That subscription fuss? An early spark in an evolving relationship

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“News this good isn’t free.” I find myself delivering some variation on that remark during every single public radio pledge break on WNPR this spring. We’ve been saying this in Connecticut for years: “Despite the fact that you don’t have to pay for public radio news, you can’t expect to just keep getting stories about the Mexican drug war from John Burnett … or Anne Garrels reporting from an unstable Pakistan for nothing.” Right?

We tell our listeners all the time that their contributions make our high-quality journalism possible, and without their help, it could all go away.

So it’s understandable that newspaper people might have been a little piqued by the memo leaked to Jim Romenesko’s blog this month. Ellen McDonnell, NPR’s director of morning programming, wrote to news staffers:

As of April 1 NPR is cancelling all newspaper subscriptions. We are making some arrangements to get the Wall Street Journal either on line or hard copy. You have until tomorrow to appeal this if there is a solid reason why you should be exempt. This is a cost saving measure company wide.

That measure, we were later told, will save the network some $100,000 — an option you wouldn’t want to ignore when you’re facing budget deficits of $8 million this fiscal year and $7 million in 2010, as NPR is. The network just completed a painful series of layoffs announced in December, losing two popular shows and some well-known reporters.

After the memo went public, NPR later released a statement clarifying its position on the newspaper subscription cuts. The statement concluded: “NPR is strongly committed to the highest quality of journalism everywhere, and are pleased that most publishers offer free online access to their content for us at NPR — as well as all readers.”

But what message does a free ride on news content send to a segment of the journalism community hit even harder by the recession?

Readers of the blog by Hartford Courant columnist Rick Green found out. He wrote: “This just in from NPR — you don’t have to pay anything for the news.” Which he followed with, “Memo to self: cancel pledges to WFCR and WNPR.”

Ouch. Whether NPR’s memo was “sleazy,” as Green suggested, or evidence of the kind of frugality public radio listeners expect is a matter of interpretation. From where Green sits, “It sorta rang my bell.”

And it’s not hard to see why. Our station has been working collaboratively with the Courant for years. Green and other columnists regularly appear on our daily talk show. In return, their columnists blog about our shows and drive listeners to WNPR. We use their photos on our website and rely on news generated by their investigative reporting, a venture far too expensive for our station. The Courant is the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper, dating back to 1764. It has broken corruption scandals and driven government reform efforts.

But its recent fortunes have been tied to its owner, the bankrupt Tribune Co., which has been slashing jobs at all of its papers. On Feb. 5, the Courant was the subject of a Morning Edition piece by NPR’s David Folkenflik titled “Imagining a City Without Its Daily Newspaper.” Folkenflik asked residents, politicians and news professionals what would happen if the paper went away.

The verdict: Folding the Courant would be a big loss for the community.

Hartford is already losing the Courant, byline by byline. Less than a month after Folkenflik’s report, the paper cut 100 jobs, cutting its news staff to 135, just over half what it was at the start of 2008. The Courant cut its top political reporter at the state capitol and its bureau in Washington, D.C. The cuts were blamed on Tribune’s continued struggles, but also on the collapsing newspaper industry, where ad sales are drying up and the relative trickle of online revenue fails to make up the difference.

Green, who has worked at the Courant for 22 years, told me NPR’s decision to cancel the delivery of the papers hit a little too close to home as he says goodbye to colleagues in the newsroom. He called it “heartbreaking.”

“Because, if anybody knows about the cost of news, it’s the journalists who make NPR happen,” he said.

Green wonders aloud if this might signal that his industry is a “lost cause” that can’t sell enough ads in the print edition, can’t find a model to support an online version, and is losing another news organization as a paying subscriber.

“The great function of newspapers was to have reporters out in the field, turning over the dirt,” Green said, and without those newspaper reporters, everyone in the news industry suffers.

Newspapers still drive information to the wire services; they still give NPR and all the member stations content for talk shows; they still provide a common point of reference for every morning news meeting in America.

And even at its diminished size, the Courant’s news work force is still more than ten times as large as that of a well-staffed public station like WNPR.

As NPR’s memo points out, most newspapers do provide content for free on the Web. But at what cost and for how long? Now that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is operating online only, it may be able to create a more sustainable, post-print identity, but it has also cut its newsgathering workforce to about 20, a fraction of its former size.

That loss of journalistic capital worries new NPR President Vivian Schiller, too. She’s the former head of the New York Times’ online division, and she still gets the paper’s daily print version delivered to her door.

“We absolutely must preserve in this country the ability for there to be robust investigative, enterprise reporting. There is no shortcut to that,” she told me. “There must be journalists who are properly trained and in great numbers.”

But that doesn’t mean clinging to ink and paper.

“Look, the reality is — let’s talk about what’s precious at newspapers,” Schiller said. “It’s not the newsprint. It’s not the piece of paper that matters; it’s the journalism that’s coming out.”

But with papers shrinking, what will emerge? Fast Company magazine asked recently, “Will NPR Save the News?” And it’s a fair question if you look around for organizations that have the motivation to try and the ability to muster the necessary resources.

The network, despite the recent setbacks, has added reporting talent where others have stripped it away. It has become relevant online, and can only be expected to improve with Schiller adding her new-media savvy. She’s already proposed a web network, where NPR enables local stations to create their own, competitive online news services.

Many others view public radio’s nonprofit journalism model as one of the best available options for American journalism. A new bill proposed by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) would allow newspapers to restructure as nonprofits, for “educational purposes.” If you think this sounds an awful lot like the beginnings of public broadcasting, you’re right.

Cardin doesn’t mean to rescue “large newspaper conglomerates,” he said in a statement, but it could be used to “preserve local newspapers serving communities” — presumably communities such as Hartford, Conn.

This could open the door to a new wave of collaboration between public radio stations and the newly minted nonprofit local newspapers. Vivian Schiller tells me the network is talking about ideas like this and “looking at forms of partnerships that never would have been contemplated before.”

So is WNPR in Hartford. We’re talking with foundations, bloggers and recently laid-off print reporters who all want to fill the void left by shrinking newspaper staffs. But what shape might these collaborations take?

In those talks, we imagine a number of futures, which are not inconsistent with one another. Public radio could:

  • focus on what we do best — enterprise news and in-depth analysis. There’s a craving for the media to be better government watchdogs, and this model could fill that need.  We could leave the coverage of “breaking news” to the for-profit media, which seems to view it as a growth market, and leave the sports page to the legions of hyper-involved sports fans already chatting on the Web.
  • develop arts content that fills a community void. NPR’s successful music site can be a model for interactive coverage of local artists, something that’s disappearing from newspapers every day. And, we can be more efficient with our cultural mission. Currently, several newspapers in our state publish arts calendars that compete with WNPR’s. New partnerships could create widely read “one-stop” arts portals.
  • partner with universities, many of which are already developing investigative units within their journalism schools. These low-cost projects can benefit from massive, multiplatform distribution.
  • let radio do what radio does best—programming that is interactive and in-the-moment. We’d develop talk shows that use the best reporting that newspapers have to offer to engage listeners in daily conversation. We can bring the tools of radio production to the table and transform the traditional print story using voices and sounds.
  • let displaced newspaper veterans do what they do best — hit the streets and get the stories. We’d capitalize on their ingrained newsgathering abilities and the keen visual sense of newspaper photojournalists. Every public radio newsroom would benefit from this infusion.

The idealistic world of public radio tote bags and coffee mugs even seems appealing to columnist Rick Green, still fighting to keep his newspaper alive.

Honestly, the thought of others flocking to our business model makes me laugh, especially when I’m knee-deep in another fundraiser. Our model for voluntary support seems so quaint: Ask listeners to give what they can in support. Ask corporations to underwrite programming that they and their customers value. Hope it works. Repeat a few months later.

The idea that newspapers would ever see much hope in this formula is a telling statement about the future of media. For public broadcasters, however, there’s nothing new about giving away the news for free.

John Dankosky is news director of Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network’s WNPR in Hartford and host of its daily news/talk show, Where We Live. He’s worked in public media for 20 years and has reported and edited for NPR and other national outlets. E-mail: jdankosky (at)

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