The Public Media Merger Project

In turbulent financial times for local journalism, many local newspapers are shrinking their newsrooms or closing all together. Local public broadcasters are responding by looking for innovative ways to increase the quality and digital reach of their journalism. At the same time, journalist entrepreneurs are seeing the gaps in coverage left by shrinking newsrooms, particularly in public affairs reporting, and are starting up small, digital-only news outlets. But both of these types of organizations face significant obstacles. Legacy public broadcasters tend to have a strong financial and operational bias towards radio and/or television, and weak digital capability and reach. Digital newsrooms have the technical capabilities to create and distribute high-quality journalism in digital channels, but often struggle to scale their operations and build a sustainable revenue base as they face either downward pressure on digital advertising rates or the vicissitudes of philanthropic funding.

In this environment, there have been a number of innovative experiments in merging a public broadcaster and a digital newsroom to increase the overall journalistic, technical, and financial capabilities of each. These kinds of experiments have the potential to make a significant difference in the information health of local communities. But the merger process—especially between two non-commercial entities—can be difficult to navigate. For a merger to be successful, thorny question of governance, newsroom culture, editorial and digital strategy, and financial logic have to be tackled. And not all those issues are understandable in advance.

The field of local journalism would benefit greatly from a “playbook” for public broadcasters and digital publishers who are considering combining their institutions to benefit their communities. There are now a number of examples to learn from: St. Louis, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and New York have each experimented with combining a public media newsroom with a digital-first newsroom.

The Public Media Merger project will study these mergers and create a comprehensive “playbook” for managing public media and digital-first newsroom mergers.  This playbook will stand as a navigational guide for future mergers, as digital newsrooms continue to innovate and grow into the challenges of repairing the information health of local democracies.

Key Questions

The key questions guiding this project include:

  1. What are the major organizational and governance decisions that should organize the consideration period and due diligence of a merger between a public broadcaster and a digital newsroom?
    a. What factors (organizational, cultural, contextual), make a merger more likely to proceed smoothly?
    b. What factors (organizational, cultural, contextual), make a merger more likely to encounter obstacles?
  2. What are the key financial and technical performance indicators that should be attended to when entities are considering a merger?
    a. What indicators of revenue (including membership, advertising, sponsorship) are most important to consider, and what are reasonable estimates for the performance boost attributable to a merger?
    b. What technical considerations should be weighed in the consideration of a merger? What are the challenges of integrating different technical stacks and how can those be addressed?
    c. What set of technical and financial metrics can best measure the impact of a merger? 
  3. What are the major managerial and leadership dynamics that are likely to emerge in the post-merger period?
    a Managing staff integration
    b. Managing technical integration
    c. Managing financial integration
    d. Managing editorial integration
    e. Managing marketing, branding and communications

Throughout the research, we will consider the key decisions, benefits, challenges, difficulties, and triumphs encountered by entities during the merger process, beginning at the origination of the idea to merge the two companies through newsroom and organizational integration. This broad focus field includes—but is not limited to—the strategic, technical, cultural, mission, revenue, marketing, and branding changes implemented as a result of the merger.  In addition, we will focus on the unique aspects of combining a commercial versus non-commercial digital newsroom with a public broadcasting station.

Project Updates

See all of the project’s updates and interim findings on its Medium Blog.