Public Radio Stations Invest in Local Digital Outlets to Break the Billionaire Cycle

Three large public radio stations announced they are buying the assets of local digital outlets Gothamist, LAist and DCist, reviving the websites after billionaire owner Joe Ricketts shut them down in November amid unionization efforts, according to a Feb. 23 press release from the parties involved

WYNC, KPCC and WAMU, three NPR affiliates located in New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., did not disclose the financial details of the transaction.

The joint press release said, “Each public media organization involved in the investment is a leading source of enterprise journalism and local reporting in their respective communities. The assets acquired will enable the stations to expand their digital footprint and support their shared missions to reflect and serve their listeners and the public.”

This transaction, however, does not represent the financial reality for most news organizations in a time where Google and Facebook have control over advertising, formerly a steady source of revenue for outlets.

Tumultuous times in the news business has led to a flurry of mergers and acquisitions, digital outlets downsizing, and union movements by anxious journalists.

Ricketts’ response to the union movements in his newsroom last November was to shut them down completely.

He said in the joint statement about the deal, “The most important thing for me was to make sure the assets went to a news organization that would honor our commitment to neighborhood storytelling.”

“The acquisition is being funded in large part through generous philanthropic donations from two anonymous donors, who are deeply committed to supporting local journalism initiatives and the station partners,” according to the joint statement by WYNC, KPCC and WAMU.

This deal should not be viewed in isolation.

In January, journalists at The Washington Post pushed for a stronger union presence and increased benefits in their contract renegotiations. The paper, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, responded by providing journalists with free mugs of coffee.

The Los Angeles Times, a paper that has been rocked by sexual harassment, unionization and ownership issues, was recently purchased by local billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong.

He said in a statement, We look forward to continuing the great tradition of award-winning journalism carried out by the reporters and editors of the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune and the other California News Group titles.”

It is too soon to tell how the new LA Times union and the paper’s new owner will get along in negotiations.

While many digital outlets, like CNN Money and VOX, are laying off journalists, The Atlantic recently announced it will be hiring 100 new employees. The New York Times notes, “The ramping up comes six months after Emerson Collective, an organization run by the philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, acquired a majority stake in The Atlantic.”

While the wealthy owning the news is nothing new, it may be the only way for news organizations to stay afloat as the bottom line tightens.

The Athletic, a sports journalism website, responded to the financial reality of lost advertising revenue by putting up a paywall and forcing consumers to pay for quality content. It is too soon to tell if this is a viable, long-term way for outlets to support themselves.

The bottom line is that as outlets struggle to turn a profit, journalists are increasingly turning to unions for their own self-preservation. However, when billionaire owners and unions clash, the end result might make both parties worse off.

Nevertheless, partnering with public radio brought the Gothamist and its related sites back to life. While this is probably not an arrangement that will work for most media outlets, it is a creative solution that is a sign of hope for independent news.

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