to Dan Grech, WLRN news director.

The updated story-sharing system got a further boost in June, when Republican Gov. Rick Scott unexpectedly vetoed a $4.8 million appropriation for the state’s 13 public TV and 13 public radio stations after legislators had approved the funding. While the veto zeroed-out the stations’ annual operating grants, it preserved $2.8 million for WFSU’s coverage of the state capital. In addition to FPRN, WFSU produces and distributes C-SPAN–style public TV coverage through the Florida Channel.

The governor’s exception for WFSU angered John LaBonia, WLRN’s g.m. “The governor said public broadcasting is a special interest, but he decides to fund one station,” said LaBonia. “That defines special interest to me, and WLRN does not accept special-interest programming.”

The news director for the Tallahassee station and FPRN, Trimmel Gomes, objects to LaBonia’s stance. “WFSU-FM did not receive $2.8 million,” said Gomes. The state aid provides only about $100,000 of the cost of producing and distributing Capital Report, FPRN’s flagship show reporting on state policymakers, he said. The report airs daily when the legislature is in session and weekly otherwise. WFSU also provides daily feeds, news reports, a monthly call-in broadcast and additional content to the network at its own expense, he said. The bulk of the state aid to WFSU goes for TV coverage.

Like other Florida pubradio stations, WFSU-FM lost about $60,000 when the governor vetoed the statewide sum of $500,000 for stations’ accustomed annual operating grants, Gomes said.

WLRN had another reason to create the Exchange, according to LaBonia — concerns about the quality of coverage produced by WFSU that predated Gov. Scott’s veto.  “We didn’t think the reporting was as well done as it could be,” he said.

Gomes defends his newsroom’s output. “Our team of reporters continues to crank out quality stories of interest to the state,” he said. “Our focus is making sure the content is relevant for an audience from Pensacola to Jacksonville and all the way to the Keys.”

There’s no charge for member stations to share their own news reports via FTP, Gomes said.

In contrast, participation in WLRN’s Florida News Exchange will cost stations money, though not right away. There’s a $250 annual fee, but the Miami station has covered that for its inaugural year, LaBonia said.

The per-station charge actually goes to Massachusetts-based Public Radio Exchange, which hosts the new story-sharing system on PRX Networks, a closed digital system for sharing content.

FPRN’s statehouse coverage has been an important resource for many pubradio stations, especially those with few or no reporters. But WLRN and WUSF in Tampa — the state’s largest public radio operations — are building their own capacity for reporting from the capital. This spring they added freelancer Gina Jordan, a former WFSU reporter, to a Tallahassee news bureau that includes reporters from the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times. Jordan reported for WFSU for three years before resigning in March.

WLRN expanded its policy reporting to the national capital this month by hiring Elizabeth Wynne Johnson, who covered Congress for Capital News Connection until the pubradio news bureau shut down in September. She’ll spend 10 hours a week filing stories from Washington. WLRN will share her reporting on the Exchange.

 “A ton of stories” to share

A survey of Florida’s pubradio stations conducted last year revealed a split over the value and quality of the older news service, FPRN. The survey — by the Florida Public Broadcasting Service that represents Florida’s pubcasters in the state capital — found wide use of FPRN content during legislative sessions. Of 10 stations that responded to the survey, five continued to broadcast Capital Report when lawmakers left town, four dropped it and one used excerpts, according to a summary of findings. Four respondents cited the quality of the program as a reason for dropping it; four cited scheduling problems and didn’t mention the quality of the content.

While only the Miami station has completely dropped FPRN’s reports, it and seven other stations joined the News Exchange in September: WUSF, Tampa; WQCS, Ft. Pierce; WUWF, Pensacola; WGCU, Ft. Myers; WJCT, Jacksonville; WUFT, Gainesville; and WMFE, Orlando.

Joining was a no-brainer for WGCU news director Amy Tardif, who runs a small newsroom in Ft. Myers.

“We decided to do it because we would have access to stories from WLRN and Tampa that they weren’t putting up on FPRN,” said Tardif. “We knew there were a ton of stories from those two stations that we weren’t getting access to, and obviously with us having three news people and no full-time reporters, we definitely needed more stories.”

Scott Finn, news director of WUSF, praised the new digital platform for ease of use and its tracking features, adding that the Exchange provides reports on content usage that allow WUSF to tell funders exactly where and when stories are being used —  information not shared by FPRN. The Exchange is also searchable, while the Florida Public Radio Network is not.

Gomes acknowledged shortcomings of FPRN’s story-tracking capacity. WFSU has looked into other file-sharing systems but decided that the FTP site “continues to serve us well.”

The Tallahassee station isn’t participating in the Exchange. Gomes said he was “not familiar” with it. “[W]e have no knowledge of what occurs with the Exchange,” he said.

The Miami/Tallahassee tension appears to have been compounded by miscommunication.  WLRN invited WFSU to join the Exchange at no cost — the same offer extended to other Florida stations — according to LaBonia. “WFSU is welcome to participate, but they haven’t to date,” he said.

For now, Florida has two competing news networks.

Alicia Shepard, former NPR ombudsman and a longtime journalist, is a freelancer based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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