Press Releases

MPR: State Funds for News Benefits Our Citizens

November 25, 2009

St. Paul — In meeting rooms in St. Paul and on these editorial pages, Star Tribune Publisher Mike Sweeney has spoken out strongly recently about the supposed misguided policy of government funding for news organizations.

While we respect Mr. Sweeney's view, and believe that it was important to hear from him, we are not persuaded. At the core of his argument are two contentions, both refutable by analyzing the reality behind the rhetoric.

First, Mr. Sweeney contends that an organization funded partly by government cannot objectively report on government. The answer is it can, with strong, fiercely independent editorial leadership and rock-solid journalistic principles, much the same as the Star Tribune will find in its own newsroom when it comes to tough reporting about big advertisers. We'd invite Mr. Sweeney to look for any compromised coverage of government by MPR News, PBS' "Frontline" or National Public Radio; he won't find it. And, slightly further away, the British Broadcasting Corporation, one of the preeminent news organizations in the world, has for 77 years demonstrated repeatedly that government funding and tough reporting are not mutually exclusive.

Second, Mr. Sweeney asserts that government support unfairly tilts the playing field and stifles innovation. To the contrary, non-profit news organizations with modest government support offer an alternative well worth exploring in face of the danger that the free market will fail the news business entirely (as the Star Tribune's recent trip through bankruptcy warns), or will create a situation where there are monopoly players -- as has happened in many cities across the U.S.

Now is not the time to limit our search for what works. To the contrary, it is more urgent than ever to determine what role -- if any -- the government should play in ensuring a healthy news industry.

These questions are not theoretical; the state of the industry makes them immediate and tangible. Thus, it was with a sense of urgency that 125 highly opinionated industry leaders (including, Mr. Sweeney and the Star Tribune's Managing Editor Nancy Barnes) came to downtown Saint Paul last week to discuss the regional future of news.

While the perspectives and prescriptions were as varied as the participants, rough consensus seemed to emerge in several areas. Foremost was the sense that the future of news at the local and regional level would be shaped by cooperation and collaboration among organizations, an approach summed up as, "Do what you do best, and link to the rest." The notions of sharing competitive advantages and collaboration represent an upending of the industry's traditional business model based on scale and on protecting proprietary distribution systems. The new reality is that partnerships for content creation and sharing distribution systems -- whether they include web sites, broadcasting towers or printing presses -- aren't weaknesses. They are, in fact, strengths.

The next consensus point was the need to make hard decisions about "values worth saving and values worth leaving behind." Where to draw that line was never definitively settled, but Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, articulated eight values as a starting point: provide the facts, make sense of what's happening, stand as watchdog, show up and bear witness, be a forum leader in engaging the community, aggregate and distill information for the audience to digest, empower the audience, and--in recognition of the changing nature of journalism--provide a role model for how news reporting is done.

The final consensus point was the importance of building our next generation of media outlets in ways that are more responsive to the needs of their communities and audiences. Many of today's "mainstream media" are top-down organizations that reflect the values of their leadership rather than those of their audiences. As one participant noted, it's as if hospitals were built not to serve patients but doctors and administrators.

The session didn't end with definitive answers, but some things seemed clear:

  • News, like politics, is local and the future of news is likely to be even more so as news organizations focus on serving their local audiences and covering their own communities and regions in greater depth.
  • A strong, local news "ecosystem" is important for the health of a community, and supports a diversity of content, distribution, media, ownership and business models.
  • Collaboration and cooperation -- partnerships -- are not signs of weakness but acts of strength for news organizations.

It's clear there is no "right way" to the future of news; there are hundreds. We are still in an era of experimentation and learning about what works and what doesn't in our new interconnected electronic world. That includes questions of government funding -- like the BBC model -- and encouragement of both non-profit and for-profit approaches. Like the mix of stores in any good retail mall, a diversity of news models (or at least more than a monopoly) is important to build and maintain an informed citizenry. Judging by the energy and enterprise in Saint Paul last week at the Future of News conference -- hosted by Minnesota Public Radio -- local and regional news organizations in this area, with new leadership and vision at our newspapers and a strengthening of non-profit models like MPR, will be able to continue their strong journalistic traditions even as old financial models shift.

More press releases