It was announced Tuesday that Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS would combine operations effective mid-2021, an encouraging message for any Vermonter interested in a stronger statewide news and public affairs service.

The proposed merger must be approved by both the Federal Communications Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, but at this stage in the process the approvals are generally assumed to be foregone conclusions. That would be the hope.

The merger would be notable; our two largest nonprofit media organizations organized as a single public media company. It has appeal because Vermont is small enough that a merger of this magnitude could make a fundamental difference in terms of expanded services offered Vermonters; the same could not be argued, for example, for neighboring New York. For once, our small size is to our advantage.

Both VPR and Vermont PBS are well-heeled giving them the resources to build upon what they have and to expand offerings. According to the VPR announcement, Vermont PBS has $61 million in assets while VPR has $30 million in assets. Both non-profits also enjoy strong donor support from their respective audiences.

In other words, the merger is being done from a position of relative strength, not weakness. That is in contrast to the general health of a news gathering business that has seen a 40 percent decline in journalists since the year 2000. The financial strength of both nonprofits is also crucial to maintain traditional news formats and to figure out ways to adapt to the ever-changing digital world. That can’t be done as well separately as it can be together, which is particularly relevant given Vermont’s rural nature.

The two nonprofits are like many other organizations in Vermont that struggle to remain relevant and sustainable. To be successful requires being able to break the inertia that keeps them doing tomorrow what they did yesterday. It would have been easier, from a cultural and operational perspective, to remain separate. But, in the long term, the status quo might have made both less relevant, and, perhaps, weaker. Vermont would have been the poorer with such an outcome.

As laudable as the proposed merger is, much work will be required to accomplish the stated goals. The brand has to be spot on. The public service objectives have to be carried out more like a private sector initiative than what typically comes from nonprofits. There has to be a full buy-in from both organizations and the boards that run them.

This is a big deal for Vermont. From a statewide news gathering perspective our gas tank is running on empty. Here is a chance to revitalize, reimagine and deepen the way Vermonters are told about their state and the people running it. This level of investment could not only increase the reporting Vermonters need, but could also create the sort of synergy that draws success to those it touches. [Are there not ways in which this proposed nonprofit can work in conjunction with community news organizations that have yet to be explored?]

In sum, Vermont needs this sort of innovation, this sort of creative thinking as we consider the quickly evolving media landscape.

by Emerson Lynn

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