The goal of the Public Media Mergers Project was to understand and capture best practices for mergers between public media groups and independent digital news sites – a rising trend across the country. The project launched in the summer of 2019 at the at the Harvard Kennedy School and concluded in December 2020. The project was supported by a partnership between the and the and was centered on business models for local public media newsroom mergers.
A cohort of public media groups participated in peer learning and research throughout the project, including:
The research in the project was led by Dr. Elizabeth Hansen. You can find the PDF version of our research findings here.
How to Use this Playbook
The Public Media Mergers Playbook is the result of a one-year study. It is a practical guide designed to help stations and digital newsrooms answer two questions:
Is an acquisition right for our organization? The material in the Playbook in Chapters A, B and C should help station and digital newsroom leadership ask the right questions of potential partners to discern whether an acquisition is the right move. Use these chapters along with the tools we provide to help you decide whether to move forward or not.
How do we manage our merger effectively to accomplish our shared goals? The material in Chapter D and onward in this Playbook should help station and digital newsroom leadership navigate mergers processes post-transaction. From setting strategy, to managing culture change, to setting up new workflows, these chapters will cover everything you need to know to effectively manage your merger. This section of the playbook is best utilized by both station and digital news site leadership, and leadership across product, development and editorial teams.
About the Team
The Researchers: Elizabeth Hansen (Lead Researcher) is the CEO and co-founder of the National Trust for Local News and a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. She previously led the news sustainability research at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She received her PhD in Organizational Behavior from Harvard Business School. Her work focuses on the digital transformation of newsrooms and the dynamics of leading and managing sustainability and innovation in news.
Emily Roseman (Project Lead) was an independent media researcher throughout her time working on the Public Media Mergers Project and now serves as Research Director for the . Recently, she was the Research Project Manager for a study at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on business models for nonprofit news.
PMVG was founded in 2017 by Public Media Company – a national nonprofit strategic consulting company that fosters public media growth – and an initial group of 27 public media licensees. These founding organizations identified the need for public media stations to collectively develop, test, and launch services and revenue streams that leverage new technologies to further the mission of public media. Now an independent nonprofit business development corporation, PMVG consists of 31 licensees led by the public media industry’s most dynamic public station leaders that operate 118 television stations which serve over 230 million people.
The Google News Initiative is Google’s effort to work with the news industry to help journalism thrive in the digital age. The Google News Initiative focuses on three pillars: working with the news industry to evolve their business models and drive sustainable growth, elevating quality journalism and empowering news organizations with new technology.
The Public Media Mergers Project was a collaborative effort that arose out of a mutual interest and passion for understanding the current and emerging models for high-quality, sustainable noncommercial journalism. We have many people and institutions to thank for their support and engagement with the project.
We offer thanks first and foremost to this project’s partners and sponsors, especially Marc Hand at PMVG, David Stoller and Ben Monnie at the Google News Initiative, and Tom Patterson at the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. We could not have conducted this project without all of their support, help, and guidance throughout our research and beyond. We also thank Nancy Gibbs and Setti Warren at Shorenstein for their continual work to make an institutional home for the research. We are grateful for the deep expertise and partnership of Erin Moran and Evran Kavlak at Public Media Company (PMC) who built the set of diligence tools that we present in the Playbook. We also thank PMC’s Terri Olsen and PMVG’s Liz Maestri for their help with financial administration and key project logistics.
For the Playbook’s inspiration, we would like to thank in particular John Mooney at NJ Spotlight News for bringing this idea to our team way back in 2018 and helping us craft early visions for what we could produce for the field. Thanks as well to Bob Feinberg at WNET who was instrumental in helping us connect with Marc Hand and find traction for funding.
We are most deeply grateful to the dedicated and insightful public media organizations that participated in our research cohort, including Cascade Public Media’s KCTS and Crosscut, Colorado Public Radio and the Denverite, SCPR’s KPCC and the LAist, St. Louis Public Radio, WAMU and the DCist, WHYY and Billy Penn, WNET’s NJ Spotlight News and WNYC and the Gothamist. The research owes its success in large measure to the core cohort of 19 content, product, and newsroom leaders who dedicated significant time, effort, and thoughtfulness not just in the research but in a string of peer-learning conversations throughout the life of the project. Our gratitude to: Bob Feinberg, John Mooney, Sylvia Baber, Stewart Vanderwilt, Dave Burdick, Kevin Dale, Kristen Muller, Megan Garvey, Andy Cheatwood, Freyja Balmer, Jake Dobkin, Rebecca Farwell, Victor Hernandez, Laura Frank, Mike Scher, Andi McDaniel, Tim Eby, Shula Neuman, and Madalyn Painter. This Playbook would not have been possible without their generous and continuous sharing of insight, struggle, and triumph with us and with each other. It is a remarkable reflection of their dedication and generosity that the cohort continued participating in the project even as the tumultuous events of 2020 continued to unfold across the nation and crash on the shores of their newsrooms. We are forever grateful for their choices to engage with us in the spirit of inquiry and learning through such difficult times so that others in the field might benefit from their experience.
We offer thanks as well to our wider partner network for the project who participated in our convening in Boulder, Colorado in October 2019. Those partners include the Wyncote Foundation, Mark Fuerst, the American Journalism Project, LION, INN, PRX, the News Revenue Hub, Greater Public, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We are grateful for their advice and guidance as we crafted the research plan and for helping us contextualize the project in the broader trends in the field.
The project benefited from the research and editorial contributions of many excellent partners. Thanks to Steve Mulder and Christina Macholan at NPR for their help collating and visualizing member-station location data. We are grateful to the Solution Journalism Network’s Leslie Cory for her thorough and smart work tracking and analyzing the stories produced across the cohort. We are deeply grateful to Jessica Best for her perseverance and sharp eye in editing the many pages of the Playbook draft. Finally, we offer a huge thanks to web developer Brandon Roberts, designer Olivia Krishnaswami, and Shorenstein Center’s Liz Schwartz for enabling us to translate a 50,000 word document into a navigable pdf and a beautiful, user-friendly website.
Overview of Project Methods
Please see below for an abbreviated timeline and description of this project’s methods. For a more complete explanation, please see the PDF version of this study’s findings.
Fall 2018: The inspiration for this project came in the fall of 2018 as NJ Spotlight was considering a merger with NJTV. Elizabeth Hansen, leading the local news business models research at the Shorenstein Center, teamed up with Marc Hand at the Public Media Venture Group and his collaborators at Public Media Company to put together a project proposal and research questions.
Summer 2019: The Google News Initiative generously provided funding to PMVG for the project in the summer of 2019. The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy provided the academic home for the research project.
Summer 2019: The research team onboarded the cohort of participating newsrooms.
Summer 2019 – Fall 2019: The research team completed its first research objectives including the market map and a metrics regime for data collection. Public Media Company designed and completed the calculators and documents for mergers of this kind (see the Tools page for more).
October 2019: The research team hosted an in-person convening of participating newsrooms and partners. As a result of all conversations during this convening, the research team wrote an internal memo summarizing major themes and findings across the cohort. This memo guided the structure of the final playbook.
Fall 2019 – Spring 2020: Dr. Hansen and the research team conducted 78 interviews across the cohort groups, each ranging between 45 – 60 minutes. Initially, the research team planned to conduct all interviews in person. The first set of interviews in fall 2019 and through late February 2020 occurred in person, typically in the newsroom’s office space. Once the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading in the United States, interviews were transitioned to Zoom.
Spring – Summer 2020: Throughout June and July 2020, the research team requested a set of audience data and a set of financial data from both the station and the digital site within each merged entity. See here for the audience data request and here for the financial data request form.
July 2020: The research team hosted a second convening for the research cohort — this time, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over Zoom. See here for the full agenda.
Summer 2020: Throughout the summer, the research team conducted a platform analysis (examining the type and quantity of platforms employed by each news organization) and a content analysis (examining the type and quality of news stories and content produced) of all participating newsrooms’ websites and platforms.
October 2020: The research team hosted a virtual convening focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts by our cohort of newsrooms. Public media is notoriously dominated and led by white people who have systematically excluded people of color from both staff and leadership positions. Our cohort gathered to discuss readings on this subject and to share concrete actions groups have taken to increase diversity, equity and inclusion for the long term. , along with crowdsourced reading materials from the cohort.
Fall 2020: During this period, the research team was heads down in a period of research and interview tagging and synthesis.
Fall – Winter 2020: Throughout this time, the research team assembled the research findings into the final playbook. After writing, the research team shared the drafts for fact-checking and quote-checking mentions with the newsroom cohort representatives and newsroom leadership. The playbook acts as the final research output of the project.