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Bill Kling revises history about public-media-expansion plan

I suppose you’ve made it in this town when Bill Kling throws a sharp elbow your way; Andy Mannix’s recent City Pages cover on the departing Minnesota Public Radio founder catalogues the not-so-exclusive club.

I suppose you’ve made it in this town when Bill Kling throws a sharp elbow your way; Andy Mannix’s recent City Pages cover on the departing Minnesota Public Radio founder catalogues the not-so-exclusive club. But there’s a bigger story here than a shot thrown in our direction.

In September, on the heels of his retirement announcement, Kling floated a five-year, $25-million-per-station plan to add scores of journalists to public broadcasting newsrooms. The plan — which would be $100 million for four stations — is big, bold, and fits with Kling’s narrative of newspaper decline and public media filling the gap.

In a Q-and-A, Mannix asked Kling why the plan wasn’t yet funded:

CP: And if I’m remembering correctly, you wanted to have $5 million per city raised before you left?

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BK: Oh, not before I left.

CP: Ok, I think that was in a MinnPost column.

BK: Consider the source. …

I’m 18 percent sure Kling is kidding, but the original source of the information is Ken Doctor, a former Pioneer Press managing editor who is now a finger-on-the-pulse industry analyst. Whatever you think of me or MinnPost, Kling thought enough of Doctor to include him in a “Future of News” summit a couple of years ago.

Here’s what Doctor wrote in October, after talking to Kling:

Kling and his colleagues are strategizing their plans and foundation asks — and his hope is that funding can be locked down by next June [2011], when he formally steps from his APMG post. He says his post-retirement plan is to focus on the building out of public media. If it is, hiring could commence by mid-2011.

Obviously, it’s mid-2011, and Kling concedes the funding — much less the hiring — isn’t there yet. I emailed Doctor to see if he stood by his column; he said he was “comfortable” with it, adding:

“In a subsequent talk, he noted, as he did to City Pages, that fundraising has gone slower than he wanted and timeline is delayed. What’s going on, I think, is that Kling purposely set out a big goal, one that could make a difference in local reporting and one that could get noticed. The deep recession, uneasy recovery and NPR becoming a political piñata nationally have all slowed down big-money fundraising.”

I can’t blame Kling for swinging for the fences to grab funders’ attention. As both Doctor and I noted, his pre-departure goal was a hope. But, perhaps out of pride, Kling is not telling the truth about his initial statements.

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Ultimately, though, there’s no real deadline here — if Kling can raise the money in a couple of months or years, public media and the public will be much better off, and no one will remember the early 2011 struggles. Given his track record, it’s unwise to bet against him, even amid public broadcasting’s political problems.

But if Kling, of all people, can’t raise the money, perhaps public media won’t replace many of those lost local-paper journalists. For better or worse, the local news future may depend on the competitors Kling has spent a career dismissing: newspapers slogging through digital conversion, a profusion of MinnPost-scale outlets, and reportorial bloggers.