Business of News

NPR’s first staffer on the future of publicly funded media: A Q&A with Jack Mitchell

December 9, 2020

When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law in 1967, he established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—and, soon after, the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio—setting aside government funds for television and radio programming. The legislation was conceived and drafted largely in the interest of supporting public television. Support for public radio was added as an afterthought, so the CPB decided to invest in the future of American public radio by sending a young person to London to work for a year at the BBC and return to help build NPR. That person was Jack Mitchell.

Mitchell was NPR’s first employee and the first full-time producer of its first news program, All Things Considered. Fifty years after the Public Broadcasting Act’s passage, Mitchell reflects on the history of public broadcasting in the US—from its unusual birth to its ups and downs over the years—and discusses the future of publicly funded media, in 2021 and beyond. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CJR: What do you remember about the historical landscape during the time the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was being established?

Jack Mitchell: To start, if you go back a hundred years, noncommercial radio was started as education. That was its purpose. Then, fifty years ago, Johnson was president, and the Public Broadcasting Act was the last piece of the Great Society legislation. Around the same time, the US set up the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. The Model Cities program, the Head Start program, and Sesame Street were all related, within this big effort to create a Great Society. That was why public broadcasting got its subsidy; if it had been three or four years earlier, or certainly three or four years later, it would never have happened. It was also a time of great tension. The civil rights movement was at its height. There was a notion that public broadcasting would help bridge the gap between Black and white, that there would be programming for Black people in public radio and TV. “By, for, and about” was the phrase we used. That didn’t much happen, but it was one of the intentions. The idea that public broadcasting would help deal with the social issues of the day was key.

CJR: What challenges did NPR face, early on?

JM: The big issue at the beginning was What are we supposed to be doing? We knew we were going to be noncommercial and not for profit. But there were endless debates. Are we supposed to be journalism? I don’t think anybody thought so in the beginning. We thought that would be a piece of it. We were to be cultural. Classical music was the most important programming. The addition of news evolved later. There was the great notion of trying to speak in many voices, to have a very diverse audience. That was a central concept: that we would be something for everyone. That is not true at all, but that was the idea. The evolution from sort of a generic We’re going to serve everybody to We are going to be news—that didn’t happen for at least the first ten years or so.

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CJR: When it comes to government funding for journalism, it seems like it’s a lot easier for the government to hand a check to something that feels like a cultural or educational program. Did it feel that way then?

JM: This is the great irony of it, in a sense. We were started with government money, for educational purposes, but that money has continued. In Wisconsin public radio, we still get the kind of money that we had fifty years ago, from the state, even though stations are raising millions of dollars from listeners.

Funding was not a problem for public radio in the beginning, because it was all funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, one hundred percent. They wrote a check to NPR every year, and that covered the entire budget. Now government funding makes up just a small percentage of the budget, and it’s become voluntary support. The transition out of government support over toward individual support was a challenge. There was some resistance within public radio’s system: those who felt—understandably—that secure funding, free of the market forces, was what made us special. We didn’t have to worry about listeners or advertisers or attracting attention. We got that check no matter what we did. That mindset changed rather dramatically. Right now, public broadcasting is highly market oriented, though it still gets subsidies. It’s not as if government money has been significantly cut. Reagan cut it, but it came back up after he left. We’re still going to have a government subsidy, which is awkward for news, frankly, but it’s a much smaller part of the whole pot.

The fear is that government funding will mean government control. That really wasn’t the case at NPR, or much here in Wisconsin. I say, in journalism, you’re getting your money from somewhere, and no matter where you get it, there’s going to be incentives to please whoever is providing money. It might be listeners who have their own agenda. Underwriters have their agendas. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing of all is diverse funding, so that nobody can kill you. If the government could pull all its money out of public broadcasting today, public broadcasting would continue. If all the underwriters pulled out, that would be a very big problem, but not a fatal problem. In the end, anyone can go. I think the diversity of funding in public radio today is what gives it its freedom.

CJR: With a Biden administration incoming, do you think there is any room for more federal support for local journalism? What could that look like, and how might it compare to the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?

JM: I would be happy to see a corporation for public broadcasting, or even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, subsidize other forms of journalism, within limits. Government money can’t be the sole source of funding.

It can work as long as the government is subsidizing—not controlling, not owning—and there needs to be a format. In public broadcasting, public service grants—which are the main way that money is given out—have nothing to do with content. They have to provide grants if the station meets certain specific and technical qualifications. The CPB cannot hold the grants because they don’t like your programming.

Today, I think any government subsidies would have to be for local journalism. They’re the ones who need it. And I think if you had a national organization that gave subsidies to local papers, probably newspapers or online services, that serve a community—community service grants, that’s what we call them in public broadcasting—[that] could be a good idea. Whether it’s politically feasible, I don’t know. As long as it’s done the way CPB does it, with no content interference—you have to have objective criteria for what constitutes local journalism. And that, I think, is desirable, and maybe feasible, if it is local, because every congressman has a local newspaper that’s in trouble.

I was optimistic about public broadcasting, and it played out. I think I have some faith that the right thing will ultimately happen. But it is faith, rather than some objective criteria.

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Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • HOW TO ACCEPT FEDERAL AID AND MAINTAIN INDEPENDENCE: For CJR, Susan Smith Richardson, CEO at the Center for Public Integrity, wrote about maintaining editorial independence while operating a nonprofit organization that received PPP funding and benefits from a government-designated tax status. When CPI decided to take government funding, it published a statement for readers and included a disclosure statement in pieces about federal aid. “The choice wasn’t between taking the loan or opting out,” Smith Richardson writes. “We needed the financial support. Rather, the choice was how to maintain a strong commitment to our values as a news organization.”
  • HOW TENNESSEE KEPT LITERARY WRITING ALIVE: For The New Yorker, Casey Cep wrote about Chapter 16, a nonprofit Tennessee-based literary publication whose work is consumed weekly by as many as half a million readers. Humanities Tennessee launched the project more than ten years ago, to fill a void left behind by the contraction of localized literary writing. Chapter 16 covers books written by Tennessee authors, books set in Tennessee, and authors of books whose tours pass through the state. The outlet publishes daily to its website, provides book reviews for many local newspapers, and sends out a weekly digital newsletter to subscribers. “From the beginning, [Humanities Tennessee executive Tim] Henderson and his colleagues hoped that Chapter 16 would become a template for other states and regions where arts coverage is disappearing but grants, donations, and, above all, readers still exist,” Cep writes.
  • THERE’S NO MAGIC SOLUTION FOR SAVING THE NEWS BUSINESS: For the Washington Post, David Chavern, president and chief executive of the News Media Alliance, propounded five “myths about the news business,” contending that journalism won’t be saved by clicks, billionaire philanthropists, aggregation, or subscriptions alone. For Medium, Michael Rothman proposed a long list of ways to make money in journalism without advertising revenue. And Michael J. Socolow argued for NiemanLab that Substack approximates an old form of journalism, but it needs to remain affordable if it hopes to expand.
  • LOCAL FRONT PAGE PUBLISHES NO LOCAL NEWS: Several weeks ago, in Westchester County, New York, the Gannett-owned Journal News published a Sunday print edition with no local news on the front page, Rick Edmonds reported for Poynter. Though Edmonds notes that the paper’s digital site amplified more local coverage than its print counterpart, he says the dearth of local news in the print edition illustrates a disturbing trend. “Too much regional reeks of being a fig-leaf cover for a token effort at the local level—at least for remaining print readers,” Edmonds writes.
  • BEAUTIFUL ZINES CARRY ON: In a challenging era for journalism, some niche magazines continue to create risk-taking, beautiful journalism for little to no profit, Savannah Jacobson writes for CJR’s new magazine issue on reimagining journalism. “As we focus on the layoffs, the bankruptcies, the journalists jailed for doing their jobs, it’s worth remembering that there’s one form of journalism that can never really be killed—someone who has something to say, and says it without asking permission,” Jacobson writes.
  • WHILE MANY NEWSROOMS CONTRACT, STAT EXPANDS: STAT News, the American health and science publication, has increased revenues by 66 percent this year, Axios reported. Before the pandemic drew national attention, STAT was receiving about 1.5 million unique views per month; in March, it reached 23 million. Sara Fischer reports that the publication received tens of thousands of donations this year and plans to increase staff and expand its coverage to Europe.
  • NEWS STARTUPS CAN BUILD EQUITABLE FUNDING MODELS: “Faith is not a business plan” for robust, equitable local journalism, Candice Fortman wrote on Medium. “Too many of us exist only on the belief that if we just work hard enough and make sacrifices, our ventures will attract the kind of attention and funding needed to be sustainable,” Fortman writes. “For journalism to have a future, it must broaden its definition of audience and serve more diverse communities with a staff and models that reflect the changing reality.”
  • MORE LAYOFFS, CLOSURES, CUTBACKS: Tribune Publishing closed the Hartford Courant’s offices indefinitely, the paper’s guild reported lasted week. (The New York Times has more.) Layoffs at Disney extended to some employees across ABC News, Mediaite reported. The Observer, a local weekly in South Carolina, closed after thirty-nine years, Poynter reported. Axios reported that more than half of the media jobs lost in 2020 were in news. And for Poynter’s Local Edition newsletter, Kristen Hare wrote about reporter Eliot Klein’s career; Klein retired from the Palm Beach Post after taking a Gannett buyout. “People don’t understand what it means not to have local news or the newspapers in general and to have comprehensive, professional, objective news,” Klein told Hare. “They’ve seen so much that isn’t that, that they’ve almost forgotten what it really looks like. I couldn’t do anything about that except to keep cranking out what it’s supposed to look like and hope that people notice.”

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education. And an organization of fifty writers called the Periplus Collective recently announced a mentorship program to serve early-career writers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites