What should MPR do with its $5 million reporting grant?

Let’s be clear: Minnesota Public Radio’s $5 million grant from an anonymous donor for “enterprise” reporting is a great thing, a nifty boost for local reporting in an increasingly de-monetized era.

We don’t have many details yet about the grant — MPR CEO Bill Kling won’t disclose the donor’s name — or how precisely it will be spent. Chris Worthington, MPR’s Managing Director of Regional News, wasn’t much interested in talking after Monday’s announcement.

So how much can $5 million improve MPR?

Let’s start by noting how much $5 million really is. Taken in a lump, it would fund the Star Tribune’s newsroom for roughly three months.

But the money won’t be spent that way. MPR Public Relations manager Christina Schmitt terms it an endowment. The safest assumption is that the $5 million principal would basically be preserved, and Worthington’s newsroom will get the investment income. Let’s call the return 5 percent, which works out to $250,000 or so annually. Depending on expenses and reportorial experience, you could be talking three or four reporters.

That’s not enough for a news revolution, but working at MinnPost, I can tell you it’s enviable. And the reporter corps might turn out to be bigger than that, if MPR uses the $5 million as seed money to lure other donors.

In my live chats and tweets, I’ve loudly proclaimed MPR should use the money on stories that frog-march bad guys in jail. In 40 years, that sort of high profile, high-impact investigation has never really been MPR’s style. But if public radio is truly in the big leagues now — Strib board chair Mike Sweeney forecasts MPR as his big-media rival — the public should demand Pulitzer-quality takedowns once in awhile.

Yes, MPR has won investigative awards — 2007’s “Toxic Traces,” about 3M pollution, is a good example. But Kling’s management culture — so expert at netting trustees with interlocking corporate connections — doesn’t excel at aggression, even though there are news-gatherers inside pining for more of it. Too often, public radio’s indelible decorum — its blessing, and curse — turns investigations into explainers, and impact into uh-huhs. (MPR is hardly alone in that department.)

All the money in the world won’t change limp top-down directives — NewsQ? Really? — but existential threats might. Despite the Strib’s recent upward revision of MPR’s web traffic, the site isn’t a killer, even though management has made it a priority. MPR is adding the Minnesota Today news aggregator, which is good, but it won’t improve top-end reporting. Bolder, original content is the key. After all, MPR already has the dutiful market.

That’s why I was somewhat depressed when Kling announced the grant was for “enterprise reporting,” not “investigative reporting.”

The terms are all a bit squishy, but “enterprise” means stories not spoon-fed via press releases, news conferences, or breaking-news ambulance-chasing. Basically, stuff you unearth yourself, even if you’re working off of breaking news. Enterprise can include investigations, but can also be forgettable mush of unique flavor.

Hopefully, Worthington hears “investigations,” when Kling says “enterprise,” though it should be said that enterprise can be great. MPR had a perfect example earlier this month: Sasha Aslanian’s story on 1,250 undocumented janitors “quietly” losing their jobs, which showcased a hidden story of massive family upheaval and Obama-era immigration enforcement. You can make a case that week-in, week-out scoops are better than the months-long, homer-or-strikeout investigative efforts newspapers attempt.

Despite the Strib’s teeth-baring, MPR’s newsroom remains relatively small; its reporting corps numbers in the 20s while the Strib tops 100. MPR has beat reporters who can beat the dailies — Laura Yuen on Somali issues, Tom Scheck on politics, Lorna Benson on H1N1. But too often MPR editors follow the papers, or defer to wire services on big, breaking stories that should be public radio naturals. For example, today’s NewsQ piece on Hennepin County Medical Center’s $25 million cut — with a potential massive dislocation for indigent clinic users — comes from the Associated Press.

Endowment-funded reporters — working on unique stuff, available for big stuff — could plug many such holes.

MPR has other newsroom needs. While many reporters are conversant in computer-assisted reporting, MPR doesn’t have a permanent full-time CAR specialist, a la Glenn Howatt at the Strib. Think of how that person could buttress a beat reporter, working a unique angle on a breaking story.

There have been times this week when I’ve wondered whether Sweeney and Kling are working in cahoots: Sweeney gets points inside the Strib for flashing a fighting spirit; Kling gets to project the image of a growing organization.

But for MPR, it’s not quite that simple. The newsroom no longer has a researcher, a newsroom coordinator, or as many newscasters. Redeploying resources web-ward may make sense, but Worthington has faced more tough choices than the recent headlines (including mine) indicate. And, like any manager, he has to worry his bosses won’t claw back the $250,000 by cutting his budget elsewhere, or by re-labeling existing expenses as endowment-funded.

I’ve brushed up against Worthington enough to know he has an edge to him; his importation of several Pioneer Press reporters in the last couple of years marks him as a change agent. But MPR — its leaders, editors and reporters — need to demonstrate more of that Pioneer Press bulldog spirit, online if not on-air, especially if Kling wants his troops to be the Strib’s true rival.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/19/2009 - 01:19 pm.

    I think that they should address a pet peeve of mine and give me a job at the same time. I believe in complete disclosure before I go into something like this.

    MPR does a fabulous job of devoting gobs of time to issues. They often let experts talk for several minutes at a time, uninterrupted, so that they can develop a coherent argument that doesn’t fit in a single sound bite.

    That’s good. The problem is that most of the “experts” I’ve heard on important topics, including the economy, are people with very mainstream views of things. I’ve heard countless discussions on the economy, for example, that stress how experts see a recovery soon – even after they make light of the fact that the same experts didn’t see the situation arising in the first place (and alleging that no one did, which is ridiculous and easily disproved).

    Having grown tired of this nonsense, I started commenting rather heavily on their website to try to get them to understand how incredibly thin their “golden rolodex” must be. I was told about their “Public Insight Network” which was their effort to get past the problem and get real community voices on their website. I was impressed – they understand the problem!

    Well, not entirely. They don’t pay for content, meaning I would be expected to write original stuff for them for free. And they want people to stick to topics that they devise, which in the first batch included, “The Recesion is Over – Now What?” that only enraged me more. The latest round includes, “Why are tickets to popular events so hard to come by?” I have to say, I can’t answer because if I had more money I’d probably use it to eat more than one meal a day, not see U2.

    While their intent is good, and they appear to understand the problem, what they are trying to do has no resources behind it and works entirely from the top down – or, more accurately, from the Middle Class through to more Middle Class. It’s not going to produce much in the way of new light this way.

    So let’s see this take-off from the money that they got from the Legacy Fund money for Minnesota Today – which goes to increasing much-needed coverage of outstate – to put some real meat behind a search for alternative voices across the state. In short, put the Minnesota Public into MPR.

    An open call for work, even if done on spec through a kind of challenge system, would open up their airwaves and website like nothing else. It could even be the foundation that makes loftier goals much easier to reach. It also would make $250k go an awfully long way.

  2. Submitted by Lynn Nelson on 11/19/2009 - 04:57 pm.

    I hope there are more anonymous donors out there. While there is currently media redundancy in some areas, it is fading as the local media is downsized.

    When the storm clears, we will see that we need watch dogs for community, metro and outstate. Right now we get a lot of the same news on different channels (TV, radio, print) but most of it is not generated by the media. And when someone does hit on a good story (Ch. 5 and Xcel’s planes), everyone else jumps on board.

    This recession is much scarier than anyone will admit publicly. Why isn’t anyone covering credit card defaults? What about the big picture from a tax standpoint? Charts and graphs would allow us to see what the city/state has taken in and where it was spent over the last 5, 10 15 years. We spend more and get less. We’re smart enough to handle the info, but we don’t get it from our local media in an accessible format.

    Ultimately, those with the best content will win.

  3. Submitted by Steve Brandt on 11/19/2009 - 07:53 pm.

    It also would be nice to hear something other than 24 to 36-hour-old Strib stories on the local weekend news.

  4. Submitted by Bill Wareham on 11/19/2009 - 10:41 pm.

    Steve, whatever you’re hearing on the weekends, it’s not from the Strib. Your bosses have decided it’s not in their interest to let us use your material, which is otherwise available to non-metro members of the Associated Press. I have, however, noticed that more MPR-generated material is showing up in the Strib as your staff size shrinks. I’m not complaining; just saying, as they just say.

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/20/2009 - 08:00 am.

    I’m not hopeful of MPR doing much useful. All you have to do is look at their ignoring the scandal at Allina a few years ago. At the time Allina COO David Strand was *the chair* of the MPR board of directors – and – surprise of surprises – MPR virtually ignored the story. Then, when we tried to investigate WHY MPR ignored the scandal, MPR lied to us about their coverage. In short, MPR is not to be trusted. The more important the issue the more likely MPR is to lie about it.

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