Two years ago, with statehouse bureaus taking huge cuts in a contracting media landscape, National Public Radio designed the StateImpact project to fill the reporting void while experimenting with a new model of local-national public media collaboration.
It works like this: NPR member stations joined forces to report on a significant policy issue in their state. Florida, Indiana, and Ohio cover education; Pennsylvania and Texas took on energy and the environment; and Idaho, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma each report on the economy. There are at least two full-time StateImpact reporters in each state; 17 overall. A seven-member NPR team in Washington, DC supports them with training and resources as they produce top-notch radio broadcasts and online reporting. Stories are aired throughout the states, and some are featured on national NPR broadcasts.
NPR intended to expand StateImpact to additional states—a July 2011 press release announced plans to “invite applications from additional stations and states” that fall—eventually setting up shop in all 50.
But that second round of applications never opened up, and the expansion plan has been scuttled. NPR will cease its relationship with StateImpact after the eight pilot projects each reach the end of their contracts between June and October of this year. NPR will not invest in StateImpact in additional states, and it will have no formal role in providing training or resources to support the reporting of the stations already on the ground.
For the stations involved in the eight pilots, NPR’s change of plans isn’t a total upheaval: from the beginning, the plan was for StateImpact to be funded at a 70/30 split between NPR and the member stations the first year, and a 30/70 split the second year. Beyond that, they would operate on their own. In the original concept, though, the Washington team would continue to work regularly with the state teams, providing basic launch training to the expansion states while coaching the original eight StateImpact teams on planning and executing more complex, long-term projects.
The Pennsylvania stations and some in other states—it’s not yet clear how many—have secured ongoing funding and will continue to work independently under the StateImpact banner. The Ohio team has proclaimed its commitment to continue investigating education policy, but without the organized collaboration between stations. It’s unclear whether their future efforts will appear under the StateImpact name. (I’ll focus here on the efforts in Pennsylvania and Ohio, states in the Great Lakes region I’m covering for CJR.)
NPR’s decision not to continue with StateImpact comes despite the acclaimed reporting the project has produced—reporting that moved the needle in how energy, education, and economics are understood both locally and nationally. In a short time, its teams have won a shelf of awards, including seven Edward R. Murrow honors this year, and five more the year before. StateImpact Pennsylvania also won a duPont award for reporting on the impact of fracking on local residents. (CJR praised the Pennsylvania team for its coverage of the intersection of industry and politics last November.)
More significantly, reporters on the project have become authorities in their states, influencing policy and public opinion. “It’s interesting to watch not just other media but politicians reaching out and referencing StateImpact,” said Lynette Clemetson, NPR’s StateImpact director.
In Pennsylvania, “it’s pretty clear [lawmakers] scrutinize our stories,” said Susan Phillips, the StateImpact reporter at WHYY in Philadelphia. “The energy secretary for Pennsylvania, who refuses to speak to us, loves to comment about us.” Her StateImpact partner, Scott Detrow, who reported from WITF in Harrisburg, noticed that the trade group for county commissioners had a link on their webpage about the energy industry that urged readers to visit StateImpact to learn more. “We were proud of that,” he said.
StateImpact Pennsylvania is also reaching listeners who aren’t accustomed to in-depth coverage of their communities. “What we had—what we have—that is unique is access to airwaves across the state, through all the different public radio stations in state,” Phillips said. “Erie, Lehigh Valley—they don’t have newsrooms. They don’t have reporters. … I know we’re closely watched by people in small towns. There are not enough journalists to cover everything.”
Things, for example, like Act 13, which overhauled Pennsylvania’s drilling law in 2012. Phillips and Detrow combed through the measure and noticed a provision that required doctors to sign a confidentiality agreement if they are treating a patient harmed by chemicals used in fracking, resulting in a gag order on information about the chemical’s identity and concentration level. “This wasn’t reported or well known even by healthcare providers,” Phillips said. “I did a story, and suddenly, people I was interviewing started referring me to what I reported—‘did you know about these doctor disclosure forms?’—not realizing we were the source.”