No one minds a leader dialed in to the future so long as that person also shares a wavelength with the here and now. At Chicago Public Radio there are staffers who feel they speak on one frequency and president Torey Malatia responds on another.
For the past year and a half, Malatia, with input from the staff, has been fashioning a new strategic plan for CPR, whose two components are WBEZ and the rowdy radio/Web hybrid Vocalo. Vocalo, which describes itself as "like YouTube for radio," has big problems, and the draft of the plan that the CPR board approved on October 23 admits that. But it's Vocalo that engages Malatia the audacious visionary.
When Malatia shared the strategic plan with the staff prior to the board vote, he attached it to an e-mail message asserting the importance of strategic planning. He wrote, "Trotsky in one of his famous flights of cynicism once said: 'You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.' He meant that the outside world will shape your future if you do not." (I posted a PDF of the plan on the Reader's media blog on November 9.)
The strategic plan says WBEZ is being reinvented "around news and information," but the sections on "strengths" and "core competences" barely mention news at all. Wondering where they stood, WBEZ's public affairs staff prepared a response, a ten-page statement of their own "strategic vision." Trotsky would have approved.
Having observed that the word journalism appears nowhere in the strategic plan, the staff immediately insisted on its primacy. What they called the "near-collapse of traditional media outlets in Chicago" gave WBEZ a "unique opportunity," they argued: "to be the source for credible, innovative journalism in our region—one that reflects diversity of opinion and thought and provides depth and context, allowing and empowering our users to respond and act." This wasn't a new observation; public affairs staffers past and present have been telling me for a year and a half that a golden opportunity was slipping through their fingers.
"So what do we mean by journalism?" The staff answered its own question by quoting the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism: "The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society." Pew fleshed out this definition with a set of principles, and the public affairs response listed them. They begin, "Journalism's first obligation is to the truth," and continue, "Its first loyalty is to citizens. Its essence is a discipline of verification . . ."
The staff statement went on to argue that "public radio is well positioned to deliver and capitalize on the promises and principles of journalism." But, it said, we have problems.
"The Public Affairs staff is stretched to the limit. . . . The current staffing level has been reduced in the past three years by both lay-offs and elimination of open positions. . . . Staff loyalty has been strained as resources for WBEZ (including staff positions, benefits, marketing, support staff and equipment) have been limited by the economy and station spending priorities. Discrepancies in pay and resources available to Vocalo producers and WBEZ producers have also added to frustrations for some members of the WBEZ Public Affairs staff.
"The community bureaus have not been given the funding they need to achieve some of their most progressive missions. The bureaus were to be training centers for community contributors to add their voice to public radio, but no trainers or support staff have been hired.
"There is no budget for training, outside workshops, or conferences that could help make connections and push forward innovation. The impetus and will to change the way programming on 91.5FM is presented and delivered does not seem to have institutional support.
"Leadership has not provided a concrete, viable plan to place WBEZ in a position to compete in the current media landscape."
Malatia began his response amiably. He called the vision statement "excellent work," its assessment of WBEZ's strengths "spot on." Why, he'd "gladly join your signatures on the last page," said Malatia, but for "two areas that I see as needing change."
One was the public affairs staff's observation that foundations are becoming significant funders of journalism projects, which could mean opportunities for WBEZ. Malatia replied that "the editorial decision arises from public need, not grant opportunities." To go after grants that might be around today but not tomorrow was "tactical" thinking, not strategic. Besides, "to paraphrase John Lennon, 'I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me editorial freedom.'" (First Trotsky, now Lennon.) Said Malatia, "Programming staff should never even toy with fascination of the funding world. That dog bites."
The other, the more important of the two, was Pew's idea of journalism. Malatia called it "trustee journalism," journalism as taught academically but "not in any way a working definition. It is not dynamic, not practical, and certainly misleading for serving a real city overwhelmed by complex human issues.
"Those of you who know me well, know that I'm a devoted fan of high purpose tenets; it grabs the idealist inside me instantly. But speaking professionally I insist that we develop and employ a working view of journalism."
Journalism's first obligation is to the truth? "What truth? Whose truth?" Malatia wanted to know. He called Pew's first principle an "executional myth."
And, he went on, Pew's definition "contains other aspirations that I might feel proud to aspire to, but will never see the light of day on middle-earth. It would be nice if there were something like 'verification,' but it is impossibility."
Continuing in this vein, Malatia said journalists cannot hope to be fair because fairness is in the eye of the beholder. They cannot hope to monitor power because they "are at the mercy of the power structure like everyone else." They cannot hope to drive the democratic process because people are free to resist being driven.
So what is journalism good for? For the answer to that, Malatia turned to the late Cole Campbell. The editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the late 90s, Campbell was a founder of the approach to newspapering known as "public journalism." Malatia called Campbell a "great print guy" who rejected the following "high concepts":
"Journalism is in the truth business.
Journalism is about distributing information.
Journalism covers the events-makers.
Journalism is centered on facts, not opinion, not emotion.
Journalism must employ the severest discipline of objectivity.
And instead preached the following:
Journalism is about problem-solving.
Journalism offers models for understanding information.
Journalism covers those affected by events.
Journalism seeds dialogue, discourse and serves as a 'conversation keeper.'
Journalism must employ the severest discipline of attentiveness.
Malatia was wound up. "The standards for testing truth are ever shifting," he said. "And they are as emotional and intuitive as they are fact-based. The truth itself is ineffable. But the quest for truth carries a significant benefit—it by nature generates a process of discovery, of seeking solutions. Campbell sees this problem-solving role more much more [sic] operationally useful to his journalists than determining truth. More importantly, so apparently does the general public. In fact, the public consistently suspects the truthfulness of the press. In every survey, by any think tank, this always surfaces. The public does not even slightly seek journalism for truth. But it does reject journalism if it suspects it of manipulating facts to block solutions."
As for WBEZ, "Ours is not a journalism that flows out and is then absorbed by the readership (or listeners). Our journalism is more vigorous and complex. Its task is to flow out and start a process that lives in community discourse, and in political life. It sparks ideas and gains energy in our public long after we've distributed it. That's why I favor cultural narrative as just one of our tools—since narrative so effectively brings together strangers, whose thoughts, expression, and needs are dissimilar. This bringing together people who disagree to exchange views and begin the process of seeking solutions may in fact be the highest value of our work."
Malatia might actually have done a better job than his public affairs staff at describing and extolling the kind of journalism they're so proficient at. What's odd about his reply to the staff's vision statement was his failure to acknowledge any of its specifics.
What about the inadequate staffing levels, the strained staff loyalty, the diversion of resources to Vocalo? The underfunding of the community bureaus, the lack of institutional support for new programming, the failure of leadership? Were these practical matters raised on a frequency Malatia doesn't receive?
When I called Malatia for comment, his secretary referred me to a PR firm. I'd heard he wasn't happy that I'd posted his plan on the Reader's site. CPR's response to that was to post the plan on its own site. But not on the home page. The plan was buried inside the WBEZ blog, where a staffer told me few visitors to the site were likely to see it.
But on November 13 CPR announced four job openings. One was for a new director of Vocalo. The others were for a morning producer and general assignment reporter at WBEZ and a reporter to open a new community bureau on Devon that WBEZ had been talking about for months. In the only way that really matters, Malatia appeared to be responding.
Find this story and more coverage of Chicago Public Radio at chicagoreader.com/media.