When KOGO 600-AM dropped its morning news show in September, KPBS, San Diego's public radio station, leapt at the chance to dominate the morning airwaves. Moving swiftly, the station added substantial minutes to local news coverage, and it converted to a two-anchor format. In a little extra jab at KOGO and its parent company, Clear Channel, it changed its slogan to “KPBS, where news matters.”
Then in November, KPBS' news director, Michael Marcotte, decided he'd been in radio news long enough. With both children out of the house, Marcotte and his wife decided to make a life change. They moved to Santa Barbara, where he now runs a media consulting business. He knew the timing might not be ideal, given the financial troubles in the news industry, and he worried, he told CityBeat, that the station would dump all his duties on senior editor Alan Ray, who was managing the station's morning show.
Now it appears Marcotte had reason for concern. KPBS General Manager Doug Myrland told CityBeat that the station would not hire another news director. Program director John Decker will take over Marcotte's administrative duties and become the radio station's “agenda setter.” Ray will take on the daily chore of allocating news resources. But with no long-term editorial visionary at the upper echelons of the station, the moves raise the question: Does news still matter?
“The idea not to have a radio news director is to acknowledge the diversified kind of new operation we have,” Myrland said. “We're creating content in several places.”
The station has three editorial leaders, one each for web, television and radio platforms. KPBS has invested heavily in the last few years in its web presence, adding blogs, interactive forums and events calendars, among other features. It's all part of the new wave of distributing information.
“Everybody is groping toward the future in their own attempt to not look into a crystal ball, but to invent the crystal ball,” said Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. “This is one way to do it.”
As newspaper circulation and network news audiences have fallen, news organizations of all kinds have been searching for ways to turn a profit. In San Diego, the city's largest daily newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, has a separate online entity called signonsandiego.com, and an Internet radio arm called Signon Radio. Another news daily, voiceofsandiego.org, runs as a web-only product with occasional audio and video segments.
Contrasting with newspapers, public radio has enjoyed growing listenership nationwide, rising to 30 million listeners last year from 2 million in 1980. Yet KPBS has been struggling. The station lost $1 million last year. Public contributions were down 5 percent from 2006, even as the station spends an increasing percentage of its revenue on fundraising. But Myrland says the cut wasn't made to save money, so much as to reallocate resources. He said he's considering hiring someone to coordinate projects between the platforms.
“That's something Mike Marcotte had modeled before he left, several different ways we might create editorial connections between the different media,” he said.
In his 12 years at KPBS, Marcotte spent most of his time focused on the radio side, but, as he put it, he “had standing” to influence all parts of KPBS' news coverage, regardless of the medium. He was the final voice on journalistic ethics, and he had final cut on news stories and features. He set the style for the station, one that emphasized longer, in-depth features over shorter news updates, known in the industry as “spots.”
He also played a pivotal role in improving the station's web presence, both in creating content and in securing funding from the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Fund for Reporting Excellence. The money provides 18-month fellowships for two reporters and supports other web projects.
Marcotte argues that this kind of long-range project is exactly why the station needs a news director. When he left, Marcotte sent a memo to Myrland and other top managers that outlined Marcotte's core values for what KPBS could and should be.
“I think it's very important for KPBS to continue to grow itself as a journalistic enterprise,” Marcotte told CityBeat. “Its greatest contribution to the community is in giving quality, in depth news. I think that means a journalistic leader at the station.”
Marcotte emphasized that he was not criticizing station management, but he worried about what would happen if his duties were simply spread out among existing staff.
“My god, I never got my work done,” he said. “If you're just adding more work to existing personnel, that's just trying to do more with less. What happens in a situation like that, some of the creativity is drained out of the day.”Reporters in the newsroom are apprehensive about losing that extra level of oversight.
“We want a news director,” Andrew Phelps, a KPBS reporter, told CityBeat. “Mike Marcotte offered the 30,000-foot view of things, he had the vision.”
Two other reporters echoed Phelps concerns to CityBeat, but would not comment for the record. Scott Horsley worked at KPBS for seven years, including two as senior editor, before getting hired by National Public Radio in 2001. He's still based out of KPBS, though (“I have the same desk, the same extension,” he said), so he's been able to closely watch the newsroom without being part of it. He recalls periods in the station's past when Marcotte was at the helm, but there was no senior editor.
“You needed someone to be the traffic cop,” he said. “The senior editor position went vacant, and the news tended to suffer when it was vacant. You needed someone to make those day-to-day calls.”
Marcotte, he said, often had to attend meetings in other parts of the building, or he was dealing with the paperwork that came with the job.
Ray told CityBeat that Marcotte's departure “broke my heart,” but he's looking forward to his new duties. When he finally stops directly overseeing the morning show next month, he'll no longer have to show up for work at 3:30 a.m. He can sleep in all the way until 6.
“I'm learning better to figure out the pacing of this,” he said. “When Mike would be away, I just worked pedal to the metal until he came back. Nobody ever asked me to work a 70 hour week, but sometimes you have to do it.”Horsely recalls periods at KPBS before Ray, when Marcotte had no lieutenant. The station occasionally missed a crucial story. He's less concerned about the inverse structure, a lieutenant with no captain.
“It would be naïve to assume Alan or anybody could fill both roles with no problem,” Horsely said. “Having a lieutenant with no captain is probably not the ideal way to keep the ship afloat, but the problems of having the ship go off course are less evident.”