Vermont's biggest and wealthiest nonprofit media organizations are merging. Officials at Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS say the goal is to provide stronger public service programming through a combined radio, TV, digital news and entertainment network.
The boards of the two nonprofits voted Wednesday to formally ratify the deal.
Marguerite Dibble, the chair of the Vermont PBS board, said after about a year of intensive study, board members saw the potential of working together as one media organization.
“We are able to do something that is truly nationally innovative and create a public media company that is able to serve a community in a way that is truly unique and truly outstanding,” Dibble said.
The merger requires approval from the Federal Communications Commission, and the recognition of tax-exempt status from the IRS. The anticipated launch date is July 2021.
If approved, the deal would create a statewide news and public affairs service with extremely deep pockets. According to public tax filings, Vermont Public Television, based in Winooski, has assets of $61 million. The organization sold one of its broadcast spectrums for $56 million in 2017. VPR, based in Colchester, has $30 million in assets, including property and equipment.
Asked why donors should continue to contribute to nonprofits that have so much money already, Dibble had a ready answer.
“I’m very excited to see what we can achieve as a public media company given those assets,” Dibble said. “But I’m excited to continue donating just personally to both stations because I believe in that shared connection to the public. I believe in maintaining that sense of ownership that I have as an individual who is served by these stations. And I think that through that public ownership is how we’re really able to build the continued trust and continue mission of service between the organizations.”
VPR President and CEO Scott Finn noted that VPR and Vermont PBS have already collaborated on a number of projects. These include a debate series, political polls, and a 2019 project called “This Land” that explored the challenges and opportunities of living in rural Vermont.
He said the objective is to build off the two organizations’ strengths: VPR’s journalism, classical music programming and Vermont PBS’s skills in video storytelling. He mentioned as one possibility a video form of VPR’s audience-driven “people-powered” podcast Brave Little State.
“It just seems that there are a lot of complementary strengths that will be better together,” he said.
Over the next few months, Vermont PBS and VPR will develop an integration plan. Both entities will continue as independent organizations during this period.
Finn said when VPR held a four-month, 14-county listening tour in 2018, the overwhelming message was to “do more.”
The merger is an opportunity to do that, and to boost local journalism, he said.
“There’s been a decline of more than 40% in the number of journalists in Vermont in the last 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40%,” he said. “So what we heard on that tour is that people want VPR and, I think, Vermont PBS, public media, to step in, to help out, to do more. And that’s what this is all about. I think this is our response to what we heard on that tour.”
Finn will lead the new organization. Steve Ferreira, acting CEO of Vermont PBS, will serve as chief operating officer. Nicole Ravlin, now the vice chair of VPR, will chair the new entity. Dibble will serve as vice chair and the new board will consisting of existing VPR and Vermont PBS directors.
Although Vermont PBS airs a weekly reporters’ roundtable, the TV broadcaster does not currently have journalists on staff. By joining with VPR, it would gain access to a newsroom of about 20 reporters, producers, host and editors.
One media expert with ties to Vermont says the state should benefit from a combined public media organization. David Mindich chairs the journalism department at Temple University in Philadelphia, but before that he chaired the journalism program at St. Michaels College in Vermont. He said more resources should drive more in-depth reporting.
The two non-profits say they will reach out to their audiences as they plan for the future. Mindich said the more outreach, the better.
"I love the idea of reaching out to the people of Vermont and see what they need," he said. "That's something that's been done throughout the country. And in my adopted city of Philadelphia there are journalists who are all over the place talking to people about the kind of coverage they need and want. So it would be great if Vermont Public Radio and PBS does that."
VPR's Finn said that for organizational purposes the name of the new media company is “Vermont Public” although that may not necessarily be the name used in branding.
He said staff lay-offs due to the merger are not planned. “There’s so much more to be done that there’s lots of room in both organizations to do that work.”
UPDATE, 09/09/20, 5 p.m: Post was updated to include comments from journalism professor David Mindich.
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