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Feb. 25, 2021, 3:30 p.m.
Business Models

Mixing public media and digital news startups can amplify the strengths of both — but not without risk

One side has institutional heft, established revenue streams, and a broadcast pace; the other brings hustle, an entrepreneurial spirit, and digital savvy. Here are the hurdles to watch for when cultures combine.

When my son was younger, one of his favorite YouTube videos was “Do You Like Broccoli Ice Cream?” The song lists a number of yummy things and claims they wouldn’t taste good if put together.

Do you like donuts?
Yes, I do. Yes, I do.
Do you like juice?
Yes, I do. Yes, I do.
Do you like donut juice?
No, I don’t. Yucky!

Do you like popcorn?
Yes, I do. Yes, I do.
Do you like pizza?
Yes, I do. Yes, I do.
Do you like popcorn pizza?
No, I don’t. Yucky!

Personally, I suspect a properly adventurous chef could make both donut juice and popcorn pizza delicious. (Ditto broccoli ice cream and banana soup.) But regardless, it’s certainly true that some pairings have a better chance of working out than others.

In the world of local news, there aren’t many that have worked better than public media and digital startups. Public radio and TV stations have audiences, institutional heft, and a workable business model; digital startups understand the platform that all those audiences (and much of that money) are headed toward.

All the way back in 2013, we brought you a series highlighting such tie-ups in New Orleans, New Jersey, St. Louis, and Oregon — some of them collaborations, others full-on mergers. That trend has only grown in the years since, with formal mergers in Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and more.

In 2019, the Public Media Merger Project launched at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy to study (and speed along) this very trend. (Elizabeth Hansen and Emily Roseman led the research.) After an 18-month lifespan, the project recently published its findings, as well as a Public Media Mergers Playbook for institutions considering such a combination.

What did they find?

Public media can absolutely help fix market failures in local news, but it will take a simultaneous process of building on its traditional values and dismantling the legacy structures of the current system to create a new local journalism service worthy of “the public” in public media.

The cultures of public media (nonprofit, built around broadcast, sometimes a little sleepy) and digital news startups (often for-profit, built around text, real-time and a little frenetic) are not the most natural media match. Public media outlets — typically the larger and better-financed partner — often enter these deals specifically in hopes of injecting that digital DNA. But the host risks rejecting the transplant if it goes into the process with the wrong attitudes or assumptions about how things will go.

Here are a few highlights from the Public Media Mergers Project; you can read the full playbook here (or in PDF here) and find a little more context here, here, and here.

Done well, a merger can really bring digital transformation to public media.

Many public broadcasting stations over the past few decades have endeavored to build up their local journalism service through hiring more editors and reporters. But many stations have also struggled to build a culture of journalism that would deepen their reporting and local impact. Our work with a cohort of stations who have acquired digital newsrooms confirms that a well-executed digital newsroom acquisition can be the catalyst for the cultural transformation of a station into a civic news institution. But not all stations are ready for such a transformation, and not all digital newsrooms may want to be part of such a transformation.

Expect to make significant personnel changes.

Post-acquisition merger processes are messy for any type of organization. Culture clashes, workflow confusion, and identity trouble are common stumbling blocks to successful mergers. We found amongst the research cohort that leadership and turnover are key ingredients in making acquisitions work over time. Strong and visionary leadership is necessary for charting a shared vision and keeping staff focused on what matters. Turnover is necessary for allowing people who don’t resonate with the changes to leave and allowing new people who can help create a new culture to enter the organization.

A merger can give digital outlets access to deep pockets.

The strongest public media stations have built deep relationships with the philanthropists in their communities, and have professional development staff who support ongoing major giving work. Many independent digital newsrooms are working hard to develop this capability, but their leaders often have to juggle editorial oversight with donor relationship-building. When an acquisition works well, public media development staff take pride in the work of the new digital newsroom and take responsibility for connecting with major donors who want to support the digital newsroom’s work.

It can also nurture a product mindset.

A product mindset refers to the practices of audience research, design, testing, launch, and assessment that characterizes the best of digital media creation. A product mindset is especially important for stations that are trying to grow their digital audience and increase the quality of their digital services. But a product mindset often runs counter to a broadcast mindset, in which stories get produced, aired to a mass audience, and forgotten. In strong digital newsrooms, a product mindset often goes hand-in-hand with editorial strategizing. It is this combination of skills and thinking that can be a huge boost to public media newsrooms and public media digital teams.

A merger will take time. Maybe a lot of time.

While some of the acquisitions in the cohort came together very quickly (a few months) out of necessity, others took a few years to come together. Long acquisition processes can be positive, however. John Mooney, a founder of NJ Spotlight, engaged in an acquisition process with NJTV and WNET which took more than two years from start to finish. Mooney reflected:

“I think you should temper your expectations to do this quickly. If you think it is going to take a year, it could take two years. In our case, from start to closing was more than two years. There was a lot to work out. The details themselves are enormous in dealing with any organizational merger, especially a media one. But one of the benefits of a long courtship is that it is a long courtship. In our case with NJTV, we got to know each other, and we did some work together during that time, and that was all really valuable for the acquisition to work.”

The mission of the combined entity has to be clear.

You might think that there are only a handful of high-level editorial strategies that can work in a multi-platform public media newsroom. One striking finding of the study was the diversity of editorial strategies that acquisitions helped support. Public service local digital news is a relatively new phenomenon in public broadcasting. And there seem to be many different types of public service models in local journalism that an acquisition can support.

The three types of editorial missions outlined: general-purpose daily coverage (examples: Denverite/Colorado Public Radio, Billy Penn/WHYY); strong place-based vertical content with editorial voice (LAist/KPCC, Gothamist/WNYC), and public-interest policy and statehouse issue reporting (NJ Spotlight/NJTV).

Figure out how much you want to combine the news brands.

Benefits of full integration: “Over time, cultural transformation of legacy broadcasting newsroom; ‘one newsroom’ strategy and branding provides for robust, multi-platform coverage; opportunity to put in place new kinds of leadership across the newsroom; opportunity to level up in newsroom service.”

Drawbacks of full integration: “Risk of high cultural turbulence and ‘us versus them’ dynamics; turnover very likely, putting the newsroom into extended period of transition; risk of brand dilution without clear marketing and messaging strategy; requires investment in technical and financial integration alongside editorial integration.”

Benefits of keeping the brands separate: “Can keep independent editorial orientation; strong brand differentiation means less confusion and complexity internally; burden is on leadership to fit strategic pieces together, less pressure on staff; minimizes cultural turbulence.”

Drawbacks of keeping the brands separate: “Cultural change of wider station harder to achieve without interdependencies; can be difficult to resource appropriately without the digital brand having a seat at the table; can prompt the question: What is the bigger purpose here?”

Prepare for culture clash.

Among the elements of public media culture: a focus on craft and production, driven by the story; launching projects but not feeding them; tons of meetings; a time horizon measured in decades; high level of polish but low tolerance for risk.

And for the digital types: a faster pace, always publishing; focused on facts and analysis over narrative and craft; scrappy and entrepreneurial; greater room for voice; a comfort with audience-driven metrics and product development.

It’s not hard to imagine where those two worldviews might clash.

Shifting toward digital requires rethinking what a truly “public” media would be.

The construction of a new local journalism service, which we witnessed in our public media cohort, is accompanied by an equally important dismantling. After the data collection for this study closed, the death of George Floyd ignited the spark of widespread, renewed protests for social justice…

We observed across [the mergers they studied] a resolve in leadership at every level to deepen their commitment to expressing the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of their culture, operations, and journalism. But this has meant grappling with the deep-seated cultural biases and inequitable practices of public media.

The national reckoning around racial justice landed on this sector in a particularly painful and resonant way. For stations that regularly track their Nielsen ratings, there is no denying that the audiences that are served by and support public media over the air are predominantly white and affluent. The voices on air in radio are mostly white too. This is a legacy of systemic racism writ broadly, refracted through public media’s membership-based business model, the sound and sensibility of its mostly white, Baby Boomer founding generation (on the radio side), and the logic of broadcast as a mass medium…

The failure in public media is not in values or mission, but in leadership and implementation.

POSTED     Feb. 25, 2021, 3:30 p.m.
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