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Local news mantra has a Paralysis Effect

The newly elected president of Public Radio News Directors Inc. says well-meaning audience research may be hindering investment in local journalism at many stations.

Originally published in Current, Sept. 11, 2006
Commentary by Michael Marcotte

I’m not too bothered by the conflicting messages I sometimes get from public radio visionaries. For example:

Which is it, guys? Are we in trouble or not?

Of course, they’re both right. When we pull back for the big picture, John and Tom both know public radio feels the tectonic media shift and we’re built upon a foundation of community trust.

Sometimes two things that sound contradictory are both true in their ways. Here’s another pair:

How many duels were fought over those warring priorities?

Still, if Kevin Klose of NPR and Lamar Marchese of KNPR were seen clinking wine glasses, it wouldn’t surprise us. We know they share belief in the power of national programming and the power of local connections.

The missing view

It’s not the diverging views that keep me awake at night. What I worry about is one-sided analysis that commonly understates the value of local journalism.

From where I toil (and I believe this reflects the view of many news directors), I hear one dominant view that goes something like this:

If you’re going to produce local news, it better be as good as or better than what is produced nationally. That’s the Gospel, right? It’s been the mantra of consultants and leaders for a long time. Journalists are still getting hit with it today.

Let me make this perfectly clear—I respect the message and the good work and the good thinking by the good people who’ve been chanting that mantra.

But where is the tug from the opposite direction? What is the companion statement that presses back—and perhaps helps us see the greater truth of the matter?

I’ll tell you mine: Get busy and hire good local journalists! You need them now and you will be rewarded!

How’s that for divergent? There’s no “if” in this view of things. No implied threats of failure if you don’t measure up. In fact, there’s promise of reward for your faith in action.

You have to take the risk

I’ve made my career in the service of strong local public radio news.

KPBS made the leap of faith into a well-staffed local news department more than a decade ago. I was lucky to be named news director and given management’s faith and credit. (Thanks, Doug Myrland and Mike Flaster.) We struggled. We built it. And we’re succeeding.

I lived a very similar experience at KPLU in Tacoma/Seattle from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s. (Thanks, Martin Neeb and Scott Williams.)

Moreover, through my 20-year involvement with Public Radio News Directors Inc., I know many similar examples of pioneering stations that invested smartly in professional news personnel.

In many ways, those stations were confident calculating risk-takers. They committed to news to build audience. They grew their local journalism to build it stronger. A lot of people questioned their direction at the time.

But those stations that have been at it a while look well-situated now that their staffs have matured, their communities have come to rely upon their steady presence. Most impressively, their audiences and revenues have flourished in proportion to their investment.

One wonders why other stations have chosen to sidestep serious investment in local news so far. Are they standing by their music formats? Are they content to be NPR repeaters? Are they daunted by the challenges of journalism?

Whatever the reasons, I respect a station’s choice if it’s providing another kind of significant public service for its community. But what service could be more important than providing solid reporting on issues of vital importance to the populace?

I realize many smaller stations would find constructing a solid newsroom to be a fearsome challenge. But it seems that a station today must summon the same inner conviction of those earlier pioneers and take the plunge if it’s going to make it as a local news enterprise. Radio can do a lot with a little and the upside potential is potent.

A good time to invest

Let me emphasize this with all of my optimism: We have every reason to be excited about the present prospects for growing strong journalism at local public radio stations.
A quick reconnaissance reminds us consensus is forming around the need for “localism,” to distinguish our stations in the new-media cacophony.

We’re favored by the dramatic reversal in polarity of the radio industry: commercial radio now repels good journalists; public radio now attracts them.

And public radio is likely to benefit further from true systemwide efforts to improve our local news programming. The PRPD’s Core Values work provides some conceptual handles, and the Local News Initiative spearheaded by NPR is perhaps most promising because it comes with both Marcia Alvar of PRPD and Knight Foundation funding attached.

These advances are reinforced and accelerated by the vibrant New Realities conversations about the future of public media, which have produced a new buzz-phrase at NPR that refers to the coming synchronization of national and local journalism resources: “The Network for the Future.”
Hey, suddenly it’s hip to be local!

A lot of ground to cover

Figures from the recently completed NPR Local Station News Survey support the view:

Other findings reveal growing pains:

As you can imagine, the Local News Survey reveals a wide disparity in staffing, editing, training and budgeting for the nation’s local public radio newsrooms. A third of the station managers who weighed in said they budget less than $100,000 a year to produce news and public affairs.

But there’s compelling evidence of a trend toward larger budgets. Fifty to 60 stations now spend more than $1 million a year on news and public affairs production, and they’re not concentrated on the East and West Coasts. Significant numbers are in the South (13) and Midwest (17).

These trends are very encouraging, but we are entering uncharted territory. If past system performance is a predictor of future performance, it is a harbinger of stinginess.

You need only visit the Public Radio Knowledge Base (CPB’s online treasure trove of eminent research findings). There you’ll see what amounts to the topographical map of our system’s research and development investments over the years.

It shows we’ve spent millions upon millions of public dollars on growing national programs, convening group-gropes, and employing management consultants. There are hundreds of reports and projects dealing largely with audience measurement and fundraising techniques.

There’s nothing wrong with that — except that the assembled projects pay scant attention to R&D for local radio journalism. I counted on one hand the number of initiatives that directly grew our local news enterprise. You come away wondering why, if quality news programming is what we want, more experiments and studies weren’t funded.

Today, we are undertaking new rounds of studies, seeing activity in new places (PRNDI included), and assigning new tasks to consultants. How will this new age differ?
It will proceed from the “make your local as good as or better than national” mantra. That still stands as a clear distillation of research telling us what our audience wants.

But does this mantra inspire stations to invest in local newsrooms or intimidate them?

I believe we have evidence that the very research intended to propel programming quality upward has had unintended negative consequences. They’re evident in those developmentally stunted public radio newsrooms of America. No full-time reporters? No editing? What are managers thinking?

I’d call it the Paralysis Effect, because the will to “go local” too often is faltering.

Does the mantra scold too harshly? Heck, if I were a station manager faced with difficult decisions about limited resources, I might very well be scared to venture down the local news path.

After all, station executives may interpret the prevailing message from audience researchers as (A) local news is too expensive, (B) the audience doesn’t care, and (C) it may do more harm than good!

If that view discourages investment in local news, the station will be losing a tremendous opportunity for service.

Stations that invested in newsrooms did not become great overnight. Most still have a long way to go to live up to their aspirations. But they are moving along the path! To their credit, they recognize that community trust in journalism is a long-term proposition.

Ultimately, success requires them to hire strong journalists, treat them as creative and valuable knowledge-workers, give them the training and the tools they need, and retain them through good salaries and incentives.

You will see the wisdom of the investment when your audience grows to know and trust your local journalists. When we answer the local programming mantra with their formidable competence, we will come within reach of the Network of the Future.

Michael Marcotte, news director of KPBS in San Diego, was elected president of PRNDI in July. Current and the author welcome responses to this commentary via and

Web page posted Sept. 26, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

Michael Marcotte

How many people work in pubradio news?

Public radio employs about 500 news reporters, two-thirds full-time, according to an NPR survey for its Local News Initiative.

Also: 160 news directors, 150 news producers and 100 news editors.

Total: roughly 900 full-time and part-time employees in public radio news.

RELATED ARTICLES

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Stations that offer only national and global news now have scads of competitors — Internet stations 'round the world that come in through high-end cell phones, points out Colorado Public Radio's Jim Paluzzi.

LINKS

Marcotte's station, KPBS in San Diego.

Public Radio News Directors Inc .

 

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