It is time for other national foundations to join with Knight in a concerted effort to preserve public affairs news reporting, and because of the importance of local news, the nation’s more than 700 community foundations should take the lead in supporting news reporting in their own cities and towns. Community foundations, which manage collections of donor-advised local philanthropic funds, have large assets and make large gifts. Donations from the twenty-five largest community foundations alone in 2007 totaled $2.4 billion. If community foundations were to allocate just 1 percent of their giving to local news reporting, it would roughly equal all the money that all foundations have spent annually to support news reporting in recent years.
Some community foundations have taken the first steps in this direction. Several donor-advised funds of the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation are among donors to the St. Louis Beacon. The San Diego Foundation has been a key supporter of the Voice of San Diego. The Minneapolis Foundation received a Knight grant to encourage its donors to help MinnPost pay for reporting on local subjects like education and poverty, in which the foundation has a longstanding interest and record of grant-giving.
Community foundations also should consider funding public affairs and accountability reporting not only by nonprofits but also by local commercial newspapers that no longer have the resources to fund all of it themselves. For example, James Hamilton, director of Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracyhas proposed that local foundations finance specific accountability reporting projects, individual reporters, or the coverage of some subjects at the Raleigh News & Observer. That would not be such a big step beyond the journalism produced by nonprofits like ProPublica or the Center for Investigative Reporting that many commercial news media are already publishing and broadcasting.
Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented to provide significant local news reporting in every community served by public stations and their Web sites. This requires urgent action by and reform of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, increased congressional funding and support for public media news reporting, and changes in mission and leadership for many public stations across the country.
The failure of much of the public broadcasting system to provide significant local news reporting reflects longstanding neglect of this responsibility by the majority of public radio and televisions stations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Congress. The approximately $400 million that Congress currently appropriates for the CPB each year is far less per capita than public broadcasting support in countries with comparable economies—roughly $1.35 per capita for the United States, compared to about $25 in Canada, Australia, and Germany, nearly $60 in Japan, $80 in Britain, and more than $100 in Denmark and Finland. The lion’s share of the financial support for public radio and television in the United States comes from listener and viewer donations, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, and philanthropic gifts.
It is not just a question of money, but how it is spent. Most of the money that the CPB and private donors and sponsors provide public broadcasting is spent on broadcast facilities, independent television production companies, and programming to attract audiences during fund-raising drives. In many metropolitan areas, the money supports more stations and signals than are necessary to reach everyone in the community.
At the same time, outside of a relatively few regional public radio station groups, very little money is spent on local news coverage by individual public radio and television stations. The CPB itself, in its new Public Radio Audience Task Force Report, acknowledged that “claiming a significantly larger role in American journalism requires a much more robust newsgathering capacity—more ‘feet on the street’ with notebooks, recorders, cameras, and more editors and producers to shape their work” for broadcast and digital distribution by public radio stations. “The distance between current reality and the role we imagine—and that others urge upon public radio—is large,” the report concluded. And that distance is immense for the vast majority of public television stations that do no local news reporting at all.
With appropriate safeguards, a Fund for Local News would play a significant role in the reconstruction of American journalism.
The CPB should declare that local news reporting is a top priority for public broadcasting and change its allocation of resources accordingly. Local news reporting is an essential part of the public education function that American public radio and television have been charged with fulfilling since their inception.