Despite fiscal pressures, layoffs, MPBN sees journalism as way forward

Keith Shortall, Maine Public Broadcasting's news and public affairs director, hosts &quotMaine Calling" in the MPBN Portland radio studio on Tuesday.
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Keith Shortall, Maine Public Broadcasting's news and public affairs director, hosts "Maine Calling" in the MPBN Portland radio studio on Tuesday. Buy Photo
By Whit Richardson, BDN Staff
Posted May 03, 2013, at 11:01 a.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — In February, Mark Vogelzang, CEO of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, and Hank Schmelzer, chairman of its board, were waiting to meet with Sen. Angus King in Washington D.C.

King was late. When he finally arrived at the Capitol, he was listening to MPBN’s stream through his iPhone, Schmelzer recalls.

“That’s how you remain relevant to people,” Schmelzer said. “When whatever people are hearing about Maine is so important to them that they’re tuned into it like that.”

MPBN’s financial challenges became apparent in early April, when it announced it was laying off 10 employees in its video production department and placing its public affairs television show “Maine Watch” on hiatus through the fall.

The cuts avoided an anticipated $400,000 budget shortfall during the fiscal year that ends June 30, according to Vogelzang.

“We don’t want to be in a position where we’re in a deficit,” he said recently at MPBN’s Portland office. “So we have to take this short-term pain to make sure we’re on firm financial footing for the start of 2014 and beyond.”

Vogelzang, 57, is a 30-year veteran of public media. He took the reins at MPBN in January 2012 and believes its future relies on local journalism and its ability to adapt to the modern media landscape.

“I think in the past we’ve taken some of those things for granted,” he said.

Those goals are embodied in MPBN’s new five-year strategic plan, which was adopted by its board of trustees in February. It has three goals: expand its news and public affairs programming, embrace digital platforms and ensure its long-term sustainability.

While similar goals have been pro forma at news organizations for the past several years, MPBN is not just a news organization.

Now in its 21st year, MPBN has five television transmitters and seven radio transmitters in Maine. Its radio stations reach 190,000 listeners a week, making it one of the country’s top 10 most-listened-to public radio stations, and its television station reaches 190,000 households in Maine, according to Cory Morrissey, MPBN’s director of marketing.

What sets MPBN’s new strategy apart from past plans is its emphasis on journalism and becoming a “digital first” news organization, Schmelzer said. Past plans were focused on broader areas, such as expanding programs, developing audience and community and employee experience.

“None of these objectives will be ignored in the present plan,” said Schmelzer. “MPBN will indirectly support these earlier goals when it achieves the goals of its current plan.”

In other words, MPBN believes other necessities — including strengthening audience and engaging community — will fall into place by doubling down on journalism.

A focus on journalism

Vogelzang said he wants to hire more reporters and expand the organization’s public affairs programming once fiscal problems are resolved.

“This is a tough time right now,” Vogelzang said. “It’s probably not germane to talk about new projects when we’re cutting programs. … But I will say the long-term plan for MPBN is to have more reporters. I’d like to do more hiring in the future — that may be 12 months from now, 18 months from now — and I’d also like to do more programming with the good people we already have.”

MPBN employs 11.5 journalists, with 8.5 working for “Maine Things Considered,” Morrissey said. That number is roughly the same as it was in 2003, he said.

Vogelzang would like to strengthen “Maine Things Considered” and move “Maine Calling,” the new call-in public affairs radio program hosted by Keith Shortall, MPBN’s news director, from three to five days a week.

“Maine Watch,” the public affairs show hosted by Jennifer Rooks which was placed on hiatus until the fall, offers an example of how Vogelzang wants to do things differently.

Vogelzang said “Maine Watch” was a “labor-intensive” show because of time spent filming and editing features shot outside the studio. The plan is to bring “Maine Watch” back, live or live-to-tape and without pre-produced segments, he said.

“We could have many more programs and projects that are journalistic based,” he said. “I’d love to have more reporters doing enterprise reporting around the state. We don’t have great coverage in Aroostook County, for example. Should we? Absolutely. We hope we can do that. That’s the direction we’re going.”

Investing in journalism as the way to a sustainable future is a growing trend in public media.

In 2012, 42 percent of National Public Radio member stations grew their full-time local news staffs, according to a survey of 103 stations conducted by Michael Marcotte, a public media consultant and visiting professor of journalism at the University of Nevada Reno. In the same survey, 50 percent of stations said there would be no reduction in the news staff.

Focusing on journalism and digital delivery methods “is absolutely crucial for our future and it’s the right time for us to be focusing on this,” Vogelzang said. “The focus has got to be on these areas. Where can we add value to programming for our listeners? And its not about ourselves internally here. It’s about the viewers and listeners: Where is the value proposition for MPBN?”

‘A revenue issue’

MPBN’s current challenge can be explained in four words.

“It’s a revenue issue,” said Clare Hannan, MPBN’s chief financial officer.

The anticipated $400,000 shortfall for this fiscal year consisted of a $260,000 decrease in state funds, $100,000 from mandatory federal budget cuts and donations roughly $40,000 less than anticipated.

MPBN knew it was losing the state funding and hoped to make up the difference through major gifts, but was unsuccessful.

“We actually have continued to do well in all our revenue categories, underwriting, members, but that one piece, which is major gifts, is projected to be lower than our budget,” said Vogelzang.

Membership dues, major gifts and underwriting have become a larger share of MPBN’s revenue in the past few years. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2006, membership and contributions categories — there was no underwriting category — provided nearly 40 percent of MPBN’s $12.7 million budget.

In this fiscal year, the categories of membership, contributions and underwriting make up 67 percent of the $11.6 million budget. Over the same period, the percentage of the budget provided by state appropriations shrunk from nearly 18 percent to 14 percent.

MPBN has also shrunk its workforce over the past decade. In 2003, MPBN’s workforce included 144 full-time equivalents, according to Morrissey. Today it has 83 full-time employees and 11 part-timers, Morrissey said.

While Gov. Paul LePage has proposed zeroing out total funding to MPBN for the past two years, Vogelzang said state funding is set to be flat at $1.69 million for the next two fiscal years, “which we’re very grateful for.”

That trend is not unique to Maine, according to Marcotte, the public media consultant. Though he said 14 percent is still “a big slice” of MPBN’s budget, public media outlets everywhere are attempting to wean themselves off government funding.

“There are a number of states that are feeling very tight budgets right now and those systems relying on state funding are being pinched all over. I know Maine is not alone in that regard,” Marcotte said. “If there’s been a slow trend it’s been away from state funding. It’s happening at various speeds and in various ways.”

The federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or CPB, provided $1.5 million to MPBN this fiscal year, a slight dip from the nearly $1.6 million provided last year, according to MPBN’s financial statements.

CPB has also faced funding pressures separate of federal cuts known as sequestration. President Barack Obama has included $445 million in funding for CPB in his 2014 budget, which was released earlier in April. That’s the same amount as in the 2013 fiscal year and a slight increase from the 2012 fiscal year, according to CPB’s appropriations history.

Vogelzang realizes revenue needs to be secure before he can invest in journalism and digital platforms. It “means we need to structure and think about what we do in a different way, and it really has to do with raising more money,” he said.

One way to raise more revenue is to expand its membership base. That could be realized by improving its coverage in underserved areas, such as Aroostook County. Schmelzer also identified Maritime Canada as a “regional opportunity” to attract new members.

“There was a time when MPBN had a good presence in Maritime Canada,” but it has diminished over the years, he said.

Schmelzer also suggested MPBN may launch a capital campaign to increase its endowment, which stands around $4 million. The ideal endowment would be around $20 million, he said.

TV versus radio

In Maine and around the country, public television has struggled more than public radio to find stability in the tumultuous media landscape.

Marcotte said changes in technology have served to benefit the radio side of public media at the cost of the “legacy television side of the house.”

“The overall trend in public broadcasting for at least 10 years now has been the loss of staff in public TV and the growth of staff in public radio,” he said. “TV still employs many more than radio, but overall staffing in public broadcasting has inched upward due to radio and digital expansion.”

Vogelzang said the strategic path for radio is clearer than for television, but this won’t alter MPBN’s efforts to grow across both.

“I’d want people to be able to watch ‘Maine Watch’ or high school basketball as easily as they can stream ‘Morning Edition’ from MPBN and listen to Lou McNally and the weather in the morning,” he said. “[That scenario is] made possible only because of the tremendous change in the last 10 years in our media world, and we have to be prepared for the next number of rapid changes that are going to come in the media world.”

Vogelzang noted that a hallmark of his first year was launching Maine Capitol Connection, a television station inside the State House to broadcast hearings and meetings at the Maine Legislature.

“For the first time in the history of this state, someone can turn their television on anywhere in the state and watch what’s going on with the Legislature. That has never happened before,” Vogelzang said. “I believe that fits very well within our journalistic focus.”

New models emerging

Other public media outlets around the country have turned to collaboration or outsourcing to save money. New Hampshire Public Television, for example, faced some “very painful” cuts after losing its entire state appropriation of $2.7 million, said Peter Frid, CEO of NHPTV.

NHPTV then took the unique approach of outsourcing its master control — the technical hub of a broadcasting operation — to WGBH in Boston, one of the largest public media outlets in the country. Frid and Ben Godley, chief operation officer of WGBH, think this approach will become more common.

“It is a unique collaboration, but we do think it’s the model for the system moving forward, whether on a regional basis or beyond,” said Godley.

Vogelzang, however, said this is not the direction MPBN is going. MPBN has both radio and television under its control, while NHPTV is separate from New Hampshire Public Radio. And the financial situation of NHPTV was much more serious than what MPBN is experiencing.

Nevertheless, Vogelzang said, “I would be the first to stand up and say that public broadcasting should continue to look at new models for collaborating.”

For now, the focus of MBPN seems twofold: journalism and revenue.

For Schmelzer, the mission is crystallized by the vision of Sen. Angus King, walking the Washington streets listening to MPBN through his earbuds.

“We have to have programming that appeals to people, that people want to listen to, and then we have to find out how to get it to them,” he said.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/05/03/business/despite-fiscal-pressures-layoffs-mpbn-sees-journalism-as-way-forward/ printed on July 31, 2014