Under Vivian Schiller, National Public Radio’s new CEO, NPR has taken steps to help member stations with local news coverage. NPR is a nonprofit that supplies national and international news and cultural programming—but not local news—to about 800 public radio stations. These stations are owned and managed by 280 local and state nonprofits, colleges, and universities that support NPR with their dues. Schiller says her goal, approved by the board of member station representatives that governs NPR, is “to step in where local newspapers are leaving.” In its most ambitious project, NPR has created a digital distribution platform on which it and member stations can share radio and Web site reporting on subjects of local interest in various parts of the country, such as education or the environment.
Overall, however, local news coverage remains underfunded, understaffed, and a low priority at most public radio and television stations, whose leaders have been unable to make—or uninterested in making—the case for investment in local news to donors and Congress.
What are the new sources of independent news reporting?
Different kinds of news organizations are being started by journalists who have left print and broadcast, and also by universities and their students, Internet entrepreneurs, bloggers, and so-called “citizen journalists.” Many of these new organizations report on their communities. Others concentrate on investigative reporting. Some specialize in subjects like national politics, state government, or health care. Many are tax-exempt nonprofits, while others are trying to become profitable. Most publish only online, avoiding printing and delivery costs. However, some also collaborate with other news media to reach larger audiences through newspapers, radio, and television, as well as their own Web sites. Many of the startups are still quite small and financially fragile, but they are multiplying steadily.
Several new local news organizations, each different from the others, can be found in San Diego. The reporting staff of the daily newspaper there, The San Diego Union-Tribune, has been halved by a series of cuts both before and after its sale by the Copley family in May 2009 to a Los Angeles investment firm, Platinum Equity, which had no previous experience in journalism.
Five years ago, frustration with the Union-Tribune’s coverage of the city prompted a local businessman, Buzz Woolley, to fund the launch of an online-only local news organization, Voice of San Diego. The dozen reporters who work out of its light-filled newsroom in a new Spanish mission-style building near San Diego Bay focus on local accountability journalism. The site has no recipes or movie reviews or sports. The young journalists, most of whom came from newspapers, do enterprise and investigative reporting about San Diego government, business, housing, education, health, environment, and other “key quality of life issues facing the region,” said executive editor Andrew Donohue. “We want to be best at covering a small number of things. We’re very disciplined about not trying to do everything.”
The blogosphere and older media have become increasingly symbiotic. They share audiences, and they mimic each other through evolving digital journalistic innovation.
Voice of San Diego’s impact has been disproportionate to its steadily growing but still relatively modest audience of fewer than 100,000 unique visitors a month. Its investigations of fraud in local economic development corporations, police misrepresentation of crime statistics, and the city’s troubled pension fund, among other subjects, have led to prosecutions, reforms, and the kind of national journalism awards—from Sigma Delta Chi and Investigative Reporters and Editors—typically given to newspapers. To increase their reach, Voice journalists appear regularly on the local NBC television station, the all-news commercial radio station, and the public radio station, giving those outlets reporting they otherwise would not have.
The current $1 million annual budget of the Voice of San Diego, which is a nonprofit, comes from donors like Woolley, from foundations, advertising, corporate sponsorships, and contributions from citizen “members,” like those who support local public radio and television and cultural institutions. “We don’t count on mass traffic, but rather a level of loyalty,” said Publisher Scott Lewis. “We’re seeking loyal people like those who give to the opera, museums or the orchestra because they believe they should be sustained.”
They rent newsroom space from one of their supporters, the San Diego Foundation, which, like hundreds of other community foundations around the country, is a collection of local family funds with a professional staff to offer advice to the donors of these funds. Lewis said the foundation recommends contributions to the Voice. At the same time, the national Knight Foundation has been encouraging such foundations to support news and information needs in their communities through a program of matching grants. Knight and the San Diego Foundation recently gave Voice of San Diego matching grants of $100,000 each to increase its coverage of local neighborhoods and communities “underserved” by other news media.