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Kroc gift lets NPR expand news, lower fees

Originally published in Current, May 24, 2004
By Mike Janssen

NPR will use the first year’s returns on Joan Kroc’s enormous bequest to lower some stations’ fees for its newsmagazines and embark on a long-term plan for expanding its newsroom.

The network has in hand Kroc’s $225 million bequest — $25 million more than initially expected — and revealed to stations this month how it will use the windfall.

As NPR officials predicted earlier, the network will invest most of the money and spend the annual earnings. But Kroc specified that NPR would use $34 million from the bequest to bolster its operating reserves, covering unforeseen needs.

Of the $6.2 million in earnings expected next year, NPR will use $2.4 million to give discounts on newsmagazine fees for stations hit by steep price increases over the last five years.
The remaining bulk of the investment income will pay for added staff at all levels of the news department.

Expanding the news staff is one piece of a strategic plan that covers the next three to five years of NPR’s growth. The network and its board based the plan on consultations with public radio’s regional organizations and industry leaders, plus focus groups and other audience research. Ken Stern, executive v.p., discussed the plan’s highlights at NPR’s Authorized Representatives meeting May 11 [2004] in Arlington, Va.

For news: more staff, bureaus, training

Since 2000 NPR’s news audience and the demands on its coverage have grown steadily. Yet its resources have not grown to match, Stern told Current. The news staff of 250 is still smaller than that of the Baltimore Sun, for example.
NPR is a “premier news organization,” Stern said, but “we want to be resourced somewhat like a premier news organization.”

It will hire 30 producers, editors and reporters in the next two years and 15 the third year. With larger newsmagazine staffs, hosts will have more time to report from the field and the programs can look farther beyond day-to-day coverage.

Bill Marimow in shirtsleevesThe expansion has already begun with the hiring of Bill Marimow, former editor of the Sun, as a second managing editor. NPR will continue adding high-level newsroom managers to strengthen its editorial capacity, Stern said.

The network also assigned Mary Louise Kelly, formerly senior editor of All Things Considered, to a new beat covering U.S. and foreign intelligence.

Four Morning Edition editorial staffers moved to NPR West to support Renee Montagne, interim co-host since the departure of Bob Edwards. The show also picked up Robin Gradison, an ABC News producer for 20 years, as supervisory senior producer and Bruce Auster, formerly deputy assistant managing editor at U.S. News and World Report, as supervisory editor.

The news division will also assign more than one reporter to each beat, Stern said, allowing for more investigative and enterprise work.

One or two additional reporters will staff foreign bureaus. NPR has just one reporter in Africa and 12 bureaus around the world — “huge by American standards, but not big enough,” Stern said.

Finally, the network plans to invest in training and will expand a series of workshops around the country for station-based reporters. Starting next year, NPR will award several yearlong fellowships bearing Joan Kroc’s name to young journalists.

Other goals of NPR’s strategic plan are more abstract. One, to be “positioned clearly in the public mind,” will be difficult to achieve, Stern acknowledged. “We have a long way to go,” he said. NPR has been building its audience “one person at a time.”

Some focus group participants told NPR they spurn public radio because they perceive its listeners as liberal, old or boring, Stern said, yet when exposed to NPR programming they found it valuable.

NPR will work with stations in coming years to determine how to hook these potential listeners, who span a wide range of demographic categories, Stern said.

Relief for pinched stations

Kroc’s gift brings relief to stations that have paradoxically suffered from the sucesses of NPR News.

In 1999 NPR linked each station’s program fees to the size of its audience. The growth of public radio’s audience since then has translated into painful hikes for stations, a cause for concern in a time of tightening budgets. At some stations, fees have shot up more than 50 percent.

Income from those increased fees helped NPR cover 9/11 and its aftermath, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Dana Rehm, v.p. of member and program services, acknowledges that for many stations, underwriting and membership income has failed to keep pace with the program fees.

To alleviate this, NPR’s program discounts will go only to stations whose fees have risen since 2000 — not those whose fees have stayed flat or fallen. NPR will determine fiscal year 2005 program fees for each eligible station, then reduce them by a tenth of the percentage change in fees the station experienced between fiscal years 2000 and 2004. For example, a station that saw a 40 percent increase will get a 4 percent discount on its 2005 program fees.

Network execs hope the discounts will help stations invest in local programming, Stern said. “If we asked for increased fees, and don’t share back when we can, it’s completely unfair,” he said.

NPR will consider continuing the discounts in fiscal year 2006 but will restore fees to normal levels the following fiscal year.

Web page posted May 28, 2004
Current
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2004

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Joan Kroc, the philanthropist and widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, died in October 2003, leaving a large gift to NPR.

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