Journalism U: Fight or Flight

My question: why is a leading advocate for non-profit journalism saying get the hell away from universities?

I’m trying here to contribute to the Carnival of Journalism, topic 1: how to make universities important centers of journalistic activity.

The topic has great cachet. It is riveted into the Knight Commission reports to save journalism. Some schools have become bright beacons for experimentation. (USC/Annennberg, Berkeley, Columbia, American U, Missouri, CUNY, Arizona, Georgia… and the list goes on).

And from what I can tell, the vast majority of COJ bloggers agree there is much universities, particularly j-schools, can do to vault journalism forward. Universities can serve as living laboratories to incubate new service models. They can aggregate research, funding, training and workforce to cultivate new forms of news. They can keep us focused on the ethical issues, the emergent possibilities and the instructive lessons of the past. They can host community initiatives — locally and globally — and do all of this while staying true to their mission of education, research and service. What heroic opportunities await!

So who is the guy dropping the you-know-what into the collegiate punchbowl? And does he know something these bloggers don’t?

I’m talking about the most entrepreneurial man you’ll ever meet. His name is Bill Kling and he built Minnesota Public Radio — nay, American Public Media –into the biggest nonprofit news network outside of Washington DC.

Bill Kling (Credit: Current)
Bill Kling (Credit: Current)

The so-called Klingon empire grew from a small college station in Minnesota to a coast-to-coast success story. Its 44 stations include KPCC in Los Angeles and WKCP in Miami. It produces MarketPlace and A Prairie Home Companion. It founded the biggest crowdsourcing project in public media: the Public Insight Network. It generates more than $100-million in annual revenue. And it is the top employer of local journalists in public media (57 full-time at MPR, 33 full-time at KPCC).

Mr. Kling is stepping down from his CEO role and has been making the rounds lately, pressing two rather emphatic points. He wants to see a handful of local stations go super big by adding 100 reporters. And he wants those stations at universities to flee their captivity so they can excel at journalism and be free to succeed.

Kling is quite serious about this being the time for public media to step up and fulfill its mission to the American people. What is so fascinating in his particular recipe is this proposed break from the academy.

“…he wants those stations at universities to flee their captivity so they can excel at journalism and be free to succeed.”

You should know that Kling is jabbing his thumb in the eyes of many public radio managers. The largest share of public radio station licensees are university-based.

Most public radio stations are licensed to universities.

Kling believes these university licensees cannot reach their greatest journalistic aspirations unless they break from university ownership (private or public, doesn’t matter) and become independent (community) licensees.

Kling’s argument is simple: Universities have different missions than public radio stations, so their goals clash.

He says universities are bureaucracies that don’t promote entrepreneurial activities by station managers. In fact, he says they are notorious for skimming large percentages of station grants or earnings for “overhead.” He says university presidents and their development and public relations offices don’t much care for hard-hitting investigative reporting of powerful people. And, at the end of the day, the byzantine governance  structure of universities may pay lip service to free inquiry but it constrains stations from paying big bucks for big talent, doing anything that rocks the political establishment or involves risk in general.

I find myself conflicted over this criticism. I think it has strong resonance but it may be overstated, at least as a general proposition toward all universities.

(In my 30 years of working toward strong, meaningful journalism — as reporter, public affairs director, anchor/host, and news director — I’ve worked for university-based stations [UGA, OSU, PLU and SDSU]. I had a few run-ins with university officials and station managers — but I never censored a story nor caved to pressure to alter a story out of obeisance to the licensee. Still, those times when the university was in the news, in a negative context, we did feel tested in our editorial independence and integrity.)

I have spent many an hour working on heat-shield policies, ethics statements, codes of editorial independence, etc. toward fortifying journalism at university licensees. This is because Kling’s point has its basis and I’ve know many news directors who needed back-up. (For an egregious case of university interference in editorial independence, see the WFDD case I included in the Public Radio News Directors Guide.)

At the end of the day, I refuse to believe that university licensees are structurally compromised in their editorial integrity. And I believe Mr. Kling has some self-interest in play — hoping to pick off a few more stations for his empire.

I think the challenge is situational and it can be managed with strong leadership, clear mission, policy priorities and a cadre of like-minded professionals who will fight for the public interest. I also think most college presidents have the insight to understand the severe consequences that would typically result from a case of heavy-handed news interference. (Again, see the WFDD case where the community came to the aid of the beleaguered radio station.)

Still, it should be noted that Mr. Kling is both wise and experienced on this topic. His successes generally came from transforming university licenses into those under his control where he has gone on to do many wonders with them.

As for applying Mr. Kling’s criticism of universities as stewards of public media news stations to what the Knight Commission and others are advocating in terms of colleges as incubators of new media experimentation, I think the warning should be taken to heart. Public media has a great deal of experience to offer here.

If Mr. Kling is absolutely right about universities, then perhaps the message is that they are fine for growing experiments up to a point. It may be the truth that a mature public media newsroom would be best served by leaving the comfort of the campus and striking out on its own. This idea would encourage incubation advocates while also suggesting some kind of sunset plan. Perhaps as part of the incubation arrangement is the eventual transfer of the projects to community ownership.

Mr. Kling’s worry might also suggest a tolerance test for journalistic advancement. That is, if we are talking about a university that has stunted the growth of its public radio newsroom, how can you hold high hopes for what it might offer a new media initiative?

On the other hand, schools that have strongly supported the journalistic mission of their public news stations, may be the place most prepared for broadening new media experimentation.

To this I would append one last thought: let’s make those public media stations themselves part of this conversation.

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Published by

Michael V. Marcotte

Hi, I'm the (first-ever) Professor of Practice in Journalism at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I teach multimedia journalism and launched are innovation/collaboration lab: New Mexico News Port. Previously, I was the 2012-2013 Reynolds Chair in Ethics of Entrepreneurial and Innovative Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno... and, before that, a 2011 Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. I'm also very active as a consultant in public media news, having spent over 20 years as a news director. My website is http://www.mikemarcotte.com or on Twitter: http://twitter.com/michvinmar

3 thoughts on “Journalism U: Fight or Flight”

  1. Awesome post. I too have heard Kling go off on the public media/university relationship. He brings up lots of good points. I am curious to see what he does next….

  2. The Current.org blog site received a comment on this post from an anonymous person. I am cutting and pasting that reply here:

    Mike & readers,

    First off, I must apologize for hiding behind the shield of anonymity in this post. But as you read on I believe you'll come to understand why I've opted to hide behind my keyboard.

    Over the past 10 years I have managed two institutional stations. In both venues I was commanded by high-level administrators, acting on behalf of leadership, to present news reports or features that had no purpose other than to cultivate institutional donors or curry favor with powerful interests.

    At both venues public radio was seen as just another tool in the marketing kit. My efforts to patiently explain how this sort of manufactured news was ultimately counterproductive for all concerned fell on deaf ears. Hence my only alternatives were to live to fight the next fight, or publicly fall on my sword, an act that rarely has a happy career outcome.

    In discussions with peers, my sense is that this type of behavior is more common than many of us would like to think.

    Mike's former employer undoubtedly falls into the category of Enlightened Institutional Licensee and, thankfully, there are scores of them.

    Nonetheless, I believe Bill Kling speaks an inconvenient truth that many of us must consider.

    I'm most curious to see the reactions of other current or former institutional General or Station Managers and learn whether their experiences align with mine.”

    Mon Jan 24, 06:25:00 PM EST

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