Public radio rethinks its approach to journalism

INSIDE THE KRCC NEWSROOM, in a converted house on a college campus in downtown Colorado Springs, station manager Tammy Terwelp says her newsroom is about to double in size, and adds, “I’ll probably never be able to say that again in my career.”

The bolstering of KRCC’s news staff is part of a larger regional project called the Mountain West Journalism Collaborative, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and spread across six local stations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. The goal for these small- to medium-sized public-radio newsrooms is to weave local news from the different stations into regional broadcasts the stations can share. The project will focus on coverage of land use, water, growth, and the rural-urban divide, says Tom Michael, general manager of Idaho’s Boise State Public Radio, which will function as the hub for the collaborative.

This collaboration in the Rockies, set to crank out coverage by the beginning of 2018, is an example of how the CPB continues to build connections among local stations while filling gaps in community news coverage in an age of newspaper retrenchment. And it tracks a larger trend of increased public radio collaboration around regional “hubs” outside the nation’s coastal media bubbles. Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act (on this day in 1967) and spurred CPB’s creation, public radio is rethinking how it does journalism—with an eye toward more robust, coordinated local coverage.

 

I would say that these collaboratives are tricky to run because it requires a lot of trust, and an alignment in interests. It also requires ability to give up some control for greater benefit.

 

WITH A REGIONAL FOCUS, the Mountain West project will aggressively pitch its segments to NPR for national exposure, Michael says. Other participating stations include KUER in Salt Lake City, Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings, Montana, and Wyoming Public Media.

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The regional project is backed by a $475,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The local stations will use a chunk of the cash to hire a managing editor who will oversee the project, then split the rest to fund half the salaries of new reporter positions at individual stations like at KRCC. The two-year grant will pay the new managing editor’s entire salary for the first year and half of the salaries for new local reporters at participating stations. The funding decreases in the second year, so individual stations will need to step up their fundraising to keep those positions.

The six-station project in the Mountain West is one of five similar CPB efforts across the country, funded with a total of $3.3 million. While the Mountain West collaboration will be the first of its kind for some of the participating local stations, the collaborative network model isn’t new for CPB. The nonprofit, which has a budget of $445 million in federal funds, started building regional projects from among its local newsrooms nearly a decade ago. Last year it funded eight of them, from Alaska to the Great Lakes to New England, with $4.4 million.

“Part of our mission—and, really, the mission of the stations—is to serve those communities with the information they need in order to live their life successfully in those communities and be good citizens,” says Kathy Merritt, senior vice president of journalism at the CPB. “Radio and public media really is filling that role, and we see other media kind of falling out of that role.”

CPB “is absolutely driving” the effort, Michael says, which is designed in part to develop bigger, more impactful local stories.

“They think it serves the country better to have more local journalists,” he says. “They also want people working together. And it drives them nuts when they’re funding three different stations in one market.”

As for the kinds of national attention-getting broadcasts these stations hope to create together, “We’ll be looking for those big regional stories in a region that has been passed over many times by the national media,” says Michael de Yoanna, the news director for KUNC in Greeley, Colorado, another participating station.

KRCC’s Terwelp says it’s valuable for stations to have “really, really good content that’s not from parachute reporters.”

“The people live in the cities that they’re reporting on, and of course that always gives a more honest perspective of what’s going on,” says Terwelp.

Broader regional newscasts will also be new for the station’s listeners where its signal carries 20,000 square miles, she says. “KRCC has been kind of on an island.”

 

We don’t want to create something so big because we’re not going to be be able to pay for it in five years. So forever more we want to have this arrangement. That’s why we wanted to keep the cost really low. … After the CPB funding everything else we should be able to fund ourselves.

 

FOR YEARS, SIMILAR regional collaborations (beyond those backed by the CPB) have popped up around the nation. Some have achieved more success than others.

The Northwest News Network, for instance, is the grandmother of public media collaboratives; it predates the recent crop of CPB-funded hubs by about 20 years. The project started as a partnership between radio stations in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Idaho left a few years ago, but the partnership remains robust. “I would say that these collaboratives are tricky to run because it requires a lot of trust, and an alignment in interests,” says Steve Bass, chairman of the Northwest News Network. “It also requires ability to give up some control for greater benefit.”

Northwest News Network now comprises seven primary partners across Washington and Oregon, with a few smaller stations kicking in on occasion. The network is a nonprofit; its employees and editor are on the payroll of individual stations. Participating stations get access to editorial content from the collaborative’s dedicated reporters, as well as from reporters at the member stations, all for a relatively small contribution. “It’s not just about the work of four or five reporters we have,” says Bass, who is also the president and CEO of Oregon Public Broadcasting. “It’s about the significant news presence all across the region.” He likens the network to a force multiplier.

That’s something the Rocky Mountain West collaborative wants to emulate, with long-term survival for the project well after the two-year CPB grant runs out. Sustainability after the two-year seed money hasn’t always worked out at other CPB-funded collaborations. Alisa Barba, who served as editor of two well-known CPB-funded collaborations, recently offered advice from her own experiences at Fronteras and then Inside Energy. Fronteras “continues in two locations, with only informal editorial collaboration and occasional content sharing between the original partners,“ she noted at Current. Inside Energy is “looking at the end of its CPB funding in December 2017, and will be disbanded as a standalone brand and website.”

Barba’s advice? The importance of a regional editor “at the core with vision and influence” can’t be understated, and a digital strategy among the participants should be well thought out.

As the Mountain West Journalism Collaborative gears up, Boise State Public Radio’s Michael says the participants have “all learned a lesson of sustainability.”

“We don’t want to create something so big because we’re not going to be be able to pay for it in five years,” says Michael. “So forever more we want to have this arrangement. That’s why we wanted to keep the cost really low. … After the CPB funding everything else we should be able to fund ourselves.”

For budget reasons, the project won’t have its own website and social media presence. Instead, the Mountain West Journalism Collaborative will appear to audiences more like a series from each of the individual stations.

“Our desire was not to create a heavy promotional or technical infrastructure or create much overhead,” Micheal says. “We are mostly medium-sized to small stations, so with an eye on future sustainability, we really wanted to focus the partnership on bare-bones content, so that in many years to come we are all still contributing a bit to the salary of a managing editor and not much more.”

 

Since the late 1990s, collaboration between NPR and its member stations has rested on five bureau chiefs who regularly correspond with dozens of member stations within their territories. The relationship was transactional; the goal now is to make it collaborative.

 

BUT THE COLLABORATIVE MODEL isn’t unique to local public media. NPR is considering its own network of regional hubs around the country—a sort of NATO for public radio, as Bruce Auster, NPR’s collaborative coverage senior editor, describes it. The model aims to coordinate coverage of local member stations by “hubs,” and expand the national network’s ability to cover important stories across the country. A hub might, for example, work together on a thematic investigation across coverage areas, drawing on each station’s knowledge to produce more comprehensive local reporting.

Since the late 1990s, collaboration between NPR and its member stations has rested on five bureau chiefs who regularly correspond with dozens of member stations within their territories. The relationship was transactional; the goal now is to make it collaborative. “We are looking to help connect the 264 member stations better to each other and to NPR,” says NPR executive editor Edith Chapin.

The new collaborative model is a big cultural shift for NPR. For years, the network received complaints from member stations for the way it did—or didn’t—work with them, namely after incidents in which reporters parachuted into a member station’s community without so much as a text or email. At a 2015 conference, NPR’s leadership even apologized for the once-tenuous relationship. Since then, NPR and member stations have made progress in how they work together, and they view the hub model as the next step.

NPR hopes these hubs will augment regional collaborative rollouts and existing partnerships like those from CPB, not compete with them. Collaboratives like the new Mountain West Journalism Collaborative and existing Northwest News Network should help, not hurt, NPR as it pilots its new model, and vice versa. For example, NPR’s forthcoming hub model could enable All Things Considered or Morning Edition to more easily pick up local content. With streamlined communication between local and national, NPR hopes to provide a richer understanding of what’s happening in the country.

“If NPR’s effort ends up being competitive with Northwest News Network, that’s a huge failure on all our parts,” Bass says. “That’s something NPR needs to figure out: how will it work with collaborative structures?”

But implementing the model is not without its challenges. The depth of resources and the quality of talent vary widely across member station newsrooms. NPR will need to address those inherent disparities as it works with member stations, and member stations themselves will need to “have a frank assessment of the talent their reporters have and also be able to trust other stations’ reporters,” according to Vincent Duffy, news director at Michigan Radio. There’s a trust gap between NPR and member stations, but also among the member stations themselves.

NPR’s Collaborative Journalism Network will take three years to finish, says Chapin. In her role, she will focus on big-picture concerns for the hub model, overseeing the strategy and execution from its current pilot phase to eventual roll-out. Though the network is still in the conceptual phase, NPR has settled on possible locations for its first hubs: California, Texas, and a cluster of three southern States—Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

The southern NPR hub would address a lack of personnel and financial resources currently afflicting the statewide public media level in that region. Texas and California are already equipped with robust public media ecosystems, and the NPR pilot would build upon existing collaborative efforts. For example, in Texas, Hurricane Harvey coverage provided a good stress test for a hub approach since the storm struck multiple parts of the state simultaneously, Chapin says. The state’s existing collaborative vis-à-vis Texas Standard tackled Harvey in a comprehensive, nuanced way.

At this point, there are no hard-and-fast rules for how the hubs will work. It’s an iterative process, one that will formalize as NPR explores different models. There will be a managing editor at each hub who will facilitate communication among the stations, and also with NPR. There may also be “specialist editors,” or a journalist spearheading beat-specific coverage, and data reporters. The specifics will mirror the needs of each hub. “This is not a box we’re shipping out to someone,” Chapin says. “Ideally these pilots will do things slightly different so we can learn.”

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Meg Dalton and Corey Hutchins are contributors to CJR. Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others.