Life without CPB aid scary to Local Journalism Center startups

The seven Local Journalism Centers that launched with major support from CPB have suddenly found themselves on a short timeline to find ways to earn more of their keep.

So far, CPB has committed only the two-year sums announced at the initiative’s launch last year and has told some grantees to expect smaller amounts for 2012.

Uncertainties over future CPB aid — as well as problems with the diffuse management structures that cloud decision-making and fiscal accountability for at least one LJC — have complicated plans to keep the regional news collaborations going, according to news directors who participated in a June 24 panel at the Public Radio News Directors conference in Arlington, Va.

Station execs behind Changing Gears, the LJC that staffed up last August to cover efforts to revive manufacturing in the Upper Midwest, have begun making contingency plans to continue the work if CPB aid ends, said Torey Malatia of Chicago’s WBEZ, one of three stations behind the center. “We’re committed to keeping it going in some form,” he said.

At CPB’s request, Changing Gears reduced its third-year grant request and awaits CPB’s funding decision. “We’re just kind of planning for a worst-case scenario,” Malatia said.

“Third-year funding is tenuous,” said Frank Morris, news director of KCUR in Kansas City, Mo. KCUR is a lead station behind Harvest Public Media, which covers agriculture for six Farm Belt stations. “We’ve been told it would be a drop of at least 20 percent.” 

In starting seven regional LJCs last year (listed), CPB committed roughly $8.1 million over two years, according to CPB spokeswoman Nicole Mezlo. The 41 radio and TV stations participating in the initiative collectively invested about $4 million.

That was before Congress and the Obama administration whacked $30 million out of CPB’s appropriation for digital projects in the 2011 federal budget deal in April (Current, April 18). CPB doesn’t expect to cut short its initial commitment of $8.1 million, Mezlo said, but she did not respond to Current’s question about future funding. 

The LJCs are pubcasting’s most ambitious attempt to expand its newsgathering, with multimedia reporting teams covering topics of special regional interest and producing content for radio, television and uniquely branded websites. Each LJC knew it would have to figure out a sustainable business model but expected CPB aid would allow more time to develop funding.

The financial challenges arrive just as the LJCs are hitting their strides journalistically, according to PRNDI panelists.

“We’re generating good stuff and everything’s wonderful content-wise,” Morris told PRNDI attendees. In addition to delivering a steady flow of radio feature stories and spots, Harvest Public Media is producing a weekly podcast and getting great placement for newspaper stories published in the Kansas City Star’s business section. “We hired a kick-ass editor from the Star, and she really knows how to make the stories look great. The website looks terrific, too.”

“The problem is, we’re going to have to almost scrap the organization we have now and rebuild it around how the money is pooled and distributed,” Morris said. He regrets that most early LJC planning focused on editorial collaboration and didn’t address decisionmaking and fiscal accountability. “We’re already dealing with sustainability and ... who’s going to make decisions?” 

Many LJC stations also have taken hits to their state funding. In Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $4.8 million in aid to pubcasters across the state, the six stations behind the Healthy State Network are confronting an unexpected shortfall, according to Scott Finn, news director at WUSF in Tampa. “We don’t even have the capacity to do this extra great journalism, or the extra fundraising and development work to sustain it,” he said in the PRNDI session.

The early focus on editorial collaboration among LJCs was intentional, according to Kathy Merritt, CPB director of radio investments. Public stations are accustomed to working together editorially, she told PRNDI attendees. “If you lead with fundraising, that’s much more difficult.”

CPB [will hire] consultants to evaluate the LJC initiative — specifically issues related to collaboration and sustainability, she said. A request for proposals [was issued this week].

Some news directors at PRNDI preferred the model of the Northwest News Network, an established reporting collaborative of 12 stations. Its reporters focus on reporting for radio and are treated as reporters for the stations, not specialists from a separate unit with its own brand.
Jonathan Ahl of Iowa Public Radio, part of the Harvest Public Media group, questioned the value of supporting an LJC that produces for its own website, and of having a journalist in his newsroom who can only be identified on air as a reporter for Harvest Public Media. 

Decision-makers for Changing Gears are asking similar questions, Malatia said.

Morris said he supports continued experimentation with multiplatform news production and efforts to build online readership and brand loyalty with deep, specialized reporting.

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