On radio, with the exception of all-news stations in some large cities, most commercial stations do little or no local news reporting. A growing number of listeners have turned to public radio stations for national and international news provided by National Public Radio. But only a relatively small number of those public radio stations also offer their listeners a significant amount of local news reporting. And even fewer public television stations provide local news coverage.
Congress created the current system of public radio and television in 1967. Through the quasi-independent Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal government funnels about $400 million a year to program producers and to hundreds of independent public radio and television stations that reach every corner of the country. The stations, which are owned by colleges and universities, nonprofit community groups, and state and local governments, supplement relatively small CPB grants with fundraising from individual donors, philanthropic foundations, and corporate contributors. Most of the money is used for each station’s overhead costs and fundraising, rather than news reporting.

Three-fourths of the CPB’s money goes to public television, which has never done much original news reporting. The Public Broadcasting Service, collectively owned by local public television stations and primarily funded by the CPB, is a conduit for public affairs programs produced by some larger stations and independent producers that consist mostly of documentaries, talk shows, and a single national news discussion program, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, on weeknights.

Because PBS has no production capacity of its own, it does not do any news reporting. But as a distributor of programming, it is exploring how to improve public television news in what a Pew Foundation-funded PBS consultant described as an often dysfunctional, entrenched culture with “too many silos”—meaning the many individual stations, production organizations, and programming groups—that have not worked well together on news reporting. An internal PBS study reportedly recommends the creation of a destination public news Web site, with content from throughout public television and radio. David Fanning, the longtime executive producer of Frontline, has proposed going further. Fanning wants to create a full-fledged national reporting organization for public television with its own staff and funding. Realizing either his proposal or the vision of the PBS study would require a major realignment of public media relationships and funding. Neither would increase independent local news reporting by public television stations.

While the audience for public radio of about 28 million listeners each week is just over one-third of the 75 million weekly viewers of public television, it has been growing substantially for several decades, driven largely by its national news programs. NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered are the most popular programs on public radio or television. And Morning Edition’s audience of nearly 12 million listeners alone has been about a third larger than that for NBC’s Today. Although NPR also has lost revenue during the recession and laid off staff for the first time in a quarter century, it recently launched an ambitious Web site with national news updates and stories. It also hired its first editor for investigative reporting, Brian Duffy, who is working on accountability journalism projects with reporters at NPR and local public radio stations. NPR has seventeen foreign bureaus, more than all but a few American newspapers, and six U.S. regional bureaus.

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.

Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson are the authors of "The Reconstruction of American Journalism." Leonard Downie Jr. is vice president at large and former executive editor of The Washington Post and Weil Family Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Michael Schudson is a professor of communication at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.