Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson, in their 2009 “Reconstruction of American Journalism” report for the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, recommended that “Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented to provide significant local news reporting in every community served by public stations and their websites.”
Likewise, New America Foundation President Steve Coll, writing in CJR’s November/December 2010 issue, proposed channeling spectrum user fees collected from commercial broadcasters to a revamped CPB, to be used to beef up reporting operations, particularly the local capacity, of public television and radio.
And in a December 2010 Knight Commission white paper, “Rethinking Public Media: More Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive,” Barbara Cochran, a former vice president of news at NPR, called on public broadcasters to move faster into localism and take bigger steps to reform infrastructure if they want to maintain their claim on government investment.
Radio, which is admittedly far cheaper than television, has been able to cobble together innovative projects attempting to address the need for more local content. NPR’s new Impact of Government project, funded by a large initial grant from the Open Society Foundations, is attempting to place a total of one hundred journalists at NPR stations in all fifty states, to report on how state government actions play out over time. (NPR’s then-Ombudsman Alicia Shepard raised ethical questions in May about that grant, given the foundation’s well-known left-leaning funder, financier George Soros; his Open Society Institute has supported CJR.) The Argo Project, another NPR venture backed by the Knight Foundation, is training select local stations in how to expand local news programming in niche areas. CPB last year pledged $7.5 million for seven regional public radio and TV reporting collaborations.
PBS has been comparatively slow to offer help to stations. Instead, in 2009, on the advice of an outside consultant, it began developing pbsnews.org, a “news navigator” aggregation site which some saw as competition to the newly beefed up NewsHour website. But in March, PBS pulled the plug on the aggregation site. “I don’t have the money right now to take it to the next step and I’m not going to half-launch something,” Kerger says.
PBS is now moving some of the money and technology earmarked for the website into technical resources and staff training to help its stations move more deeply into local journalism.
Against this backdrop, a few public television stations are trying to break the mold. In St. Louis, KETC-TV offered housing to the St. Louis Beacon, an online investigative newsroom formed in 2008 after steep layoffs at the local Post-Dispatch newspaper; the two have since collaborated notably on reports on the home mortgage crisis.
In Chicago, WTTW and the NewsHour just received an innovative, one-year, $250,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation that seeks to bolster the local/national model. Equal sums of $75,000 will fund national arts coverage on the NewsHour, and local reporting on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, whose own ratings have soared in the past year. The remainder will pay for stories produced by the twelve-person Chicago Tonight news staff, which will air on the NewsHour, on issues of national importance from the Midwest.
San Francisco’s KQED merged its television and radio news services into a single operation last summer and added an online site, KQEDnews.org. With an increase of $1 million to its $14 million annual news and public affairs budget—more than 25 percent of its annual spending—KQED increased its local news staff by more than 10 percent and tripled local radio newscasts.
The key to finding the money, KQED chief Boland says, is that “you’ve got to have a radio station; that really gives you critical mass. You’ve got to work across platforms and merge your resources. And then you need to partner outside the building.”