The news of the day: Vermont Public Radio and Vermont Public Television are merging. Let me guess. the combined entity will be called “Vermont Public Media,” amirite?
In a time of media consolidation and droopy revenues, this move makes a lot of sense, but it also sets off alarm bells in my mind. The merger means one less independent entity in the Vermont media landscape, and the creation of a player with the resources to dominate the reporting of news — and the nonprofit world.
The latter is not my area of expertise, but I know that VPR has long been seen as a nonprofit monster that makes it harder for other organizations to raise the money they need.
And if you’ve followed my writing about VPR over the years, you know what I think. It’s an organization that does a lot of good work, but falls short in fulfilling its potential and maximizing its use of available resources. Or, in the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
After the merger, you can double that. If there’s any organization that’s played it safer than VPR, it’s VTPBS. I realize it’s harder and costlier to produce video programming than audio, but c’mon, Vermont PBS doesn’t do much to enhance our understanding of our state, ourselves, or current events.
For the new entity to serve us as it must, it’s going to need a significant injection of fearlessness. And generally speaking, the bigger an organization, the more self-protective it becomes.
Looking at the Vermont media environment, we have the new entity, a VTDigger that’s going through a major sea change, and a Seven Days that’s lost a lot of revenue to the Covid-19 pandemic and the toll it’s taken on the food and entertainment industries that have kept the paper healthy for years.
Otherwise, newspapers are largely a lost cause. Sometimes a paper does something exceptional, but you can’t count on them as the bread-and-butter source for local coverage. The Valley News is the best of the lot, but its efforts are split between two states. Vermont’s TV news providers are better than average compared to the industry standard of “if it bleeds, it leads,” but they’re not where you go for in-depth or incisive coverage.
The future of journalism shines brightest, which isn’t saying much, in the nonprofit arena. This new public radio/TV merger carries a great deal of hope for what the combined entity can accomplish. But the downside is a risk-averse organization that’s weighed down by its obligations to a broad spectrum of donors and interest groups.
History suggests we should expect the latter.