Editor’s note: This commentary is by Matt Krauss, a retired state employee and Vermont legislator who lives in Stowe.
The largest non-profit media organization in Vermont history will soon have 117 employees, an annual budget of $18 million and $91 million in assets. That’s because VPR and Vermont PBS announced in September they are merging together to combine their radio, TV and digital news and entertainment platforms.
By comparison, Seven Days has around 43 employees; VTDigger has around 22. How many do you have at your local newspaper? Local newspapers will soon face new competition for scarce ad revenue, talent acquisition, fundraising donations and future subscribers. What will be the outcome? Put a large fish into your aquarium. What happens to the small fish?
The CEO vows increased news coverage, integrated fundraising, new audiences, increased local content/programming, etc. The new organization will also create, market, and display content across integrated audio, video, digital and new platforms. This ascendent multimedia giant will be covering all of Vermont and beyond, as far as Montreal. It will have millions in cash reserves. Who competes with this?
My concerns run deeper. I advocate for greater openness regarding the recruitment and selection of board members of very large self-perpetuating non-profit boards (Bennington Banner 4/15/2019). The new entity will be overseen by such a board, but now smaller with greater power. I’d like the composition of editorial/news staff representing a full spectrum of Vermont voices (Rutland Herald 1/26/2021). In 2019 I corresponded and met the CEO of VPR and the chair of VPR’s board of directors and attended a VPR nominating committee meeting. The interactions were perfunctory, but I’m only a VPR listener.
In July 2019, the CEO cancelled the VPR Commentary series, the longest running series of its kind. We can’t have the public using public radio to speak directly to the public. VTDigger in 2020 printed 860 commentaries by 649 different authors — and thanked every one by name. Cash insecure local newspapers encourage letters to the editor and commentaries. Are VPR’s actions serving Vermonters?
The CEO speaks of merger benefits, but not so much about merger liabilities. Monopolies think of themselves only. In June 2020 the CEO presented a legislature request for $874,000 in COVID relief funds. VPR had received $960,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — apt to be “forgiven.” They have millions in the bank, no layoffs, and a recently successful $10 million capital campaign. His rationale for the money included avoiding “awful things” like trying to find loan funding. Pandemic-crushed Vermonters feel his pain.
Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit? Anywhere it wants to. Average Vermonters are unable to have their opinions broadcast. Their ability to join decision making at the highest level are stunted. For small Vermont independent media voices the future looks more challenging. Remember local downtown shops when Walmart arrived?
Possible public protections could include the following:
- Local media and VTDigger show the Vermont way for alternate voices to be heard. This titan must allow all voices to present their commentaries/ideas directly to Vermonters.
- Vermont House and Senate committees should invite the new non-profit to testify on their burgeoning chunk of Vermont’s shrinking media world.
- A Public Advocate should be included on the board of directors to ensure all Vermonters’ participation.
- Don’t Vermonters believe the affluent should contribute more assisting those less fortunate? How about a five year, 2% donation from the $45 million Vermont PBS squirreled away contributed to cash insecure local media enterprises?
Vermont is a perfect environment for this new media conglomerate to flourish. Facebook, Google and Twitter justify their actions describing wonderful things they do. However, it’s not their intent that counts, but their impact.
If this company produces much more news content increasing their market share and media concentration, will all Vermonters benefit? Are Vermonters getting more avenues for their unfettered voices to be heard, or fewer? We love our independent media options. Will those who hold divergent opinions or oppose prevailing environmental, political, governmental, and cultural positions be heard?
VPR’s website says, “Be brave, ask questions.” After this merger, ask lots of questions.