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Fate of Arkansas Public Media Illustrates Struggles Facing Nonprofit Coverage Model

10 min read

Bobby Ampezzan didn’t learn he was on the firing line till August, but he knew his nonprofit Arkansas Public Media project was in trouble when an 11th-hour appeal for additional national grant money crashed. 

Ampezzan recalls being told that the grant request was “literally ignored” by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which had given APM life as a statewide news network by awarding it $277,300 in late 2015. The operation made its headquarters at KUAR, the National Public Radio affiliate at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“When we asked for the grant extension, they said they’d get back to us by a certain date, but then they didn’t call, I understand,” Ampezzan said. “They wouldn’t even return our calls.”

Arkansas Public Media’s failure to thrive as a fully funded statewide nonprofit news collaboration — it continues in downsized form — illustrates the struggle public media outlets face in asking users, listeners and underwriters to pay for news, said Ampezzan, a former writer and editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The loss of several full-time jobs also disappointed media professionals eager for new models for financing news. The internet age has battered local outlets from daily and weekly newspapers to commercial radio news operations chasing ever more elusive ad dollars.

“I can’t recall who, though I think it was the late Morley Safer of CBS, put it this way,” veteran Arkansas journalist Steve Barnes said. “‘Journalism costs money. Good journalism costs a lot of money.’ On a strict dollar basis, I think Arkansas listeners got much, much more from Arkansas Public Media than any of us had reason to expect.”

Job Cuts
Ampezzan, APM’s managing editor, found himself out of work as of Oct. 1. The nonprofit’s partner manager, Mary Ellen Kubit, who oversaw new underwriting and funding opportunities, as well as grant reporting, also lost her position, but has returned to full-time teaching at the University of Central Arkansas. The CPB money ran out at the end of September, and the four collaborating university-linked public radio stations — KUAR, KUAF in Fayetteville, KASU in Jonesboro and KTXK in Texarkana — lacked resources to make up the shortfall, Ampezzan said. The Arkansas Educational Television Network was also a partner in the project.

One of two full-time reporting positions was also eliminated and the other cut back, a blow to an award-winning news engine that drew listeners but never enough financial support to sustain a $278,000-a-year operation.

APM continues on the air and online (ArkansasPublicMedia.org), but with a far tighter budget. Its remaining staff, as listed on the website, are reporters Ann Kenda, Jacqueline Froelich at KUAF and Daniel Breen, a part-timer based in Little Rock. But Ampezzan said Kenda is formally an employee of KASU, and Froelich was a voluntary APM member not contractually obligated to the project.

“At a meeting earlier this year of the contributing stations and AETN, everybody wanted to continue,” Ampezzan said. “But when the question was what would your funding commitment be to the project, the answer was zero. Everybody was positive in the way you stay positive in the nonprofit world, but when it came down to actual skin in the game, the dollar commitment was zero.”

Arkansas Public Media didn’t fully fulfill its goals, but views differ on whether that says much about today’s nonprofit news environment. The “PBS NewHour” has a good audience and strong financial support, and NPR’s newsmagazine shows are breaking listener records nationally. AETN is thriving and planning to “tell far more stories of Arkansas,” says Executive Director Courtney Pledger, who envisions additional news, sports and public affairs programming. She said AETN would make an “extremely exciting” announcement on local sports coverage this week, but she couldn’t yet discuss it.

While any experimental news outlet would face significant hurdles today, observers say APM entered an already jumbled public media market and might have blossomed if it had been given more time. CPB may have been unrealistic in expecting the collaboration to stand on its own after only two years, they reason.

Ampezzan sees that argument, but says APM’s stations struggled to shift energy and funds to the collaboration.

APM’s newspaper-centric contemporary across town, the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, is forging ahead with a less-structured budget. ANNN’s donors tend to fund specific projects, and network leader Lindsey Millar, editor of the Arkansas Times, has a handy place to print them in his own weekly.

ANNN also distributes the work online and at affiliated outlets across the state. The project took in $55,000 in donations in 2017, its first year of operation, and has reaped $11,000 this year, though a $20,000 grant was being finalized last week, Millar said. ANNN has also been selected to participate in NewsMatch, the nation’s largest grassroots organization supporting nonprofit news, which will match all donations made in November and December, up to $1,000. Now in its third year, NewsMatch has helped raise more than $5 million for nonprofit news ventures.

“Our project was designed intentionally to grow or shrink as needed, as time allowed for everybody involved,” Millar told Arkansas Business. “I set it up to let people work on a project basis, with no overhead or staff. I work from here at Arkansas Times, and I donate my time to ANNN. We either get the money to do journalism or we don’t.”

The nonprofit has published about 30 stories this year, and has covered health policy, in particular, at a granular level. But its biggest splashes were blockbusters like August’s deeply reported, brightly written piece by David Ramsey on the frauds of lobbyist Milton R. “Rusty” Cranford. Cranford was the middleman in a corruption scandal that snared several former Arkansas legislators.

“A lot of readers probably thought that was an Arkansas Times article, even though it ran other places,” Millar said, underscoring a point made by Ampezzan and KUAF General Manager Rick Stockdell: Consumers often don’t note or even care where stories originate.

“That goes to the APM issue of how to differentiate yourself. You want people to see the content, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in the Baxter Bulletin or the Pine Bluff Commercial,” Millar continued, name-checking two publications in his network. “But it complicates fundraising. We’ve been lucky to develop funders who’ve been willing to give us sizable donations to do specific projects.”

As Stockdell noted, public radio listeners tend to assume whatever they’re hearing is from NPR, and they often donate accordingly, when they donate at all. “Just 10 or 15 percent of the people who listen to public radio make donations,” he said. “Everyone has a reason — they’re busy, or they just gave to another cause — and those reasons are valid.”

Millar put it this way: “Generally it’s difficult to fundraise for news. There are so many worthy causes, and supporting news doesn’t have the same appeal as, say, helping the homeless or fighting some disease.”

‘We Do Need Their Money’
In a bit of a paradox, NPR affiliates ask listeners to help pay for rights to NPR programs like “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” while drawing a bulk of their pledges from listeners to those shows, which have the best ratings in national radio, even surpassing Rush Limbaugh’s. “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” cost KUAF, with an annual budget of about $1.2 million, about $250,000 a year, Stockdell said.

“Like those shows and national public radio in general, we have some of the biggest audiences we’ve ever had,” Stockdell said. “Part of the reason is that northwest Arkansas is growing. The test is getting new listeners to understand that we depend on listener support. They have to recognize that public radio is important, and we do need their money.”

As commercial journalism has struggled, calls have increased for public and nonprofit organizations to fill the news gap. James Fallows, author and longtime national correspondent for The Atlantic, advanced public journalism as a coverage option in his J.N. Heiskell Lecture on Journalism last month in Little Rock.

Another idea, he said, is for wealthy individuals to buy news outlets and commit outsize resources to them out of a sense of altruism or civic duty. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong are the big examples, having bought the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, respectively.

But with NPR’s own member station-supported funding model under scrutiny, regional public journalism projects have truly taken off mainly in bigger media markets like St. Louis and Phoenix.

“We have rosy glasses about nonprofits, about operations like the Marshall Project and ProPublica,” Ampezzan said, naming New York-based journalism projects built with major philanthropic support. “Journalism has gone from a commercial enterprise that created tycoons like William Randolph Hearst to being a poor member of the economy. So the message has switched to the idea that people should support journalism almost as a charitable enterprise.”

Ampezzan doesn’t oppose that message, but he said it may defy human nature. “Generally people don’t give money to things they’re not really compelled to give money to,” he said.

He also said APM’s partner stations may have subtly resisted shifting resources to an untested startup. “If you’re KUAF, you feel like you don’t have much control” and your programming needs aren’t always being met, he said. “If you’re KUAR, you’re devoting resources to journalism” that is going elsewhere, “and you’re not getting the same amount back” for your home station.

Over two years, APM filed 226 in-depth news stories and a feature-length documentary, according to Nathan Vandiver, interim general manager of UA Little Rock Public Radio and now the keeper of APM’s flame. The project’s entries took several top awards last year in the Arkansas Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual contest.

‘Going to Keep Working’
APM underwriting agreements are still in force for coming months, Vandiver said, and the project has $8,500 to finance various freelance work. Some grant applications are also pending.

APM’s two-year budget from the start was $556,582, with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant providing half, said Vanessa McKuin, the former APM partner manager and now development director for UA Little Rock Public Radio.

McKuin pried herself from KUAR’s fall fund drive last week to discuss APM. “I’d say there’s no doubt that the funding model for journalism is an open question,” she said. “We see that all across the board.”

But the CPB grant fostered collaboration among public media outlets in Arkansas and reported “on issues of importance to Arkansans,” sharing more stories with more people, she added.

By her reckoning, APM is a success. “Ultimately the people at the public radio stations are working hard each day … informing and engaging the people.” Financing that work is a struggle, but KUAR’s team is “firmly committed to the idea of statewide reporting and collaboration because it is key to our mission,” McKuin said. “We’re going to keep working to make it happen.”

In retrospect, Ampezzan said, APM never attracted the big benefactors and underwriters it needed to maintain its original vision. “We did pledge drives and appealed for support, but that’s never going to float an operation that size.”

The project received one blow in infancy, noted Stockdell, the KUAF manager. Former KUAR General Manager Ben Fry, who conceived the idea of a statewide reporting force focusing on energy, health care and education, died unexpectedly at 54 in March 2016, just months after the CPB grant was announced.

“Ben was the heart and soul of the idea, and Bobby had to take something that was written and turn it into a complex operation, and he didn’t really have much of a radio background,” Stockdell said. “My hat is off to him; he did extremely well in a tough job.”

Barnes, the former Little Rock anchorman, called APM’s diminished future “Arkansas’ loss.” He assessed the nonprofit news world from a knowing vantage; he moderates “Arkansas Week,” the public TV network’s Friday roundup of news and issues around the state, and last week was hosting candidate debates at AETN’s studios in Conway.

“Obviously the challenge to real journalism in our time is how to fund it,” Barnes said. “We can only hope that new funding can be found” for entities like APM to survive.

In the meantime, Ampezzan was weighing a new job offer and driving with his fiancee to Albuquerque to attend a wedding. “A lot of enterprises fail,” he said philosophically. “I don’t think it’s an anomaly, but it is disappointing.”

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