We’re deep into news — let’s walk that walk

Commentary by Michael Marcotte

My old j-school prof would warn that “to assume makes an ass of u and me.” Lately I discovered I’m an ass for assuming public radio hears a journalistic calling.

Let’s face it — despite 40 years of evolution, we have produced a lot of journalism, but we still lack full commitment. Especially local news commitment.

Oh, the debate has shifted, for sure. It’s common now for public radio people to roll their eyes when some throwback from the ’80s complains news is too costly. Recent Public Radio Program Directors conferences are spending more time on the art and substance of local news.

The success of the news format has changed public radio. News is front and center at NPR, the BBC, Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media, all of whom have grown strong on journalism.

You could say that public radio has an obligation to our democracy to deliver meaningful local and national news. I say we face a journalistic imperative.

It’s driven on the demand side by the Iraq War, 9/11 and the public hunger for reliable reporting. On the supply side, there’s the corporate consolidation of media and commercial radio’s retreat from journalism.

You’d think local managers — seeing commercial news rivals in retreat — would take a solid step forward, articulate the commitment and triumphantly plant their news flags.

Of course, that would require them to follow through, wouldn’t it? Perhaps that’s the snag.

While NPR’s strategic plan makes it exceedingly clear that journalism is at the heart of its purpose, how many local stations say the same?

A spring 2007 survey of news departments by Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI) found a significant share suffering from lack of management support. It’s as if some station chiefs have chosen to look and sound a lot like news organizations but would rather not acknowledge it explicitly or accept full responsibility.

You can still attend large national gatherings of fine and respectable public radio station managers who talk vaguely about programming or even more vaguely about “content.” They go on for hours about “new realities” and fundraising, ratings and emerging technologies while barely acknowledging this core value: Strong local journalism is strong public service!

I realize it’s one thing for NPR to acknowledge a news imperative; it’s altogether harder and scarier for a station that doesn’t always have the resources to match NPR’s quality.

Stations can’t casually back into a commitment as important as this. They need to summon the courage, take a leap of faith and hit the ground with recorders running.

We should focus the public radio system on this journalistic imperative. It would dispel ambiguities about our purpose and let us get on with what we signed up for: to make a significant difference in the public sphere, at the community level and at the national level.

Here are four ways to help public radio define its journalistic calling:

1 CPB should reward local stations for delivering local news. The founders of federal communication policy recognized the importance of local news to a democracy and for decades required stations to broadcast the news. If providing local news and information is among the highest callings in broadcasting — and it is — then CPB should encourage and reward it.

This is tricky territory, given the need to insulate stations from government interference, but why couldn’t CPB work with PRNDI and PRPD to articulate certification specs for newsrooms? It could remain agnostic on certain management or content aspects but at the very least define categories of journalistic ambition.

Actual certification could be decided by a committee of journalists, not CPB itself. By certifying newsrooms instead of stations, CPB would also encourage regional or shared staffing.

Build incentives into the Community Service Grant structure. CPB has always wielded the fiscal carrot to sway policy and programming outcomes. Perhaps using certification criteria, as mentioned above, CPB could reward stations for their level of news ambition.

Provide newsroom development acceleration grants. Most stations actually would like to do more local news but can’t muster the money to take the big leap forward. CPB could give stations a leg up to achieve greater capacity. The likely resulting increases in audience, membership and corporate support would help sustain it.

Provide research support. Do you or any of your trustees doubt that strong local news builds audience and financial support? Based on what I see at stations, I think research can prove that it does. CPB-sponsored research can help us face the journalistic imperative at both the national and local level, helping to set benchmarks and goals that define success.

Provide management support. CPB can direct its next round of consulting contracts to help stations grow their local news services. It would be CPB dollars well spent to link local managers with experienced advisors who know best practices. For many station leaders, questions abound: How do you build a newsroom from scratch? Write a crisis coverage plan? Reorganize a dual licensee around a desk system? Erect an editorial firewall around the newsroom?
Support journalism hiring, training and retention programs.

Why are networks and large stations decrying a lack of qualified talent in the pool of local journalists? CPB research can determine what staffing practices and training practices would build a better work force. We especially need help defining and constructing a sturdy ladder that rises through the public radio news career, from schools to stations to programs and networks.

2NPR should assist local stations to build high-quality local news departments. Because NPR so clearly is making journalism its raison d’être, it must concern itself with the local reporting that completes the news package.

Reconsider the NPR dues structure to encourage local news expansion. If a station achieves significant audience growth, guess where its increased revenues go? A big chunk is confiscated by NPR’s revenue-based dues formula, punishing successful stations instead of encouraging them to invest their gains in local news upgrades. That needs to be changed. And it can be changed without causing harm to NPR News.

Grow the bureau chief system. PRNDI studied the NPR system of regionally based editors and found the system had yet to achieve optimal relations with local stations. There weren’t enough editors to work with stations, their mission was unclear, and their roles and success varied by individual. That study was years ago, and nothing much has changed. Stations want to contribute. If stations are deemed inadequate to contribute, they want feedback and help. The NPR bureau chief structure is suitable for growing this two-way editorial relationship, but it needs to accept the role and expand its mission to better serve the overall system.

Hire station-trained journalists. The stations employ more than 900 journalists, and many are extremely talented and capable. NPR sends strange signals to them, however, when it favors journalists trained in newspapers over those who know radio. (That’s the rap, as many station journalists see it. If NPR really is using good judgment in these print-journalist hirings, there may be an even greater need for the local reforms I’m proposing.)

Expand the Local News Initiative. NPR deserves credit for instituting its LNI, though so far it has mostly worked to improve program directors (e.g., Morning Edition Grad School and the Sense of Place study). The more recent Hubs project, which aims to organize resource-sharing news teams, may actually generate journalism content — if it ever gets funding. Let’s be sure the LNI is more than a station-relations device and that it contributes directly to expand local news departments’ capacity.

3 Local stations should aim high for quality and acknowledge the journalistic imperative in their mission statements. Significant investment and improvement at stations will come only if management and staff have the strength of will to see it through.

A funny thing happens when an organization clearly identifies its purpose: The entire organization tends to become aligned with it. When the fundraising, programming, marketing and personnel departments all support the newsroom’s journalistic efforts, the newsroom responds with excellence. Audience and money follow. With that, the following suggestions can play out:

Redefine your local news objective as something you’d really boast about. If you have any prejudice against local news, complete with low expectations, you need a change of perspective. Discuss and plan for compelling journalism. Don’t settle for anything less.

Hire, train, promote and retain talent. Let’s be clear about the biggest obstacle to excellence in local newsrooms: You don’t have enough bodies to do the work. And when you get the journalists, they need to be smart, well-trained and properly paid. If you shortchange these factors, you shortchange the audience.

Learn and experiment. Hook up with PRNDI. Join an LNI hub. Partner with a newspaper, a j-school or a television station. Work to blend your journalistic mission with your technological opportunities. Web, HD Radio, user-generated content, backpack journalism — all provide exciting ways to expand your service.

Go for the funding. Define your editorial needs, keep a solid editorial firewall and seek the money you need to deliver journalism of consequence. When you are excited about important stories and your talented journalists, so are funders.

4 Local journalists should stop putting up with substandard working conditions. Journalism often exacts a high price from its practitioners; make sure the price isn’t so high at your station that they leave as soon as they can. It’s not all about salary. The price may be excessive workload. Or workloads that prevent them from at least occasionally achieving their personal goals of excellence. Or lack of adequate equipment. Or lack of respect from management. Journalists, speak up for yourself and for your profession.

Help management help you. Call for a journalistic objective near the top of your mission statement and seek strategic plans that support it. Get involved in budget setting. Help managers understand what you need to succeed.

Share your successes. Be accessible. Too many newsrooms cut themselves off for editorial reasons, but they need to maintain positive connections outside the newsroom to engender mutual respect and understanding.

Join your peers and stick together. Join PRNDI or other professional journalism organizations that exist to support you and make your work better. Local journalists tend to find themselves isolated from their widespread peers, which can undercut their morale.

Put quality first. You are a “knowledge worker.” You are paid to be smart, curious, demanding and courageous. Take pride in your specialty and keep your aim high.
There’s no doubt that more and more people in public radio are aspiring to top-quality journalism, but we’re not completely committed yet.

There’s nothing stopping us, other than a mindset that survives from public radio’s past: that we are nothing more than a confederation of miscellaneous broadcasters united largely by being “alternative” or noncommercial.

The reality changed as public radio developed clusters of journalistic excellence and commercial radio largely abandoned serious journalism. Yet we haven’t made the most of this opportunity of a lifetime. We haven’t thoroughly recognized how far we have come. We haven’t taken the steps of recognizing how much more we can do — and committing to do it.

May today’s generation of public radio leaders commit to a new vision of public service — a confederation of trusted local and national journalistic voices.

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