‘A National Information Utility’



Re: “A Media Policy for the Digital Age” by Steve Coll (CJR, November/December). Driving around Middle America for eleven months listening to the car radio all the time, I quickly learned that NPR was my only source for news and commentary. Private broadcasters have largely capitulated.

Yes, there are rapid news bulletins read off CNN, ABC, or Fox News wires, but that’s it. The main broadcast choices are religious, talk (including sports), country, and rock, with some classical and jazz thrown in.

That means NPR is, in effect, a national information utility, and one that needs to function at the highest level at all times. When you realize it is often also the only source for international news in regional media centers—with its reporters on the front lines of conflict—broad public support is essential. Three suggestions:

• Why one NPR? Fund, say, three public radio networks with federal contributions and let them experiment. Have them compete for private support on U.S. coverage—sharing the costly international news bureaus as a primary source.

• Rotate editorial control to regional stations for set periods. Washington becomes a powerful news bureau answering to, say, Denver, Atlanta, Miami, San Francisco, Detroit, Minneapolis, or even smaller cities like Memphis, Spokane, or Fargo. That alone might make it politically easier to secure funding and elucidate the questions the national press doesn’t ask. If there was one message that came out of the election, it’s how tone-deaf the best journalists become in the confines of Washington and New York, creating perceived bias through story selection.

• Give special incentives for long-form reporting to anyone who wants to compete. Public Radio International’s This American Life series on the subprime crisis brought home the corruptness of Wall Street through individual voices in a way that no business publication could match. Confessions about boiler-room tactics and lying to borrowers were worthy of a jury. Mary Kay Magistad’s series on China’s innovation crisis for PRI brought a whole new dimension to whether the world’s second largest economy can be more than a factory. NPR’s series with ProPublica on traumatic brain injury changed Veterans Administration policy. I got it all over the car radio.

As Coll reminds, a lot can be done in a nonpartisan way. Start with winning support for public radio as no longer a choice but a necessity, then structure it to make it attractive to Americans in every part of the country, who by the way, are pretty good thinkers, too.

Bob Dowling

Former managing editor

BusinessWeek International
Stuart, Fla.


Thanks to Steve Coll for taking the time to step back and take a big-picture look at the many ways our whole media-policy system is shaping journalism right now—and how we could rethink these systems to better serve journalism and democracy.

As we look for models and ideas, there is much we can learn from other countries. Our media ecosystem is as unique as our nation, and we don’t want to try to duplicate any one system, but there are still important lessons to learn and pieces we can explore to help foster innovation and protect journalism’s independence.

SaveTheNews.org, a project of the national media-policy group Free Press, will be releasing a major report on the policies and structure found in fourteen other democratic nations that help insulate journalists from the public funds that flow into supporting high-quality public media. You can see a summary of that research at http://www.scribd.com/doc/38710467/Crisis-of-Imagination-Summary.

Josh Stearns

Free Press and SaveTheNews.org
Northampton, Mass.

The Editors