Feb 18, 2012

Chicago News Cooperative reportedly folding on Feb. 26

The Chicago News Cooperative will cease publishing content on Feb. 26, the Chicago Reader reports, due in part to a delay in a crucial MacArthur Foundation grant. The Internal Revenue Service has yet to decide if CNC and similar web news operations are 501(c)(3) nonprofits; CNC has been receiving funding via its fiscal agent, pubstation WTTW. But recently a MacArthur staff attorney advised the foundation that until the IRS ruled, MacArthur grants should go to specific programs instead of generally sustaining the co-op — that meant a different approval process and a longer wait for the money to arrive, the Reader notes. The CNC had been producing local pages twice weekly for the New York Times but the newspaper realized that CNC's financial position was "precarious," the Reader said, and on Thursday (Feb. 16) canceled that arrangement. James O'Shea, former managing editor at the Chicago Tribune and founder and editor of the CNC, informed the staff of the shutdown Friday afternoon.

UPDATE: Dan Sinker, who leads the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership for Mozilla and wrote a piece for the Huffington Post when CNC launched, writes on his blog that "CNC’s web presence was too little too late," and its social media activities were "too little too little."

UPDATE: O'Shea posted a letter to CNC readers Feb. 20 confirming the closure. "Unlike similar start-up efforts like the Texas Tribune in Austin, the Bay Citizen in San Francisco and ProPublica in New York, we never recruited the kind of seven figure donations from people of means concerned about the declining quality of news coverage around the country," he wrote. "As a result, CNC never raised the resources to make investments in the business side of our operation that would have generated the revenue we needed to achieve our original goal — a self-sustaining news operation within five years. CNC always has been an experiment in trying to figure out a way to finance accountability journalism, the kind of reporting that many news organizations are abandoning as they struggle with a deteriorating business model and financial problems."

"In the coming days and weeks," O'Shea added, "we will be examining our potential to see if we can identify an alternative path and preserve some of the journalistic assets we have developed."

APTS pleased with spectrum legislation, but challenges loom

There’s good news for pubcasters in the legislation giving the FCC spectrum auction authority that passed this week in Congress — but many questions remain, and serious technical challenges lie ahead as spectrum is reallocated and repacked to provide more bandwidth for wireless devices. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

“Overall, we’re feeling pretty good about how it came out,” Lonna Thompson, c.o.o. of the Association of Public Television Stations, told Current. “We got nearly all of the precautions we wanted in the legislation to protect stations.” Original Senate legislation contained an estimate of $1 billion to repack the entire spectrum following an auction; APTS and other organizations were able to push that to $1.75 billion in the final bill. Also, the auction is officially voluntary, and no stations will be forced to move from UHF to VHF. Cable carriage rights for pubTV stations are safe.

However, Thompson said, “some of the questions that stations still want answers to, such as what their spectrum is worth and the specific rules of the auctions, aren’t specified” in the bill, which will use auction proceeds to help pay for a payroll tax break and unemployment benefits, as well as support a public safety network for emergency responders.

And from a technical standpoint, the repacking “is going to be very disruptive,” Thompson said. “With the digital transition [in June 2009], stations had at least two channels, analog and digital. They could get ready and when the switch came, they just closed the analog channel.” This isn’t case with repacking: Stations will need to close down one channel first, and then move to another, not an easy task. “We’ve heard from engineers that it’s very problematic, and stations could be off the air for a significant period of time during the switch,” she said.

Developing auction rules and conducting the auctions will take two to three years minimum, Thompson estimated, with repacking occurring after that.

Here is a PDF of the legislation; the section on the spectrum auction begins on page 118.

More about the spectrum auctions and related issues in the next Current, Feb. 27.

Kerger: PBS looking at "some aspects" of reality programming

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with PBS President Paula Kerger for a wide-ranging interview posted Feb. 17. Highlights:

On the potential for reality shows on PBS: "Colonial House and [2002's] Frontier House are different types of reality. They're experiential history programs. Moving forward, we'll look at those types of things. To get younger people engaged in history, you have to really look closely at the formats. And since reality has taken over, I think there are some aspects of it that we can do."

On GOP hopeful Mitt Romney's remarks on commercializing PBS: "When Mitt Romney says, we're not going to kill Big Bird, we're just going to make him take commercials, it's frustrating because it shows a lack of truly understanding the impact we have."

On her management style: "It's very different from running a network because I have 350 stations that all have different ideas of what public media should be, and I can't do anything by fiat. That's a huge piece of my job, making sure everyone stays on the same page and everyone is really committed."