A new role, where newspapers die
IMA speakers urge public radio — TV, too — to be watchdogs, locally and beyond
Public broadcasting has a rare but fleeting opportunity to strengthen its online news services by expanding coverage of local communities and distributing content on multiple platforms, especially mobile ones.
That was the message from journalists, academics and NPR execs describing the future of public media news at the Integrated Media Association’s Public Media Conference Feb. 19-21, 2009, in Atlanta.
Several speakers, including top NPR execs, described how they believe public radio and television could become major local and national news sources in the Web 2.0 era.
NPR President Vivian Schiller and Senior V.P. Kinsey Wilson, both former online news execs at major newspapers, said the network is developing a plan to help stations play bigger roles in covering their communities.
Other speakers advocated a stronger role for public TV in online video journalism and for pubcasters to collaborate with other news organizations on investigative and citizen journalism projects.
To thrive in the collaborative and interactive Web 2.0 realm, traditional broadcasters have two options, said Jessica Clark, director of the Future of Public Media Project at American University’s Center for Social Media in Washington, D.C. They can either become creators and curators of “original, relevant reporting and analysis,” or they can engage people directly in online deliberations over current issues. (PDF of full report.)
The opportunity to leverage pubcasting’s journalistic resources on the Web opens up as daily newspapers’ business model collapses, forcing publishers to sacrifice their newsgathering capacity or even stop publishing, as Denver’s Rocky Mountain News did last week.
“Influential Americans understand that the press is the underpinning of democracy,” said Robert Rosenthal, a veteran of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Francisco Chronicle who now directs the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Calif.
Historically newspapers have been the most vigilant watchdogs, fielding investigative reporters and serving as “a key source of information for other forms of media,” he said. “Every level of government is covered by newspapers.”
NPR’s Schiller said in another IMA session that public broadcasting has both an “obligation and opportunity” to take up the role of investigative reporting that newspapers have carried out. She also rejected calls to reduce spending on digital media as NPR considers another round of budget cuts.
“I’m bullish on the future of radio and think it will be around longer than other legacy media,” Schiller said, “but we need to create that NPR experience on other platforms.”
Former newspaper editor Kinsey Wilson, now running NPR Digital, predicted that, by year’s end, the newspaper death spiral will leave some markets without a source of local news. “This extraordinary window of opportunity to become a dominant source in local news is relatively narrow,” Wilson said during a Feb. 21 panel discussion. It may be open for two or three years, he said.
Schiller had made many of these points in her report to the NPR Board Feb. 19. “It is our special responsibility as other media organizations die, that we hold public institutions and individuals to account,” she said. “If we don’t do it, no one else is going to.” (Excerpt from her remarks.)
In their previous jobs as digital media chiefs at the New York Times and USA Today, respectively, Schiller and Wilson had looked for ways to “crack local markets,” as Wilson described the heretofore unsolved challenge of bringing original local coverage into the mix of national and international online news. “Vivian and I have identical instincts on this,” Wilson said.
Public radio needs to “maximize the power” of the local/national partnership that creates “daily appointment listening” around its news programs, Schiller said at IMA.
“Sometimes we are our own worst enemies” in forging partnerships that would benefit the field as a whole, she said, and NPR bears some blame for past failures. “In this economy, this is our opportunity to fix it.”
In their separate presentations at IMA, neither Schiller nor Wilson shared details about NPR’s pilot project with stations testing concepts for combining local and national news coverage on the Web (Current, Feb. 17). But both made the case for moving forward quickly, with NPR acting as an “enabler” for stations looking to strengthen their online presence.
To build the local–national partnership in online news, NPR has an obligation to create tools and services that put pubradio content on “every platform and every device,” Schiller said. “It is critical that we support the stations that don’t have the wherewithal to create a great online experience.”
NPR doesn’t want to “control and dominate” the web sphere via NPR.org, Schiller said. “If we are successful, it will morph into this constellation of sites” from local stations, allowing listeners to experience public radio “on whatever platform they prefer.”
Wilson acknowledged naysayers’ doubts about the Web. “It may seem somewhat counter-intuitive that public radio has a big opportunity there,” he said. Many stations have been “slow to the Web” and have small staffs.
But he offered a list of advantages public radio can leverage. Rapid shifts in the news business have made it easier and cheaper to get into local markets, the “big players” in online news are “saddled with legacy Web 1.0 sites” and audio content has an edge in popular mobile platforms, he said.
In addition, unlike web startups, pubcasters have the power to promote their news sites on-air, and they already operate news organizations that are devoted to public service, Wilson said.
“Coming together as a network”
Public TV should seize the moment to build a news operation of 100 mobile journalists — two in each state — and launch a new web-based video news service, suggested another IMA speaker, Leonard Witt, a communications professor at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University.
But to become the “news powerhouse” that he advocates, public TV’s climb will be so steep that it will need to be led by an independent nonprofit station and not by PBS or stations that are licensed to universities or states.
“You all don’t play together very well,” Witt explained, referring to public TV’s reputation for fractiousness.
Witt’s take on pubTV’s aptitude for collaboration didn’t account for the partnership PBS’s NewsHour arranged with the Christian Science Monitor’s Patchwork Nation, a foundation-backed website combining 2008 election coverage and analysis with blogs written by citizen journalists in 11 communities. Anna Shoup, local/national editor for the Online NewsHour, described plans to extend the Patchwork Nation into economic reporting on 22 communities. Local public TV stations would contribute reporting and help recruit citizen bloggers.
The project is part of a CPB-funded collaboration on economic coverage that includes editorial partnerships with Marketplace, Morning Edition and local stations, Shoup said in an e-mail.
“We are trying to do what you are promoting as best we can,” Shoup said after Witt’s presentation at IMA. “I am encouraged that at this conference we are talking about helping out and coming together as a network.”
Witt imagines that video news reports would be delivered every 20 minutes to mobile devices and station websites. Some might go to broadcast TV as well. In case of a major disaster, reporters from nearby states would collaborate on coverage.
“I truly believe that everything is going mobile,” Witt said during an interview. “All of our news will be in your pocket, and you’ll be able to read or watch anything you want to, and it will be instantaneous.”
By moving quickly into the online news sphere, PBS could reap the same audience gains that NPR did during the decline of commercial radio news, Witt said.
The commercial TV networks provide only 18 minutes of news each evening, often covering the same topics, and PBS could fill a growing demand for narrative video reporting, he said.
Witt believes PBS has the brand, fundraising capability and video-production expertise to pull it off. By his estimate, the annual cost of the 100-reporter news operation would be $10 million. “The cost of producing video is now almost the same as producing audio,” Witt told IMA attendees. “That’s not prohibitive, if you think about it.”
Pursuing the news powerhouse proposal would bring a “younger, smarter audience that’s willing to invest in you,” Witt said. “If you don’t put up the $10 million to make this happen, some commercial outfit will.”
Witt began sharing his proposal with public TV execs last summer, and he told Current he’s recently had some encouraging talks with Oregon Public Broadcasting. After Witt’s IMA presentation, software-industry observer and web strategist Doc Searls endorsed the proposal and began peppering panelist Susanna Capelouto, news director at Georgia’s GPB Radio, with questions about how readily her seven-person newsroom could take up video news reporting.
Everyone in GPB Radio’s newsroom performs multiple roles and contributes to Georgia Gazette, GPB Radio’s nightly local newsmagazine, Capelouto said, and some reporters already produce video packages for GPB’s website. The entire news operation, including Georgia Gazette, costs just under $1 million a year, GPB officials said.
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Web page posted March 6, 2009
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