By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: WAMU

The Chicago public media merger, hailed two years ago, hits some serious bumps

Half full or half empty? Photo (cc) 2014 by bradhoc

Among the projects that almost made it into “What Works in Community News” was the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Public Media, which merged two years ago. It struck Ellen Clegg and me as a leading example of how public media could step up to preserve local and regional news, especially after the city’s leading paper, the Chicago Tribune, fell into the hands of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

Now the combined enterprise is laying people off. Dave McKinney of WBEZ, which is part of Chicago Public Media, reports that about 15% of 62 union content creators at the radio station are losing their jobs, and that four positions on the business side at the Sun-Times would be cut. In all, 14 jobs will be eliminated.

McKinney notes acidly:

The job cuts coincide with the debut of a $6.4 million, state-of-the-art studio at WBEZ’s Navy Pier office and follows a double-digit-percentage pay increase for Chicago Public Media’s top executive. Additionally, other high-level executives departed the not-for-profit news organization in December.

The announcement follows cuts and threats of cuts at a number of public media outlets around the country, including WAMU in Washington, Colorado Public Radio and, in Boston, WBUR and GBH, neither of which has announced layoffs but have pointedly said cuts may be coming.

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Public radio cutbacks hit Colorado as 15 people lose their jobs

Colorado Public Radio executive editor Kevin Dale. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

No sooner had I written last week that Colorado Public Radio may be the largest news organization in that state than deep cuts were announced. Fifteen jobs were eliminated, which, according to CPR’s Ben Markus, make up “the largest cut to the public broadcaster’s payroll in at least a quarter of a century.”

“I hate to see talented colleagues lose their positions for financial reasons,” Kevin Dale, CPR News’ executive editor, was quoted as saying. “CPR News has been growing into a powerful news source for the past six years. Our mission has been to become an urgent newsroom that also has time to devote to enterprise reporting and accountability reporting, and we remain dedicated to that.”

According to Markus, the cuts follow years of growth, from 48 employees in 2006 to 214 in 2022. When I interviewed Dale in 2021, he told me that about 65 of those employees were journalists. CPR had acquired a city-based digital site in 2019 called Denverite, and its staff members were part of that total. Unlike WAMU in Washington, which is shutting down its DCist site following a similar acquisition, CPR will keep Denverite going.

Although CPR’s woes are reportedly due to changes in audience behavior as podcasts from the likes of The New York Times and Spotify have cut into listenership, Markus’ story also suggests that the operation had been hiring beyond its means and noted that it had saddled itself with a new, yet-to-be-finished downtown headquarters last year costing more than $8 million.

The cuts also come amid austerity measures at several other public radio operations including WAMU, WBUR in Boston and NPR itself. Public radio is our leading free source of high-quality news and for years seemed to be immune from the headwinds that were devastating legacy newspapers. Corey Hutchins, who produces the newsletter “Inside the News in Colorado,” wrote that CPR “stood out as a bright spot amid a weakened local news landscape.” Hutchins is a journalism professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and works out of space refurbished by CPR as part of its earlier acquisition of KRCC.

I interviewed Dale in 2021 for Ellen Clegg’s and my book, “What Works in Community News.” Dale, who had previously worked at The Denver Post, described his mission as transforming CPR into a leading news organization by concentrating on in-depth journalism.

“Our goal was to become a primary news source,” Dale said, explaining that his operation tried to offer important contextual stories rather than breaking news. “I’ve been very careful all along to use the article ‘a’ instead of ‘the,’ because I think ‘the’ has connotations that end up in practices that we’re not interested in,” he said. “We’re not going to be out covering a major house fire or a major traffic jam unless it has implications beyond that.”

CPR is an anchor of the Denver and Colorado media ecosystem. I hope this proves to be a temporary setback and that the operation can soon begin growing once again.

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