Public Media Futures

Pubcasting’s push into online news delivery has built-in limitations

By Andrew Lapin

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – At a forum of leading public media professionals, participants expressed mixed feelings about whether public media can, or should, replace newspapers as primary gatherers of news.

At the fourth Public Media Futures forum, held Thursday at Bloomberg’s offices in San Francisco, more than two dozen public media professionals debated whether the industry’s non-broadcast capabilities are robust enough to allow it to fill the role of a daily newspaper.

In some respects, public broadcasting websites have already moved into the up-to-the-minute newsgathering space. Kinsey Wilson, executive v.p. and chief content officer at NPR, said NPR.org functions much like a newspaper website, with breaking news, a story flow that shifts multiple times a day and large quantities of original content apart from radio pieces rewritten for the Web. But local stations will need to beef up their newsrooms and social-media presences for the public to begin seeing them as serious news sources, said some participants.

Bruce Koon, news director for KQED in San Francisco, said public radio and TV have “very little capacity” for covering breaking news and public affairs and pointed out that the industry has traditionally been stronger in delivering music and arts programming.

And Stephen Goldbloom, marketing and communications manager for the Independent Television Service, noted that when he was a producer at PBS’s NewsHour, trying to compete with online news outlets to report results of the 2008 presidential primary election was grueling and nearly impossible.

“The fundamental approach to public media has been to do the news a day late and call it analysis,” Southern California Public Radio President Bill Davis said. “The culture of public media is generally a production culture. It is, ‘Get the show out’ … We’re going to have to wrestle that to the ground if we’re going to be an essential part of the news ecology.”

Davis’s station, KPCC in Pasadena, has one of the most robust newsrooms in public media, with more than 100 staffers.

When Chris Satullo, executive director of news and civic dialogue at WHYY in Philadelphia, joined the station in 2008 to launch its ambitious online local news site NewsWorks, he had only 32 staffers. “I know what a fully equipped metropolitan newsroom looks like, and I didn’t have one,” the 20-year Philadelphia Inquirer veteran said.

NewsWorks now routinely posts between 40 and 50 stories per day, with the majority of content coming through one of the site’s more than 24 nonprofit content-sharing partners. The site is designed to serve as a hub for all news relevant to WHYY’s three-state coverage area.

Representatives of online investigative nonprofits, whose newsrooms aren’t encumbered by the need to push out broadcast content, have embraced social-media platforms to a greater extent. Stephen Engelberg, managing editor for ProPublica, noted the site would be the sixth-most popular newspaper in the world if that were measured by how many Twitter followers it has.

Regardless of how public media aims to continue distinguishing itself to its audience, forum participants agreed that the industry needs to adopt social media more aggressively to maintain its trusted reputation and to continue engaging communities.

“My concern is I see that sense of community and identity stripped away piece by piece every year by other organizations,” said Michael Skoler, Public Radio International’s vice president of interactive media. “They’re doing it better online.”

Correction (10/2/12): This post has been updated to correct a misquote.

  • Aaron Read

    This is kinda obvious, isn’t it? One can argue at length for the reasons why, or whether it’s a good or bad thing…but the core reality is that most radio newsrooms have but a fraction of the reporters that most daily newspapers have…even after massive cutbacks at many papers. That puts a serious limitation on public media’s ability to be a true substitute for a newspaper.

  • Karl LeMay

    I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and I know of a state public radio network that feels two ways about this. They aren’t subject to advertising revenue restrictions with their on-line news delivery, so they LOVE the money… but the primary group of guests that this state network uses is commercial media people hawking commercial media viewpoints… so they’d lose important guests if Newspapers keep failing.

    This state network over the years has made itself into almost everything I came to them to get away from.

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  • Bill Davis

    Actually, I said “…do the news a day late and call it analysis.” That might not have been clear on the tape.

    • http://twitter.com/currentpubmedia Current Public Media

      Hi Bill, thank you for your clarification. We have fixed.

  • Bruce Koon

    To elaborate on my quote, that’s not to say that public radio and television don’t recognize the need here. There are many stations, including KQED, that have made that commitment. One new model is to partner or collaborate with other news organizations. At the same time there needs to be an investment in newsrooms.

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