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Media business keeps changing, and Burns stays on cutting edge

At 14, Elizabeth Murphy Burns sold classified advertising for her father's newspaper, the Evening Telegram in Superior. Today, the Duluthian is the president of a company that owns several television and radio stations across the country, her com...

At 14, Elizabeth Murphy Burns sold classified advertising for her father's newspaper, the Evening Telegram in Superior. Today, the Duluthian is the president of a company that owns several television and radio stations across the country, her company has produced educational programming broadcast in the United States and China, and she was part of a hand-picked team that worked with Russian journalists to help keep the press free in that former superpower.

When the team completed its report, it met with President George Bush at the White House last year, and he congratulated them on a job well done.

"It was pretty heady stuff," said Burns, who addressed about 120 people at the Minnesota Dialogue breakfast at the College of St. Scholastica Thursday morning.

Burns is the president of the Evening Telegram Company, a partner with Murphy McGinnis Media, which owns the Budgeteer News, and she is president of Morgan Murphy Stations, which owns five television stations in Washington state and in Wisconsin and 12 radio stations in Washington, Idaho and Wisconsin. A subsidiary company, Murphy Entertainment Group, produces cable programming.

Today, she said one of the biggest challenges she faces is "how to position the company to go forward" in a business that perpetually struggles with deregulation, consolidation and a weak advertising market. In addition, customers are increasingly sophisticated, and their media options keep growing.

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"With cell phones and satellites, there is no place on earth that is out of touch," she said. "We are truly a global village."

Burns and her company have reached out around the world. About 10 years ago, after successfully producing long-distance learning programming with partners RXL Pulitzer at her television station in Spokane, they launched a joint venture with Beijing TV. The project resulted in educational/entertainment programming broadcast in China, with advertising support from some big-name American companies, including Microsoft, American Express and Northwest Airlines.

When Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to establish lines of communication between Russian and American journalists, Burns was chosen to help make that happen. Burns and nine other American media executives made up the American contingent of the Russian-American Media Entrepreneurship Dialogue (RAMED), which began its work in January 2001 by meeting at the White House with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The group's biggest fear was that Putin was not committed to a free press and "was slipping back into his KGB past." The Americans traveled to Russia twice and discovered a media system very different from their own. Burns described the state of Russia's media as similar to where the United States' broadcast industry was in the 1950s.

"It's cowboys and Indians, and anything goes," she said.

The Americans met two groups of Russian journalists with different concerns. Those in their 40s and 50s were committed to a free press, while their younger counterparts were more interested in the business side of the media and wanted information on regulatory issues and lobbying government officials. The Americans also discovered government control of both licensing and content is prevalent, making it difficult for independent media companies to survive. One company controls virtually all advertising on radio and television, and a company founder is the minister of print, television, radio and mass media.

Corruption exists at all levels, but Burns believes positive changes will come, and RAMED put out a report to help make that happen.

"The people of Russia know that they have to have a strong economy and understand the need to survive and thrive in the world market," she said. "Freedom of the press is a huge, necessary first step."

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Despite big changes in the media industry, Burns remains committed to the same ideals as her grandfather, John T. Murphy, who bought the Superior Telegram in the 1890s. "My plan is to be the best stations in our markets and to deliver the best local programming we can," she said. "We may be a global village, but we all live in our local villages and want to know what's going on there first and foremost. Localism, I feel, will never go out of style."

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