Bill Kling of MPR and Laura Walker of WNYC

American Public Media's Kling and WNYC's Walker (pictured at APM summit in 2009), joined with Chicago Public Radio's Malatia for the goal-setting announcement.

Goal for several big-city pubradio newsrooms: 100 reporters each

Published in Current, Oct. 18, 2010
By Karen Everhart

Four of public radio’s largest stations are planning transformational expansions of their local newsgathering, each proposing to staff a metropolitan newsroom of 100 reporters and editors in its market — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and the Twin Cities.

The proposal, a direct response to last year’s Knight Commission report that criticized public broadcasting’s inadequate commitment to local journalism, would cost at least $100 million over five years, or $5 million annually at each station.

That would mean at least tripling the news staffs of the four participating stations New York’s WNYC, Chicago’s WBEZ, Los Angeles’s KPCC and Minnesota Public Radio.

While giant by public radio standards, 100-person newsrooms would be smaller than those of major metro newspapers, according to MPR President Bill Kling. The Akron Beacon Journal, a daily published in the nation’s 74th largest market, is said to have an inadequate staff with 90 on its news team, he said in a recent speech at the Aspen Institute.

The local journalism alliance grew out of summer meetings of execs from the New York and Chicago stations with American Public Media Group, which includes the Minnesota and L.A. stations.

After comparing their strategies for local news expansion this summer, the broadcasters agreed to collaborate in planning and fundraising.

APM’s Kling has led the charge — talking up the initiative since last fall as the next big idea for public radio growth. It will be the focus of his ambition when he retires as APM chief exec next June, but he’s been laying the groundwork for months.

Last month WNYC President Laura Walker hinted that something big was in the works during her keynote remarks at the Public Radio Program Directors conference in Denver. She called for stations to have the “audacity to massively expand their newsgathering capacity.”

The proposal reaches far beyond the scope of two initiatives expanding public radio’s online reporting — the dozen bloggers fielded by stations in the NPR-coordinated $3 million Argo Project and the 50 journalists hired for seven regional Local Journalism Centers backed with $10.5 million in CPB aid. CPB announced new details of LJCs for the Northwest and the South in September.

The big stations’ newsroom initiative would take those with strong news teams and track records for local reporting and “ramp them up — not just to the next level but several levels up,” said Torey Malatia, WBEZ president. Each station will have the capacity for more enterprise reporting and building relationships with more news sources.

The proposal for 100 journalists at each station “sets the expectation and the understanding of the kind of seriousness that we have toward this change,” Malatia said. “We’re not talking about something that’s incremental.” 

“The power of this is you’ve got four stellar independent stations that all see a need in our society for journalism on the radio and in the digital space that fills a void in news and information,” said Walker.

Kling’s plan would more than triple the number of reporters working now at MPR, WNYC and WBEZ; KPCC’s news team could increase nearly ten-fold.

“We think the number of around 100 journalists would constitute a strong metropolitan desk by anybody’s standards in a major city,” Kling said. He’d like to start with expanded newsrooms in as many as six metro areas, boosting the cost to $150 million, and later expand to include the top 25 markets.

That may be difficult, not only because the other metro areas are smaller but also because so many of the pubradio stations are parts of bigger organizations. As wards of universities or state agencies, or as siblings of  public TV stations, they are less able to undertake such a big project.

Kling pointed to conflicts over what will be heard on public radio in Pittsburgh. Local foundations have urged broadcasters to build a strong newsroom at WDUQ, a news/jazz station that Duquesne University put up for sale early this year, but the station’s management wants to preserve its commitment to jazz. “I hope that Pittsburgh is able to solve its problems with Duquesne,” Kling said, “and build a first-class fully public media news and information service.”

Kling outlined his local journalism plan for pubradio stations Aug. 16 in a speech at the Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications and Society — a followup to the Knight Commission report released last fall — and he revealed more details last week in an interview with Newsonomics, a blog by news industry analyst Ken Doctor.

Fundraising for the initiative isn’t like a capital campaign, which in a silent phase would seek donor commitments of at least 70 percent of the campaign goal, Kling said. “We have to try to get people to think about something that doesn’t exist — a level of strength in public media that would be on par with the BBC, not in its size or dollars but in its style and impact.”

“Since no one is performing at that level in public media, we have to talk about the vision in public — to get people talking about it and in order for people to say they’d be interested,” Kling said. Each of the stations is either raising money locally or preparing to, he said.  The stations will seek a mix of local and national funding.

“We don’t know if it can be funded, but it’s absolutely critical that we try,” Kling said. 

“First-rate” local coverage

If the newsrooms expand as proposed, each station would assign reporters to beats that go unfilled in its market. WNYC plans to expand its political coverage of New York (the topic of Empire, an NPR Argo Project blog), as well as New Jersey, according to Walker. More reporters would be assigned to cover education, transportation and infrastructure, she said.

In Los Angeles, KPCC wants more journalists pursuing stories on immigration and emerging communities — the topic of its new Argo Project blog — and to strengthen its reporting on environmental topics and education reform, according to President Bill Davis.

“We need to focus on areas where we can provide first-rate coverage,” Davis said, not necessarily to compete with the struggling Los Angeles Times but to fill gaps in local news coverage of the region. The Times is owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Co. and operating under bankruptcy protection.

Though Argo and other new-media startups are primarily producers of text, the primary audience of this further expansion would be radio listeners, according to Kling.

“What we’re doing is closer to building reporting strength than to building on one platform over another,” he said. The aim is to strengthen local coverage so that it complements and completes the news coming from NPR. National, international and local news reporting “have to be equally strong,” he said.

WNYC has been planning a local newsroom expansion since January. Walker describes 100 reporters as a “very ambitious goal” but probably the right target “to really cover local news” in metropolitan New York.

“We are still in the midst of figuring out how we would roll that out in talking to our board, colleagues and funders,” Walker said. “How to build a sustainable business model around that is part of what we’re looking at.”

Kling began building a case for public radio’s expansion into local newsgathering in response to the Knight Commission’s report on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, issued last October. The Knight report, and a subsequent critique from Columbia University’s j-school, sharply questioned the adequacy of public TV and radio’s local news coverage. The Knight report called for public broadcasting to “move quickly toward a broader vision of public service media,” one that is “more local, more inclusive and more interactive.”

In November, Kling convened the Future of News Summit at MPR headquarters in St. Paul, where he proposed that public radio focus on strengthening news and information stations in the top 25 markets. He pointed to WNYC and KPCC as examples of what stations with community-based boards and high performance standards can achieve.

Kling initiated talks with Walker and Malatia this summer, prior to his speech at the Aspen Institute. Station execs discovered that their strategies and plans for local news were so similar that they decided to collaborate in making the case to funders, Walker said.

At the Aspen Institute meeting, Kling described how the four stations “are working together to revise public media by creating ‘models of excellence,’ to demonstrate the full potential of public media news, starting with these four markets,” according to an outline of the speech.

“With these four projects we can demonstrate the potential we have in this area,” Kling told Current.  “In the process, we can lift all boats by making the case to strengthen public media in all markets to an equal kind of strength.”

“If this is successful, it sets a new standard for the potential of public radio and public media,” Kling said. Civic leaders and licensee boards in other cities would coalesce to mount a similar service in their communities — in the same way that they organize to build universities, sports franchises or orchestras. “We want them talking and thinking in the same way about what a great public media outlet could do for their community.”

Comments, questions, tips?
Web page posted Oct. 20, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Current LLC

EARLIER ARTICLE

To play a bigger role in journalism, public radio needs stronger stations, Kling said in 2009 when MPR/APM held a Future of News Summit.

LATER ARTICLE

NPR-led Impact of Government initiative sets another ambitious target — adding two state-level reporters per state, October 2010.

LINKS

“Anyone who bets against Bill Kling should think twice,” Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibarguen tells Newsonomics blogger Ken Doctor.

Kling spoke at the Aspen Institute Forum on Communication and Society, August 2010. Video coverage is included.

Streaming video and presentation downloads of the Aspen Institute Forum on Communications and Society

The Empire, WNYC’s Argo blog.

The MultiAmerican, KPCC’s Argo blog.

 

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