While I was plumbing the depths of the Strib’s pension situation today, KARE11 announced longtime anchor-reporter Rick Kupchella would be leaving the station in a few weeks.
KARE news director Tom Lindner called it “a mutually agreed upon departure” that allows Kupchella “more flexibility as a media content producer.” Which sounds like code for “We’re cutting the budget, good luck in your future endeavors.”
Thankfully, Kupchella was a bit more forthcoming in a Vimeo video he posted around midnight last night, acknowledging the decision was “driven by the very tough economics the station is dealing with these days.”
Although few noticed then, I think he may have scooped his soon-to-be-ex-station, given the timestamp. I’m not sure I’ve seen a departing local TV guy announce it direct-to-Internet, but here it is:
Kupchella was even blunter when we talked Tuesday afternoon. The decision was driven by an expiring contract; KARE offered to re-up him at a reduced salary. He insists the biggest reason he left is that he couldn’t spend as much time on the long-form “Extra” segments he’s become known for.
“It’s not about KARE and Gannett. More generally, it’s the dark circumstances around the media these days,” he says.
“When I got my last contract three years ago, I could see what was coming, so I asked to be able to create content separate and apart from KARE,” he explains. “I think I was the only one to have that in my deal. Another local station had offered me a Monday-Friday anchoring job, and another big station was after me, too. I decided I’d stick to weekends, and develop a business during the week.”
The result sounds a lot like corporate communications.
In the video, Kupchella says he’ll “create content around issues that matter to the public, issues like health care. We’ll be working directly with corporations, to help the public understand the value of electronic health records and what we need to do as a society to reduce medical errors and costs and ultimately improve the outcomes for the people who live here.”
When I told him this sounded PR-ish, the ex-Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists president disagreed, saying he’s not an employee or even a contractor.
“I’m taking concepts I’m interested in as a journalist to corporations,” he says. “I want to work on issues I think are high public purpose. At the end of the day, I cannot produce a documentary, with a very high level of content, that would diminish my repuations as a truth-teller. I’m not going to work for a company — I’m advancing issues that I’m taking to them that serve a high public purpose”
Corporations will pay Kupchella’s firm, known as i.e.network. Kupchella likens the arrangement to TV’s early days, when businesses slapped their name on “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” But while the giraffes and hippos didn’t sport insurance policies, sponsors’ products could wind up in Kupchella’s pieces.
“There will be absolute transparency, who’s behind this, and there will be an editorial process,” he insists.
Noting experiments such as this blog’s sponsorship model, Kupchella says, “We’ve got to get to the place where journalism can again be monetized. It’s important to the Republic. It’s the only profession protected by the Constitution, and I’m concerned about that.”
While building his company, Kupchella hopes to have at least a consulting arrangement with a traditional media outlet; he was coy, but it sounds like he has someplace on the hook. Whoever signs up will have to negotiate the potential conflicts, but Kupchella wouldn’t be the first freelancer to work with media outlets and corporations at the same time.
He also wants to develop a new local online news model, so his days should be full.
A bit like his former colleague Paul Douglas, Kupchella sees the traditional media organizations increasingly become content distributors more than creators. “I have spent half my time developing in-depth content, and half my time anchoring the news. Going forward, I need this as a way to develop deeper content. I have as much or more confidence in my ability to act independently as I do at a traditional news outlet.”