Corporation for Public Broadcasting President Pushes Need For Quality Journalism, New Business Models

Minneapolis conference tackles cataclysmic changes in industry

Corporation for Public Broadcasting President Patricia Harrison said Monday that the media need to stop pouring new wine into old bottles, and that public media are in the best position to do that.

That came at a day-long Future of News conference Monday in Minneapolis, hosted by UBS, Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media. The focus was on public media, but not exclusively.

Harrison looked at her fellow panelists, mostly over 30, and said she thought they needed to recruit younger people and get their perspective, rather than making "drive by" references to a "changing America." Harrison said that "the people formerly known as the audience" are no longer sitting on their coaches and waiting. She also suggested diversity in programming and hiring needed to be part of the industry's DNA.

In this cataclysmic time, she said, there is an even greater need for first-class journalism and more than a diet of soundbites. Again, she said, that was where public media can shine.

The conference, which featured a number of newspaper, broadcast and new media panelists, was held on the premise that there is a decline in journalism that has reached a point of crisis, though panelists differed on where the problems and solutions were.

Joaquin Alvarado, senior VP for diversity and innovation for CPB, agreed with Harrison that there needed to be some new faces in the room.

He also said there needed to be more public media representation in line for broadband stimulus money. He said there should be a strong public media component to the $7-plus billion dollars in broadband stimulus funding.

Free Press' Josh Silver said that change in public media is almost always driven or enabled by policy changes. One of those changes, he suggested, should be more government funding. He said public media was grossly underfunded, pointing out that AIG has gotten 175 times more money from the government than CPB, 3.5 times more just for furniture. "If they used IKEA, he said, you could probably double the CPB budget."

Silver seconded Alvarado about the importance of broadband, saying that 40% of Americans don't have broadband at home.

John Rash, of ad agency Campbell Mithun, saw hope for commercial media even if the future model was not entirely clear. He said he recalled a CBS pitch, "Cable Fable" from some years back in which the network talked about how cable was not going to amount to much. He then fast-forwarded to today, when Comcast is on the verge of buying NBC Universal. There is money out there for someone who can "build a better media mousetrap," he said.

Rash said one of the potential win-wins for media is more partnerships and shared models in the broadcast space, although he conceded the FCC's ownership constraints remain a governor on that. He said those partnerships could be the next big area of growth.

Broadcasters have made similar points to the FCC in arguing for loosening restrictions on combining TV station ownership and assets in smaller markets.

Veteran media executive and consultant Merrill Brown of MMB Media, said that even given underperforming newspapers and overpriced TV stations, there is still advertising to support well-run, innovative businesses not afraid of change.

Some panelists suggested that there was still great journalism out there, just not the money to support it. But that begged the question of how long that model could last. For noncoms, that means figuring out new ways of raising money, including a government role in funding news. For others it means remaking the economic model or finding a whole new one.

One suggestion, by Mike Sweeney of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is to give away information that vertical competitors have taken away--like classifieds--to try to reaggregate the audience. Another way to reaggregate, he argued, might be to offer hurting auto dealers a listing of their cars on the newspaper's Web site, track who is buying and where at any one time, and make that information, with the permission of readers, available to dealers.

Knowing what customers want is no less useful to us than it is to Google and Yahoo!, he said.

Jeff Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, said that people under 40 are getting their news from Google, Yahoo! and MSN.

They don't really care about the source, he said, and feel they are being informed. "They are happy," he added, suggesting that telling them they shouldn't be doesn't much help. For those over 40, he said, there is incredible pain in this change in news delivery. For those under 40, who aren't feeling the pain, "it is just the way it is."