But only a small fraction of the public radio stations that broadcast NPR’s national and international news accompany it with a significant amount of local news reporting. Those that do tend to be large city, regional, or state flagship stations. Some of these operations are impressive. Northern California Public Broadcasting, for instance, with stations in San Francisco, San Jose, and Monterey, has a thirty-person news staff reporting on the state’s government and economy, education, environment, and health. Its KQED public radio and television stations in San Francisco have announced a collaboration with the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley to launch in 2010 an independent nonprofit Bay area news organization with $5 million seed money from local businessman Warren Hellman. The new entity’s reporters, working with KQED journalists and Berkeley students, will cover local government, education, culture, the environment and neighborhoods for its own Web site, other digital media, and public radio and television.
“There’s going to be fragmentation. It may be a good thing. We have to think of there being a new news ecosystem.”
Some public radio stations have sought advice from CPB, asking how they could expand and finance local news coverage, using journalists who had worked at local newspapers. A just-completed CPB Public Radio Task Force Report put “supporting significant growth in the scale, quality, and impact of local reporting” near the top of its recommendations for further increasing the audience for public radio.
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.