[This is a guest post by Joan Voight.]
NPR's decision to push out executive director Vivian Schiller last week is a wake up call to struggling local news organizations tired of depending on shrinking ad income and considering government subsidies. Schiller's exit came because NPR Foundation's President Ron Schiller (no relation) was secretly filmed making insulting comments about the Tea Party and Republicans at a lunch with two men purporting to be Muslim philanthropists. The video is now political fodder as NPR and public media fight to get Congress not to slash $400 million in federal funding.
Ironically, Ron Schiller also was taped saying that NPR "would be better off in the long-run without federal funding." And here, he's probably right. The fact that his boss had to resign simply because he mouthed off about politicians makes ad-supported media -- where political opinions are generally accepted -- look better than it has in quite a while.
The advantage of for-profit media
A media outlet that depends on marketing dollars might have approached the secret video situation in an entirely different way. Building on the controversy stirred up by Ron Schiller's insults, it could plan and promote an interview show featuring Schiller and Sarah Palin or some other Tea Party personality. The more pre-show buzz, the better the ratings and the higher the ad prices.
Sadly, NPR doesn't have that luxury.
A few years back, the Pew Research Center put the question of government-subsidized journalism to news executives in a survey. Most of them voiced serious reservations about any kind of subsidy, including tax shelters, even though they felt their field was under huge financial pressure. As one of the Radio Television Digital News Association executives in the Pew study stated, "If the government becomes the 'money bags' for journalism, journalism will become the 'bag man' for the government."
Selling advertising can be tough, but as media blogger Tony Case writes about NPR, "sucking on the government teat" might be worse.