A Call For Public Radio To Step Up Their News Operations

Local journalism has been under pressure as newspapers around the country have been shutting down. In many cases, public radio stations have been stepping in to fill the void and a new whitepaper focused on public media’s role is calling for that investment to grow. The paper, which has been endorsed more than 120 leaders across public media, calls for “bold investment” by local organizations to expand their newsrooms in order to build them into “anchor institutions” that connect a diverse array of news providers and hyper-local creators.

“As local outlets add journalists, editors and other key positions, they will be able to exponentially increase the breadth and depth of their local service,” the paper says. “This will also create opportunities for focused hiring and recruitment, which will help make local newsrooms more reflective of the communities they serve.”

The public media executives say not only will new philanthropic investments help stations achieve that goal, but they also see opportunities for investment in NPR’s Collaborative Journalism Network, which provides resources, training, and connections to local outlets. “We aim to expand the successful shared services model – and to launch additional regional newsrooms, placing a strategic focus on regions with the most need,” the paper says.

In the past two decades, wide swaths of rural America have become “news deserts” as hundreds of local newspapers have closed. The paper estimates that 70 million people now live without a credible source of local news, creating a vacuum that they believe public radio can help to address. But it also sees an opportunity as public media already has an infrastructure in place that offers a “strong and flexible framework” to build upon.

“The crisis in journalism continues to accelerate, but public media is ready to leverage our existing resources to transform the crisis into a new ecosystem that better serves all people across America,” said Rachel Hubbard, Executive Director of Oklahoma Public Radio/KOSU. “We’re already adding journalists and creating innovative collaborations, but it is time to do more.”

LaFontaine E. Oliver, President of New York Public Radio, thinks it is not just smalltown America where local public media can plan a role. “Even in a metropolis as large as New York City, local news is under severe threat,” he says.

Public Media Already Staffing Up

There is an existing network of 3,200 journalists in all 50 states, including the addition of more than 900 during the past decade as the paper cites a “transformation” of the public media network that has already begun. In cities like St. Louis, Denver, and Portland, OR, it says public media outlets have become the largest newsrooms covering their regions. “But our public service mission calls us to do more,” it says, pointing out that in parts of the Deep South, Alaska and the Midwest, public media outlets are the sole providers of local news, serving communities that would otherwise be news deserts.

“With the help of local philanthropists and foundations, we are adding reporters to help fill the gap left by shrinking newspapers in Iowa,” said Myrna Johnson, Executive Director of Iowa Public Radio.

In Illinois, Peoria Public Radio WCBU/WGLT General Manager R.C. McBride says they have more than doubled their full-time news staff, added several former newspaper reporters as part-time correspondents, and created new opportunities for student journalists. “The new content resulting from the enhanced capacity continues to find an audience,” he said.

It is not just new staff, but more news content that several public media outlets say they are focused on. KUOW Seattle (94.9) President/General Manager Caryn Mathes says they are on a path to triple the station’s content output, including making investments to develop digital audiences.

Louisville Public Media is now producing 50% more public service stories every day, and as a result, President/CEO Stephen George believes the market’s news ecosystem has already gotten more competitive. “Better service for our neighbors strengthens our relationships and our democracy,” he said.

‘Reimagined Local News Ecosystem’

Leora Hanser, Chief Development Officer at NPR and President of the NPR Foundation, says thanks to philanthropic investment, public radio can serve as the foundation of a “reimagined local news ecosystem,” collaborating with other local news providers to deliver news and information that serves the public interest. “These organizations, in partnership with NPR, can help revitalize local news in America, reaching and serving more people with the information they need to live informed lives,” she said.

More than 100 leaders from across public media participated in interviews and offered valuable input into the development of the paper.

Download the “Public Media and the Future of Local Journalism” whitepaper HERE.

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