Talks sharpen focus on local news

Pubradio will sketch workable economics, a case for funding

Published in Current, Nov. 9, 2009
By Karen Everhart

Having heard two prescriptions for American journalism that recommended major surgery on public broadcasting, leaders in the field most often had two responses to proposals that called for the field to shift focus to local news.

Leading with a consistent “yes,” pubcasters generally endorsed the “broader vision of public service media” put forth in the Oct. 2 report backed by the Knight Foundation. Many public radio journalists and managers want to build robust local-news operations as proposed in a separate report released last month by Columbia University’s j-school.

After those affirmations, however, many pubcasters reacted to what they regard as ill-founded criticism of public broadcasting in the Oct. 19 Columbia study, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” which criticized the field for failing to deliver on its mission of informing the public.

Some are moving to develop plans and consensus needed for action in the highly decentralized world of U.S. public media:

“Our view is that, after all of this soul-searching and deep thinking by a lot of smart people, we have finally seen the release of two really substantial and excellent vision pieces that talk about where public media should go,” said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press and a participant in the Aspen roundtables. “We feel it’s time to move to the next chapter. It’s time to pivot and start talking about how to make them reality.”

Concepts of pubcasters as locally rooted sources of news and information—as envisioned by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy—are well within the comfort zone of public radio leaders. The commission called for reforms that would make pubcasting “more local, more inclusive and more interactive,” as a condition of increased support.

“The whole area of upgrading local reporting at public radio stations is absolutely vital to our survival,” said Dave Edwards, g.m. of Milwaukee Public Radio. “If local stations are simply going to be downloads of national programs from NPR, PRI or any other source, we will find ourselves disposable in the future.”

“It’s a great exercise to go through the philosophical debate of what we ought to be,” said Jonathan Ahl, news director of Iowa Public Radio and president of Public Radio News Directors Inc. Both studies “put an exclamation point on the opportunity that is in front of public broadcasting,” he said.

But the Columbia study’s pointed comments, which lambaste pubcasting for failing to deliver on its mission to inform the public, hit more than a few sore points. Co-authors Leonard Downie, a former executive editor of the Washington Post who now teaches at the University of Arizona, and Michael Schudson, a professor at Columbia, didn’t acknowledge how much some pubradio stations have expanded their newsrooms in the past decade or how the chronic underfunding of most local stations limits their output and their horizons. Or that public TV’s emphasis on long-form documentaries and explanatory journalism arguably helps to create an informed citizenry in a different way.

“My big concern about it is, to the uninitiated, [the Columbia study] may come off as local public radio newsrooms aren’t doing anything, and that’s not the case,” Ahl said. “There is so much great journalism that’s going on in public radio.”

Ahl agrees that there needs to be more of it, especially in the “digital space,” but is concerned that the criticisms could be used “as an indictment of what so many people are working on every day as not valued and not important.”
Little legwork about legwork

Downey and Schudson “clearly didn’t go out and do much ascertainment of how many feet are on the street” — reporters already gathering news for public radio stations, said Tom Thomas, co-director of the Station Resource Group. He estimates that at least 75 public stations are all-news; another 25 are hybrid news/music stations with active newsrooms.

While many stations have only a single full-time journalist on staff, some big-city stations and state networks employ 30 journalists or more. “You can produce a lot of news with a newsroom of 15 to 30 people,” Thomas said, and more stations are doing so than the Columbia study acknowledged.

Jim Pagliarini, president of Twin Cities Public Television, faulted the Columbia study for its bias towards print journalism and traditional “accountability journalism” that its co-authors are most concerned about preserving.

“It is unproductive and kind of ridiculous to blame public broadcasting for a failing in local news when in fact it was [the newspapers’] business and a very profitable business for many, many years,” Pagliarini said. “Schools of journalism and managers of newspapers are more responsible for the [decline of newspapers] than we are in than public broadcasting.”

Had the co-authors examined public broadcasting’s economic structure, they might have realized “it all boils down to resources and not a lack of passion or interest among public broadcasters to sustain and nurture that,” Pagliarini said.

A decade ago, before Pagliarini came to TPT, the Twin Cities station pursued a pre-web vision of local and regional public TV news. The station raised $10 million for a weeknightly news program with a distinctly public-affairs news menu, avoiding commercial TV’s emphasis on fires and murders.

But Newsnight Minnesota ran out of steam after seven years. “A small number of people were very passionate about it, but once it had exhausted its launch funding, there was no way to sustain it in a quality way that would be impactful,” Pagliarini said. For public TV to provide local news coverage, “we need to find a model that is sustainable. It needs to be some kind of public-private partnership.”

That model might also be text-based and delivered to an online audience, if public TV followed the lead of its own Online NewsHour, or NPR and other broadcasters.

PBS began discussions about a collaborative online news site earlier this year, bringing in ex-ABC news exec Tom Bettag to make recommendations, but his report remains under wraps.

John Boland, PBS’s chief content officer, says he’s working with NPR to develop a system for combining national and local news content on station websites but won’t announce details until January. “In addition to support from national organizations like PBS and NPR, local stations will require financial resources to step in and fill the gaps in local coverage,” Boland said in a statement sent to Current. As the Columbia study’s co-authors point out, “this will require significant policy and funding changes.”

Others working outside of pubcasting applauded Downie and Schudson for pointing out what more could be done.

“I was happy that they didn’t say, ‘NPR is the successful news organization, we applaud them as a model for the future, and let’s try that,’” said John Dinges, a former NPR News managing editor who teaches radio journalism at Columbia. “They said, ‘It’s an interesting model for quality journalism but flawed because it’s not doing as much accountability journalism as it should.’”

A thousand more reporters

“NPR and the stations can be leaders if the stations step up and say, ‘Yes, we’re going to make this kind of investment and ask our listeners and foundations to support this,’” Dinges said. “It is the right thing to do, not just for the economic future of public radio but because there is a need for this type of public-service coverage.”

Two broad-based pubradio groups, SRG and Development Exchange Inc., are laying the groundwork for expanded pubradio newsgathering. Last week CPB was completing a contract for a six-month project to develop a fundraising case statement for public radio’s role in local journalism. The project will convene a group of station-based development professionals to plan a major capital campaign on behalf of local newsgathering.

“We will be testing out case statements like you would do in assessing the feasibility for a capital campaign,” Thomas said.

Another project goal is to find ways for pubcasters to collaborate and share resources on the fundraising campaign. “Each station and organization has to do its own work in this, but we want to see if there are points of leverage, benefit and scale that can be shared. By working together, the case becomes more powerful.”

In a recent strategic-planning retreat with member stations, SRG sketched out a five-year plan to add 1,000 journalists to regional and local pubradio newsrooms. The price tag for salaries, benefits, facilities and expenses such as travel would be $100 million, by SRG’s estimate. That would require increasing public radio’s current revenue pool of $1 billion by 10 percent and expanding its workforce of 7,500 by 15 percent.

“Those are not outrageous numbers, but they are transformational,” Thomas said. “Let’s be something different and push ourselves to be something significantly different. It’s not outlandish in the context of what we’ve already achieved.”

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Web page posted Nov. 12, 2009
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Former Nightline chief Tom Bettag consults with PBS on an online news strategy.

Knight Commission’s vision
of public media: "More local, more inclusive, more interactive," October 2009.

Columbia j-school report recommends aid for pubmedia if it’s reconstructed. Says local and watchdog news roles are most vital, October 2009.


For example: In St. Louis, stations stretch their usual business model to expand reporting, November 2009.

Future of News summit at Minnesota Public Radio set next week.

Free Press asks White House for a 'Knight 2.0' commission.


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