MPR’s Minnesota Today: Minnesota taxpayer funded

A couple of weeks ago, former Washington Post editor Len Downie and Columbia Journalism Prof. Michael Schudson issued a report calling for more taxpayer cash for local news reporting. Struggling and heretofore off-limits newspapers would be one beneficiary. Journalists split into predictable camps, some wanting nothing to do with politician-approved dough, other suggesting ways to mitigate such strings.

As it turns out, Minnesota newspapers, broadcasters and even online-only entities could soon get a lift from taxpayers right here at home. The vehicle: a new Minnesota Public Radio content-sharing service called Minnesota Today.

The project, set to debut Jan. 1, has two parts: a syndication arm that “pushes” MPR content to state media outlets, and an online hub that aggregates content within MPRNewsQ. The hub will include news and culture, including a statewide arts calendar and listings.

I enthused over Minnesota Today’s possibilities a couple of days ago, after MPR hired’s Bob Ingrassia as head content-wrangler. Turns out Ingrassia’s salary, and that of syndication hire David Cazares, is covered by $400,000 from the Minnesota Legacy Fund.

If you haven’t heard of the Legacy Fund, you started paying for it July 1. Minnesota voters approved a three-eighths-cent sales tax for habitat and culture in 2008, and the 2009 Legislature directed $2.65 million in culture cash MPR’s way. (Public radio will get $1.15 million in fiscal year 2010 and $1.5 million in 2011.) According to MPR Public Affairs director Jeff Nelson, the biggest chunk is for Minnesota Today.

Mutual benefits
So what’s in it for participating newspapers? They’ll get free, potentially local copy for their print editions. That comes in handy with smaller staffs. Newspaper websites will also get multi-media content, plus page views from the hub. TV and online-only sites will benefit similarly.

And for MPR? NewsQ gets traffic being the hub — leveraging what MPR regional news managing director Chris Worthington calls the “link economy.” Minnesota Today’s links will point toward organizations that generated the content.

But MPR print exposure might be as important. “If our news story appears in a paper with a circulation of 25,000 to 50,000, it’s that many more people who may not have heard our story,” Worthington says. “Given our brand strength, our signal strength, the more eyeballs that see our news coverage, the more valuable we’ll be seen going forward.”

The Associated Press currently syndicates MPR content, which increasingly pops up in Twin Cities dailies. However, Worthington says the new arrangement will push more content out, in real time, at no charge. (It’s somewhat similar to a national sports-sharing deal the Strib helped create, though Worthington didn’t model his on that.)

However, Minnesota Today will be a less eclectic aggregator than I hoped. At Newsbobber, Ingrassia ranged widely for the best stuff, sometimes from the tiniest of local blogs. Surprisingly, Worthington says MT won’t aggregate metro news, at least not right away.

“Our thought is that we’re going to look outside the Twin Cities for starters,” he says. “There’s much less overlap with what everybody’s doing. There are a number of people covering stories in the Twin Cities, but the Duluth paper might be doing a far better job covering the Iron Range economy than anybody” in the metro area.

MPR is courting established non-metro organizations such as the Mankato Free Press and Rochester Post-Bulletin. There seems to be enthusiasm, even though no deals are signed.

Says Post-Bulletin managing editor Jay Furst, “We’ve been talking for several months about sharing content. The first phase might involve shared content in print and online. But so is the idea of working with MPR to gather and report news and multi-media content. We’re very much interested.”

While Minnesota Today won’t be an entirely closed system, Worthington says it will primarily aggregate partner sites. That potentially leaves Minnesota’s long tail of new-media newsgatherers and analyzers out in the cold.

For the courted, MPR’s state correspondents are another lure. Once upon a time, the Star Tribune had bureaus dappled throughout Minnesota. Now, that’s MPR’s role. The network has six reporters statewide: in Duluth, Moorhead, Bemidji, Rochester, St. Cloud and the state’s southwest section.

While MPR’s newsroom remains smaller than some outstate newspapers, at times like this, every little bit helps.

Notes Worthington, a former Pioneer Press senior editor, “Frankly, we all have an understanding of what newspapers are going through.”

Philosophical questions
At least in MPR’s case, the state cash is making the rich richer. Everybody knows how deep commercial media cuts have been. But since 2005, MPR has gained half a dozen news staffers, Worthington says.

Which begs the philosophical question: Why should taxpayers pony up for journalists, even worthies such as Ingrassia?

Even before the Legacy Amendment passed, MPR was massively successful at attaching state funds. Yet when critics complained, or during pledge drives, MPR insisted the state funds were only for capital projects like transmitters and digital conversion, not newsgathering and journalists.

They’re still making that argument, though you can feel the strain in this particular case.

Says Nelson, “The actual reporting is not funded by state dollars.”

Worthington: “State support has been a very small percentage of our operating budget over time, and it’s all gone to capital projects. Here, we’re not hiring reporters to go cover Duluth or health care. We’re hiring editors to distribute and edit content.”

In effect, they’re saying Ingrassia and Cazares are more like hardware, pushing and pulling content through the already-subsidized pipes.

MPR’s other Legacy initiatives include digitizing audio archives, using HD radio to add The Current in an additional state market, and bringing MPR events outstate. The legislation also calls for MPR to “create new programming,” which Nelson says includes national programming based in Minnesota.

I suspect most listeners don’t ultimately care much about hardware/newsgathering distinction. Even though MPR’s coverage doesn’t put anyone in jail and (with rare exceptions) lacks an edge, MPR is as close as Minnesota has to a beloved news institution. Legislators know that, and Minnesota Today’s outstate push won’t hurt come appropriation time.

Rival organizations know management’s elbows are sharp, and more than a little innovation — and edge — has probably been snuffed by public radio sucking up the smart-guy oxygen.

Still, even if MPR is Borg-like, that means they’re successful at a time when that’s not an industry-wide problem. And $400,000 is small beans in the big picture, unlikely to fundamentally rearrange Minnesota’s news universe.

Then again, you never know these days. If public radio bucks up, rather than absorbs, news outlets across the state, that might preserve diversity, at least among the bigger players. And the Legacy cash may prove to be money well spent.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 10/30/2009 - 09:06 am.

    Public subsidies for anything less than full-on public broadcasting (MPR does NOT qualify for that worthy status, in my book) is a bad idea, and a $400,000 subsidy for MPR shows how the system can be gamed by insiders. Was anyone else even AWARE that such funds were available? My Strib column just last Sunday dealt with the Downie-Schudson plan, and the problems with public subsidies:

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/30/2009 - 09:27 am.

    I think public radio and television news should be entirely tax funded, moving towards the BBC model. Commercial news, especially local tv news is a joke. I didn’t see a single story about the legal challenge to Pawlenty’s unallotment on local news yesterday, that’s simply incredible. This business of forcing public radio and tv to go begging for money several times a year in pledge drives is the real problem. The need for these drives opens the door to corporate influence and distortion. I think the BBC news models demonstrates that public funding can work and can produce a fiercely independent news organization.

  3. Submitted by Joel Kramer on 10/30/2009 - 09:51 am.

    Since MPR is using public money to build its brand, doesn’t the public have a right to expect that MPR will work cooperatively with others in the media ecosystem, all of whom are aiming to serve the public interest? For example, why has it refused to allow nonprofit news sites like the Minnesota Independent and MinnPost to pay to be underwriters (in effect, advertisers) on the radio?

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/30/2009 - 11:53 am.

    #3: I know you can assure us the term non-profit is accurate when applied to MinnPost.

    But we should quote this term when applying it to “non-profit” entities like MPR and Blue Cross, to distinguish it from the real thing.

    The core idea of subsidizing MPR with public monies is a bad idea, no matter how they choose to shuffle that money around.

    Straight from the horse’s mouth: “…the more eyeballs that see our news coverage, the more valuable we’ll been seen going forward.” This money is being used to promote their brand, plain and simple.

  5. Submitted by Betty Tisel on 10/30/2009 - 01:18 pm.

    David, are you saying that $400K just covers two salaries, ingrassia’s and casares’? or that their salaries are included in what the 400K will cover?

  6. Submitted by Gregory Stricherz on 10/30/2009 - 03:49 pm.

    Betty, I hope you are not shocked that $400,000 might cover just two salaries. In 2004 Bill Kling, MPR president, earned $326,700 from MPR and another $218,000 from American Public Media Group, parent company of MPR. I quit donating to MPR years ago when I realized how many donors were needed just to pay Bill Kling’s salary.

  7. Submitted by Jon Ellis on 10/30/2009 - 07:07 pm.

    Wisconsin Public Radio has been sending out the text of its stories to other news organizations for years. The reports are picked up by many smaller newspapers, including the Superior Telegram and Inter-County Leader in Frederic. We also adapt some stories for TV use at FOX 21 in Duluth and post most of them on our website.

    The major difference between MPR and WPR is, of course, that WPR is owned by the state and MPR is not.

  8. Submitted by Ann Alquist on 10/31/2009 - 11:43 am.

    I don’t have too much of a problem with state funds supporting public media, entirely because part of this funding is also going to AMPERS (the Association of Minnesota’s Public and Educational Radio Stations.) Sure, it’s going to be split 12 ways among the members, but they need whatever financial support they can get, and if APM lobbyists can use their muscle so that everyone gets a slice of the pie, I say hurray. That is money well spent, supporting the diversity of Minnesota airwaves from WTIP in Grand Marais to KMSU the Maverick down in Mankato to my own former stomping grounds at KFAI in Minneapolis. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Also, just because we don’t pay taxes for commercial broadcasting, doesn’t mean it’s not subsidized – KSTP and the rest of them don’t pay a dime to broadcast – they get the airwaves for free! Kind of like how the government gave away land after the Civil War to anyone who would farm it. To take the metaphor one step further, they stole it from indigenous populations – the government stole our airwaves in 1934 and gave it away with almost no accountability about acting in the public interest.

  9. Submitted by David Brauer on 10/31/2009 - 04:45 pm.

    Betty – I don’t know for sure, but I’m betting $400K covers MORE than the two salaries. For what, I don’t know, but I didn’t ask.

  10. Submitted by Paul Gustafson on 11/02/2009 - 12:25 pm.

    Bill Kling not playing well with others in the non-profit news business? All one big family?

    That’s never been the way Kling sees it, in my opinion.

    You have to tip your hat to him for building MPR.
    But, based on news reports over the years, I conclude that non-profit broadcasting has given him a for-profit-sized CEO compensation package. Which is very hard to stomach.

    I’d like to know how much of the MPR Empire is hinged on the Keillor-“Prairie Home Companion” show. If/When that stops, how much of a hit will MPR take?

    What do you think/know about that, David?

  11. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/02/2009 - 04:30 pm.

    Mssrs Coleman and Kramer, et al, are both so right on.

    Why do we continue to provide MPR with so many tax advantages? I only laugh that it’s taken this long for all you lefties to jump on board. Why are monies given to MPR by businesses treated as tax-deductible donations rather than as an advertising expense, anyway?

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