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MPR: Reality arrives with 9 layoffs and a newsroom rearrangement

What upcoming changes at MPR will actually mean for listeners
Earlier this month Chief Operating Officer Dave Kansas asserted that the network is experiencing “growth” this year and expects to grow again next year.

The alert for changes at Minnesota Public Radio went up two weeks ago. Reality arrived yesterday with the lay­offs of nine staffers and a newsroom rearrangement that has Chris Worthington, the station’s VP for News, shifting to an as­-yet unexplained role with an investigative unit and a “nationwide” search for his replacement.

NewsCut blogger Bob Collins tweeted his collegial farewells to those being let go. Among them, the two most surprising are PoliGraph/politics writer Catharine Richert and education reporter Alex Friedrich, both generally admired, at least among MPR consumers, for the thoroughness for their coverage.

Other lay­offs include photographers Nikki Tundel, Jeffrey Thompson and Jennifer Simonson, reporters Chris Roberts, Emily Kaiser, David Cazares and host Beth Kidd.

MPR would not officially confirm those names, and as of this posting there has been no response to requests for interviews with Worthington and other MPR managers.

The obvious question is whether the departure of nine staffers, representing roughly $100,000/yr. each in wages and benefits at the “conventional wisdom” rate, suggests a necessary response to weaker than expected revenue from one source of the American Public Media Group or another.

Earlier this month Chief Operating Officer Dave Kansas asserted that the network is experiencing “growth” this year and expects to grow again next year.

The shift of Worthington, previously co­-managing editor at the Pioneer Press, provokes questions as to his enthusiasm for the switch. Which in turn leads to questions regarding the precise scope and staffing/resources being applied to what the station is suggesting will be a more formalized investigative initiative. An effort springboarding off its successful, award­winning “Betrayed by Silence” series on the various sexual abuse scandals covered by area Catholic dioceses.

Beyond that, Richert’s “PoliGraph” posts, researching and applying conclusive judgment to claims and assertions by politicians ­­ — a version of the Poynter Institute’s popular “PolitiFact” feature ­­— would seem to be vital-­to-­the­-point-­of­-indispensable commodity as we swing into another election cycle.

Similarly, Friedrich’s coverage of various education-­related issues, from the U of M’s long­running controversy over drug testing to the performance or lack­ thereof of for­-profit colleges would seem to be a beat requiring more attention, not less. 

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Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/24/2015 - 11:30 am.

    Forgive My Ignorance

    Why did a radio network have three photographers?

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 07/24/2015 - 11:43 am.

      For the Web Page

      MPR News prints its broadcast transcriptions on its webpage, so it adds appropriate photos, as would any respectable news blog. Check it out: mprnews.org

    • Submitted by Scott Pakudaitis on 07/24/2015 - 11:46 am.

      For the same reason they own a theater building. (The Fitzgerald.)

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/24/2015 - 11:36 am.

    Much Better Information

    Here Brian Lambert offers much better information through better writing following by-the-book measures of coherence. Much appreciated, Brian.

    Please do make your comments more specific to the business units, rather than to “MPR” in general. Somehow you (and many readers) assume we all immediately think “news.” Not so…so please remember to identify your references either by radio frequency or by unit name, e.g. The Current, Classical MPR, etc. You write for several separate MPR constituencies, after all.

    This is an important story, Brian, and you are to be commended for breaking it on MinnPost; however, you must be clear as to your thesis.

    Today’s article begins to take us into the story of changes at Minnesota Public Radio. Thanks.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/24/2015 - 12:19 pm.

    MPR changes

    The recently announced second retirement of Garrison Keillor might help explain the job cuts.

    • Submitted by Allan Wilson on 07/26/2015 - 08:01 pm.

      South Florida Loss

      A more likely trigger is the recent $8 million loss in the sale of the Miami classical radio stations.

  4. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 07/24/2015 - 12:31 pm.

    Evolution is inevitable

    There is nothing like an out of state car trip to make one appreciate MPR. When Minnesota is in the rearview mirror and the MPR signal fades, the broadcast bands are mighty slim pickin’s for anyone with a brain or a modicum of good taste. Happily, it is possible to stream the MPR services, whether classical, The Current, or several others as long as internet connectivity is available. The news service is much appreciated by this dude – nothing else comes close to being as useful for staying informed. The thing is, if change did not happen, MPR wouldn’t be nearly this good. All successful systems adapt and grow and evolve to stay relevant. That’s why this story isn’t necessarily describing a bad thing. Had MPR not evolved over the years, there would be a tiny FM network centered on the Twin Cities and St. Cloud instead of today’s anywhere and any time internet apps and a statewide (and more!) FM network. So yes, change does happen. And it’s a good thing.

  5. Submitted by Don Berryman on 07/24/2015 - 01:03 pm.

    WIll really miss jazz coverage by David Cazares

    David Cazares’ coverage of the local jazz scene will certainly be missed.

  6. Submitted by Franz Kitzberger on 07/24/2015 - 01:51 pm.

    Kansas

    This isn’t Kansas, never has been Kansas, but will probably be Dave Kansas soon. What’s the matter with Kansas? A WSJ “journalist” as COO? I’ll bet he’s part of the push to behave like those in the private sector. MPR is experiencing “growth,” (in what, exactly?) and human resources and listener-services will be the first to be commodified.That’s the “change” that disturbs me–this blatant (seemingly indiscriminate) mission-drift toward commercialization. Change? Looks like less of the same to this “founding” listener. It’s time for us as a nation and a state to revisit our nonprofit corporation acts and statutes, and the ever-eroding mission and rules of the Federal Communications Commission. End your commercials immediately please.

  7. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 07/24/2015 - 03:47 pm.

    Timing

    I believe their fiscal year started July 1. Kind of early in the fiscal year for the bloodletting to begin. Or should I say “reorganizing”.

  8. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 07/24/2015 - 04:15 pm.

    As Mr. Million suggests

    What we call “MPR” is in fact a very large, multi-faced group of organizations, each with very different niches. Some parts are doing much better than others, as I hear it. The newsroom is among the largest of its kind in the nation, it would be tempting for a boss to trim there, even though those laid off my have nothing to do with the part of the larger organization that bleeding red ink.

  9. Submitted by joe smith on 07/26/2015 - 03:10 pm.

    MPR would stand a better chance of being a successful news organization if they weren’t so liberal biased. I listen once in a great while and I hear party line DFL talking points being backed up by pro DFL hosts. Minnesota is super liberal but there are many that like their news straight up, with differing points of view and let the listener decide which is correct.

  10. Submitted by Allan Wilson on 07/26/2015 - 08:11 pm.

    10% Welch Rule

    McTaggert is proving he knows all about Management in the 21st Century by invoking the 10% Rule, famously invented by Jack Wellch of GE and a Cornerstone of Six Sigma, a heavily discredited management theory which has, in latter days, seeped downward into the realms of non-profits.

    The 10% Rule identifies employees who “don’t have a future here” and is VERY heavily weighted toward older white males (OWM’s) and females with >1 child at home. It is a blatant form of age discrimination made possible by the Supreme Court’s repeal of the law against it (Gross vs. FirstFinancial, 2007).

    Welcome to the post-Bill Kling Era! Welcome ALL millenials (contributions only, Baby Boomers).

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/27/2015 - 09:37 am.

    Forgive MY ignorance but…

    I don’t actually hear a lot of original news content on MPR in the first place so I’ve never understood what all the fuss is about? It seems to me the vast majority of their broadcast schedule is filled with content from other providers like NPR? Their “original” content when I hear it, like the morning mid-morning etc. has become unlistenable to me for a variety of reasons. I still can’t listen to the Current for any length of time so the only MPR station I actually listen to for any length of time is their classical station.

    Professional photography has taken several hits over the last decade and staff photog’s in particular have been decimated or worse. Sports Illustrated just cut ALL of it’s staff photogs loose. I find it hard to believe that MPR was paying it’s staff photogs $100k ea. a year for those photos? In today’s market that’s way beyond the going the rate. $50-$60k a year plus expenses and benefits should be doable but I wonder if they’re just going to replace original content with public domain images? Or they could hire freelancers. Maybe they’ll offer those photogs freelance contracts? On the other hand while working I’ve run into several MPR reporters who are doing double duty as photogs and reporters so what’s up with that?

  12. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 07/27/2015 - 10:46 am.

    Investigative?

    MPR is indistinguishable from corporate mainstream media, if a point of journalism is holding the establishment powers accountable. I don’t expect this will make it any more hard nosed.

    WHD

  13. Submitted by Emily Sojourn on 07/27/2015 - 10:55 am.

    Some things never change

    Having friends who have worked for MPR since the 1990s and having spent 10 years there myself, I have to chuckle at all this speculation swirling around. This is S.O.P. for this organization. There’s a “purge” every few years— upheavals and changes— and then things settle down for awhile and then it starts all over again. It’s gone on like this for decades. And in the background, everyone rushes to voice their “take” on it.

    I see that folks still use any story at all about MPR as an excuse to vent their spleen about MPR’s supposed political bias; people still think that Garrison has any impact on the organization (he doesn’t) and people still grouse about how “commercial” it is.

    Yawn. See y’all at the next layoff.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/27/2015 - 11:53 am.

      “special” insight?

      Since no one on this comment thread thus far has said anything about political bias or Garrison it’s hard to take this “insight” seriously. Sure everyone has re-org’s every so often, that’s not an MPR thing. Try working in a hospital for a couple years.

      The major’s in public broadcasting HAVE become more commercial in the last decade or so. The increased reliance on corporate sponsorship and sales is simply a fact. Look at TPT’s “membership” drives, every other week (it seems) they completely suspend their regular programming in order to run infomercial sales programming. In the 80’s they ran the most popular programs during pledge drives, now they suspend their most popular programs in order to hock Suze Orman videos. Meanwhile MPR has a parade of financial “advisers” constantly telling people they have to reduce their tax burden… only run panicked adds every time congress threatens to cut their tax subsidy. Whatever.

      At any rate, since we ALL support MPR one way or another either voluntarily or un-voluntarily we can grouse if we want.

      • Submitted by Josh William on 07/27/2015 - 02:25 pm.

        That is Incorrect

        Joe Smith posted this from yesterday, just a few posts above yours.

        “MPR would stand a better chance of being a successful news organization if they weren’t so liberal biased. I listen once in a great while and I hear party line DFL talking points being backed up by pro DFL hosts. Minnesota is super liberal but there are many that like their news straight up, with differing points of view and let the listener decide which is correct.”

  14. Submitted by Fritz Knaak on 07/27/2015 - 11:37 am.

    Some thing really never change

    Emily Soujourn above is right on the money. The purge culture has been part of MPR almost from the beginning.

    I remain amazed that it is so easy to understand the melodic voices of their talent speaking into microphones with everyone spending their days looking over their shoulders.

    Kudos to Brian Lambert for digging this one out of the mists of MythPR.

  15. Submitted by Charles LaMont on 07/27/2015 - 01:29 pm.

    “MPR would stand a better chance of being a successful news organization if they weren’t so liberal biased.”

    The funny thing is that conservatives accuse them of being too liberal, and liberals accuse them of being too conservative. That indicates that their coverage is neither.

  16. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 07/27/2015 - 08:34 pm.

    Public radio empire

    With the cancellation of “Wits,” it sounds like MPR and the rest of the empire are being run by the same people who tried to kill off the MN Orchestra and are doing the same to the MPLS Aquatennial. Next?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/28/2015 - 09:06 am.

      Dude….

      “Wits” WAS a product of corporate banker mindsets in the first place. It was cancelled because it failed to turn a profit for American Public Media. So getting back to the issue of “commercialization”, is there any question that so co-called “public” non-profit tax payer subsidized programming actually exists anymore? By name only. And we’ve all suffered because by an large the programming has sunk into mediocrity. I can’t even watch NOVA anymore for the most part and I learn more about what’s going on in the US by listening to the BBC and CBC than I would find out listening to US public radio. And I hate to tell you this but when you get outside MN and beyond the broadcast “empire” of APM, public radio is usually a lot more interesting.

  17. Submitted by Robert Ryan on 07/29/2015 - 11:32 am.

    Pattern to the Purge

    Another thing I’ve noticed over the years is the purge always occurs shortly after the end of a pledge period. I assume this is to avoid pissing off any listeners before MPR gets their pledge.

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