The largest nonprofit media organization in Vermont history will soon have 117 employees, an annual budget of $18 million and $91 million in assets. Seven Days around 43 employees; VTDigger around 22. How many at your local newspaper? Their budget? Local newspapers will soon face new competition for scarce ad revenue, talent acquisition/retention, fundraising/donations and future subscribers. The outcome? Put a large fish into your aquarium. What happens to the small fish?
The CEO vows increased news coverage (20 current news employees), integrated fundraising, new audiences, increased local content/programming, etc. They will create, market and display content on integrated audio, video, digital and new platforms. An ascendant multimedia giant covering all of Vermont and beyond as far as Montreal. 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, nonprofit boards (Bennington Banner, April 15, 2019). The new entity will be overseen by such a board; now smaller with greater power. I’d like the composition of editorial/news staff representing a full spectrum of Vermont voices (Rutland Herald, Jan. 26). In 2019, I corresponded with and met the CEO of VPR, VPR’s board of directors chair and attended a VPR nominating committee meeting. The interactions were perfunctory, but I’m only a VPR listener.
In July 2019, the CEO canceled the VPR Commentary series, longest running series of its kind. 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. Merger liabilities, not so much. Monopolies think of themselves. In June, the CEO presented a Legislature request for $874,000 in COVID-19 relief funds. VPR had received $960,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) apt to be “forgiven.” 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. With millions in the bank? Pandemic-crushed Vermonters feel his pain. Hello, board of directors?
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, stunted. For small Vermont independent media voices, the future looks more challenging. Remember local downtown shops when Walmart arrived?
Possible public protections:
1. 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.
2. Vermont House and Senate committees should invite the new nonprofit to testify on their burgeoning chunk of Vermont’s shrinking media world.
3. A public advocate on the board of directors to ensure all Vermonters participation.
4. 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.
Matt Krauss, of Stowe, is a retired state employee and former Vermont legislator.