Nonprofit News

PBS chief Paula Kerger on the struggle for relevance


This summer, with the news abuzz with word that Rupert Murdoch had purchased a majority of the Wall Street Journal, the media was once again fretting over its future. With the barbarians at the gate, some began to look to a very nontraditional mode of media ownership for salvation.

That mode is nonprofit ownership, exemplified by the Public Broadcasting Service, now run by Paula Kerger, who took over last year. Kerger's ascension to the top post came after the end of the controversial tenure of Pat Mitchell, who raised eyebrows over her handling of a controversy about programming on PBS. The flap did at least show how nonprofits can come under the glare of criticism just as quickly as more traditional media, and how nonprofit figureheads might be much more vulnerable to public and political pressure than most.

For her part, Kerger has steered clear of such dustups, focusing instead on popular successes like the new Ken Burns documentary about World War II, The War.

In Boise this week to kick the tires on Idaho Public Television, Kerger talked to local reporters about how to keep public television relevant in a world with hundreds of cable channels, and revealed just how much of a traditional media consumer she really is.

She called Idaho Public Television "one of the great networks in our system" and "a true leader." Its strength, she said, was in its devotion of resources to local content.

Kerger made a few sly jabs at more mainstream television in her comments, but cloaked them in a discussion of how a nonprofit like PBS serves its "owners" —the public—in a manner that diverges from privately owned media outlets.

"The difference is that when you start your work with the premise that you have to deliver profits to the shareholder, it starts you down a slightly different path," she said. "Our stockholders are really the American public.

"I'm not for a moment maligning the work that happens on cable or commercial TV," Kerger added. "There's great programs there. Bravo, which started out as an arts channel, has shifted their focus. Their top programs are Project Runway and Top Chef and things that spin off from that. I think they're tremendously creative shows, I like them very much. But they're a little different than the work that we do."

In an article in its recent issue, the Columbia Journalism Review asked whether a nonprofit might not be the savior for journalism going forward, with its ability to pour resources toward efforts that it deemed important for its mission, rather than a privately owned network, whose bottom line demanded different results.

"What has also been true for years now is that media corporations are desperately seeking a way to remain viable financially in the wild marketplace of, well, everything else," wrote Charles Lewis. "And at the moment, the landscape looks precarious, particularly for serious editors and reporters."

Kerger noted that while some mainstream media sources have begun to depopulate their overseas bureaus, publicly owned networks like hers and that of National Public Radio have increased their coverage of world affairs, and staffed up accordingly.

"We have stepped into a place that the networks have abandoned," Kerger said. "The onus is more on us. We're not in the business to be in business. If there are areas that they are doing well, then we should step back."

In the Review article, Lewis also wrote about how, in the light of financial pinches, some serious media have begun to look longingly at nonprofits like Kerger's. The concept has emerged just about any time significant local media outlets, like the Idaho Statesman, change corporate owners or, like other newspapers, shutter altogether in light of stock market troubles.

"In this light, other economic models that can produce substantive journalism suddenly look more interesting and relevant to a profession under siege," Lewis wrote. "And while much has been written of late about the dire state of commercial journalism, very little has been said about various independent, noncommercial initiatives specifically designed to produce that kind of substance."

That doesn't, of course, reduce the demand on a nonprofit leader like Kerger: raising money to keep the highbrow operation afloat.

"I am spending more time fundraising," Kerger admitted. "It's part of the equation." She added, however, that fundraising puts her in touch with people who have critical input.

"Raising money and making connections is tremendously important," she said.

Meanwhile, she said, public broadcasting is struggling, like every other media outlet, to find a way to reach new viewers. For a traditional media consumer like Kerger—she confesses to being a fan and regular reader of actual newsprint and magazines, saying that she can tear out their pages easier—that means some stumbling.

"We're just feeling our way, like everyone is," she said. "The challenge is how do you get people's attention with what we're doing."

At the same time, she said, she is wary of some of the approaches newer forms of media have taken. While PBS is working diligently to involve the public in media production, she is nonetheless wary of some recent trends in what is popularly known as "citizen journalism."

"Citizen journalism is, I think, very powerful. It does not replace professional journalism. I don't see that," she said. "But I think it's an interesting and important part of the discourse."