MPR aims to become bigger player in news market

  • Article by: JENNIFER BJORHUS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 17, 2009 - 1:32 PM

The public radio giant is expanding its newscasts and beefing up digital services as local newspapers and other media outlets struggle.

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Minnesota Public Radio reporter Tim Nelson edited a story on water quality with deputy news director Laura McCallum in their new headquarters in downtown St. Paul.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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No one knows the future of the news industry, but Bill Kling is betting public radio can assume more of the role traditionally played by newspapers.

Kling grew MPR from a classical music outpost at St. John's University in 1967 into a powerhouse conglomerate of 39 stations in Minnesota and neighboring states. Now, with media companies of all stripes facing a punishing economy and the migration of their audiences and advertisers to the Web, he is pushing MPR deeper into the news business.

It's devoting more bodies and a greater share of its budget to news. Since December, MPR has added 15 newscasts, bringing its weekly newscasts to 269. And it recently unveiled a revamped digital arm called NewsQ.

The summit it's hosting today in St. Paul -- "The Future of News: Creating a New Model for Regional Journalism in America" -- has drawn top national media analysts and is the latest example of MPR's expanded ambitions.

In a recent interview at MPR's St. Paul headquarters, Kling said MPR is in a better position to lead the conversation about the future because it's more stable than most other media outlets due to the diversity of its funding base. Plus, it hasn't been distracted by a bankruptcy, as was the case for the Star Tribune for most of this year.

"It seemed very important to say: What happens if we lose one of the newspapers? What happens if we lose both of the newspapers? What happens if the television and cable news sources find that their economic models work better with controversy than with trying to provide depth in news stories?" Kling said. The station's planning committee and board have raised questions about what the 10-year expectations are for MPR in terms of news.

"We may find that audiences are expecting us to be a BBC-type of news operation in this region," Kling said, referring to the British Broadcasting Corp. "You can't turn on a dime and do that."

How big a threat are MPR's ambitions to the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press? The two newspapers' reporting resources still greatly outnumber MPR's news staff of about 70. The Star Tribune has about 275 full-time equivalent news staff; the Pioneer Press, 135.

Chris Ison, once a Pulitzer Prize winner at the Star Tribune and now a teacher at the University of Minnesota's journalism school, said MPR presents "a little threat" to its print competitors.

"There's a lot of quality news, at least on the radio, that rivals a lot of what anybody else is doing around here," Ison said. "If they can translate that to their website, that can be pretty effective."

Newsbobber is next

MPR is working on that. It says its domain (Minnesota .publicradio.org) is one of the largest among public radio stations in the country. MPR averages about 4.3 million page views and 180,670 unique users a month, according to Nielsen's NetView service. That's more than either Boston or New York public radio.

Nielsen shows local online news start-up MinnPost averaging 251,000 page views and 79,000 unique users a month.

StarTribune.com remains the dominant player locally online, averaging about 55 million page views and 2 million unique users a month, according to Nielsen's NetView. That's about in line with comparable metro dailies. The Pioneer Press website, TwinCities.com, averages about 5.2 million page views a month and 509,000 unique users.

MPR plans to beef up NewsQ with a news aggregator brought by new hire Bob Ingrassia, a former Pioneer Press metro editor who more recently worked at Internet Broadcasting, a St. Paul-based digital media company. He developed Newsbobber -- a news aggregator to cull regional news from independent media, blogs, websites and Twitter. MPR plans to morph Newsbobber into an online hub called Minnesota Today that would also distribute free MPR stories to newspapers and other media, initially outside the metro area. It's set to launch Jan. 1.

Taxpayer money is indirectly paying for MPR to hire Ingrassia, another hire to handle distribution, and the whole Minnesota Today project. MPR is devoting $400,000 to the project from a $2.65 million, two-year grant it got from the Legacy Fund -- the state fund created by the three-eighths cent increase in the sales tax that voters approved to support wildlife and culture.

Chris Worthington, managing director of news, has been championing higher-impact enterprise reporting since he joined MPR in 2006 from the Pioneer Press. Recent MPR exclusives, he said, include a story about the St. Paul housing authority misapplying federal housing dollars and how some H1N1 flu patients lack a fever, making it difficult to correctly diagnose swine flu.

'Beyond the pale'

Mike Sweeney, the private equity pro who's now chairman of the Star Tribune, bristles at MPR's ambition. He said MPR has created "a sense of false crisis" with its regional news conference, and that it's wrong to question the Star Tribune's survivability. Including digital readers, the Star Tribune's audience has never been larger, he said. The newspaper is projected to generate significant operating cash flow next year and is in no danger of collapse, he said.

The paper has undergone deep staff cuts over the past several years, but top editor Nancy Barnes said that newsroom restructuring has resulted in the paper having just 11 fewer reporters than in 2000.

"MPR is making a blatant land grab by calling into question the viability of existing news organizations in Minnesota," Sweeney said.

He also questioned the use of taxpayer dollars to help pay for MPR's nonunion newsroom to compete with the Star Tribune's unionized newsroom.

"The fact that they're funded with government money and are now trying to extend their reach is, I think, beyond the pale," Sweeney said.

MPR declined to respond to his remarks.

Joel Kramer, editor of the two-year-old MinnPost.com, downplays MPR's news impact. MinnPost continues to grow despite MPR, he said, with membership up about 430 from a year ago to about 1,520.

However, Kramer said he's been "extremely disappointed in [MPR's] unwillingness to cooperate with us or other nonprofit start-ups in town."

MPR snubbed MinnPost in its infancy, declining a content-sharing deal, then letting an underwriting deal lapse, essentially rejecting the $12,000 a month MinnPost was paying for some on-air plugs.

Jim Pagliarini, president and CEO of Twin Cities Public Television, said he's "delighted" to see MPR getting more aggressive on local news, but said it's unrealistic to expect public television and radio, with their limited resources, to take the place of newspapers.

"For MPR to do what the Star Tribune did, you'd have to have hundreds of reporters. What's the economic model to sustain a couple of hundred reporters out there?" he asked.

MPR isn't the only public radio station shifting gears. Several are staffing up and redesigning websites to move beyond programming, said Ken Doctor, a former managing editor of the Pioneer Press who's now a news industry analyst for Outsell Inc. in Burlingame, Calif. At the same time, philanthropic groups, increasingly concerned about news as civic asset, are shaking loose cash for news experiments, he said.

"Those three things have come together, and the question is how much in 2010 this moves forward," Doctor said.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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