By Jan Schaffer
Unfettered by competitive pressures and fortified by trust in their brand, local public broadcasters are finding new ways to engage in more local news – especially more investigative and enterprise journalism – than ever before.
From unprecedented mergers to unique partnerships, from shared workspace to shared reporters, creative approaches are positioning public radio and television stations to step up to new roles in their local news ecosystems. In the process, some are becoming critical linchpins for state and metro-wide news networks.
In this July 2013 report, J-Lab examines through nine case studies, developments, large and small, that have occurred within the last year.
Motivated by cutbacks at newspapers and thinner wire-service offerings, many public broadcasters are seizing new opportunities to fulfill their public-service mission and attract new members in the process. With the acquisition of new digital skills, they have a suite of assets – on air, online, mobile and social media – and newfound confidence to leverage those for greater community impact.
“There is great potential and great need [for media collaboration].”
– Jeff Jarvis, BuzzMachine
Few of the stations in these case studies were propelled by major grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or NPR. Instead, many are boosting resources by partnering with news start-ups that have launched in recent years and proven their merit.
Of note, while legacy news organizations increasingly erect paywalls in front of their journalism, these local public broadcasters are tearing down walls to reach out to partners – both nonprofit and commercial – to co-produce or share original content and to give longer tails to the best journalism in their areas.
It’s a win-win for the broadcasters and their partners. “They’re giving us content that we wouldn’t be able to get,” said John Dankosky, news director of WNPR in Connecticut, “and we’re giving them exposure.”
Given the trust the public broadcasters have in their local communities, no one is looking “to put a thumb on the scale,” said Doug Price, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS. But there is some increased willingness to take what he calls a “Mother Teresa” approach to community issues that might engage a library or a university as easily as an investigative news site.
“I think we are seen as a good middle ground. We can highlight; we can curate,” said Morgan Holm, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s senior vice president and chief content officer, who’s constructing a statewide news network. “It’s a little bit like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
“We have the beginning of a blueprint for how to create a vigorous news organization that… takes advantage of the assets of public media.”
– Margie Freivogel, St. Louis Beacon
Public media outlets play an important role for news start-ups. A partnership with a public broadcaster amplifies their journalism and validates their efforts in ways that can help their sustainability.
This report profiles the creation of statewide news cooperatives in Oregon and Connecticut and New Jersey, building newsrooms from scratch in Denver and New Orleans, merging two existing newsrooms in St. Louis, and adding reporting firepower in San Diego, Salt Lake City and western North Carolina.
Several of the public broadcasters are striving to make local content “ubiquitous” and give it a long tail. Local impact is valued more than webpage clicks. And members and sponsors seem to like increased local news. When St. Louis Public Radio and the St. Louis Beacon calculated the costs of fully merging their newsrooms, they figured on a $3 million shortfall over the first five years. “We already have $2.5 million of that pledged,” said Tim Eby, the station’s general manager.
While we give nod to such major public-media initiatives as Project Argo, the Local Journalism Centers, Localore and the State Impact projects for building collaborations and producing good journalism, we do not revisit them here. Nor do we reprise previous reports about content partnerships that KQED in San Francisco and WHYY in Philadelphia have spearheaded. Instead, we have focused on lesser-told stories.
Public media observers note that it will be increasingly easy in the future to go directly to NPR for national stories and to go to, say, Pandora for music. How do public media stations sustain themselves in the long run? “They have to focus on local [news],” said Scott Karp, whose Publish2 platform is used by some of the public broadcasters for content sharing.
“They’re giving us content… and we’re giving them exposure.”
– John Dankosky, WNPR in Connecticut
For many of the communities we examined, there is a pronounced sense of being in the vanguard of change.
“We could blow this,” said media blogger Jeff Jarvis of Montclair State University’s efforts to build a New Jersey media hub. “But there is great potential and great need.”
“If we get it right, “ said Margie Freivogel, founding editor of the Beacon, who is willing to merge with St. Louis Public Radio to create a newsroom with 26 people. “We have the beginning of a blueprint for how to create a vigorous news organization that serves a region and takes advantage of the assets of public media. I think it’s a very important possibility.”
Our thanks to the Wyncote Foundation for its generous support of this project and to the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation for additional publishing support.