(A version of this article was published originally in Current in September 2006.)
By Michael MarcottePresident, Public Radio News Directors, Inc.
Abstract: The newly-elected president of PRNDI sees a lingering deficit in the development of the public radio news network. If the network is to capitalize on its formidable local roots, it will have to invest more in local journalists and get past the “paralysis”caused by well-meaning audience research.
I’m not too bothered by the conflicting messages I sometimes get from public radio visionaries. Sometimes two things are true at the same time.
- John Barth of PRX warns our “house is on fire” and we’d better get a clue about the changes we need to make…
- Tom Thomas of SRG assures we are significant institutions with “important and expanding roles” in our communities…
Of course, they’re both right. When we pull back for the big picture, John and Tom BOTH know public radio feels the tectonic media shift AND we’re built upon a foundation of community trust.
Try this pair of opposing views, both true:
- Public radio was built upon the local service model
- Public radio was built upon its national service
How many duels were fought over that duo?
Still, if Kevin Klose of NPR and Lamar Marchese of KNPR were seen clinking wine glasses it wouldn’t surprise us -- we know they SHARE belief in the power of national programming AND the power of local connections.
So, it’s not the diverging views that keep me awake at night.
No, it’s the one-sided debates that I worry about.
THE MISSING VIEW
Where I’m not finding this healthy duality is in the growing discussion over localism – and more specifically, over the role and value of local journalists.
From where I toil (and I believe this reflects the view of many news directors), I hear one dominant view. Loud and clear.
It goes something like this:
- If you are going to produce local news, it better be as good or better than what is produced nationally.
This has been the mantra of consultants and leaders for a long time. Journalists are still getting hit with it today.
And – let me make this perfectly clear -- I respect the message and the good work and the good thinking by the good people that produced it.
But where is the tug from the opposite direction?
What is the companion statement that presses back – and perhaps helps us see the greater truth of the matter?
I’ll tell you mine:
- Get busy and hire good local journalists! You need them now and you will be rewarded!
How’s that for divergent?
There’s no ‘if’ in this view of things. No implied threats of failure if you don’t measure up. In fact, there’s promise of reward for your faith in action.
But, is it equally true?
YOU HAVE TO TAKE THE RISK
It’s certainly true in my experience and the experience of many others.
KPBS made the leap of faith into a well-staffed local news department over a decade ago. I was lucky to be named news director and given management’s faith and credit. (Thanks Doug Myrland and Mike Flaster.) We struggled. We built it. And we’re succeeding.
I lived a very similar experience at KPLU from the mid 80s to the mid 90s. (Thanks Martin Neeb and Scott Williams.)
Moreover, through my 20-year involvement with PRNDI, I can summon many similar examples of pioneering stations that invested smartly in professional news personnel.
In many ways, those stations were confident calculating risk-takers. They committed to news to build audience. They grew their local journalism to build it stronger. A lot of people questioned their direction at the time.
But those stations that have been at it awhile sure look well-situated now that their staffs have matured, their communities have come to rely upon their steady presence, and, most impressively, their audiences and revenues have flourished in proportion to their investment.
I realize many smaller stations find themselves in challenging circumstances when it comes to the cost of constructing a solid news operation.
But today, it seems, stations must summon the same inner conviction and take the plunge if they are going to make it as a local news enterprise. And there is no time to waste.
NOW IS A GOOD TIME
Let me back up and come at this local news issue with the full optimism that I have about it.
We have every reason to be excited about the present prospects for growing strong journalism at the local level.
A quick reconnaissance reminds us consensus is forming around the need for “localism,” to distinguish our stations in the cacophonous new media sea.
Of course, we have also witnessed the dramatic reversal in polarity of the radio industry: commercial radio now repels good journalists, public radio now attracts them.
And we’re seeing some true system-wide efforts to improve our local news programming. The PRPD’s Core Values work provides some handles. And, perhaps most promising because of the money attached, is the Local News Initiative spearheaded by NPR with funding from the Knight Foundation.
These are large scale shifts that bode well for the future of local news. They are reinforced and accelerated by the vibrant conversations over the “New Realities” of public media. They have even produced a new term inside NPR referring to the coming synchronization of national and local journalism resources: “The Network for the Future.”
Hey, suddenly it’s hip to be local!
A LOT OF GROUND TO COVER
While this article is admittedly more blog than journalism, I do have some facts to share. Here are a few findings from the recently-completed NPR Local Station News Survey.
In the happy-encouraging category:
• 78 % (of 209 responding member stations) have a full-time news director
• 81% of those member stations — regardless of station format or market size-- have explicit plans to expand local news coverage.
In the growing-pain category:
• 33% (of the 209 responding stations) do not have a full-time reporter; 22 % have but one full-time reporter.
• 36% of stations say their news reports never, rarely, or only sometimes go through an edit.
As you can imagine, the Local News Survey reveals wide disparity in staffing, editing, training and budgeting for America’s local public radio newsrooms.
A third of the station managers who weighed in said they are budgeting less than $100K annually to produce news and public affairs.
But there is compelling evidence of a trend toward larger budgets. There are between 50-60 stations now spending over a million dollars a year in producing news and public affairs. And a significant portion of these are in the south (13) and Midwest (17).
PARALYZED BY DOUBT?
These trends are very encouraging but we are entering into uncharted territory. And past system performance is not only NOT a predictor of future performance, it is a harbinger of stinginess.
You need only visit the “Public Radio Knowledge Base” (a treasure trove of eminent research findings stored on-line by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting). There you’ll see the topographical map of our system’s research and development investments over the years.
It shows we’ve spent millions upon millions of public dollars on growing national programs, convening group-gropes, and employing management consultants. There are hundreds of reports and projects dealing largely with audience measurement and fundraising techniques.
There’s nothing wrong with that – except in what it underplayed, or outright ignored. I counted on one hand the number of initiatives that directly grew our local news enterprise.
You come away from the last 20 years wondering why, if quality programming is what we want, there wasn’t more money and effort spent doing it.
Today, we are undertaking new rounds of studies, new contracts for consultants, and new groupings of gropers (my organization included). So how will this new age differ?
It will certainly proceed from the “make your local as good as national” mantra. After all, that is still a wonderful distillation of research telling us what our audience wants.
But will it embolden the hesitant? Will it offer handles to the shakey? Will it allow a little less quality to begin with?
The challenge lies in how our system-wide efforts translate into local investment. The mantra should not be a hindrance to action.
I believe we have evidence that the very research intended to propel programming quality upward has yielded unintended negative consequences.
The consequences are evident in those developmentally stunted public radio newsrooms of America. No full-time reporters? No editing? What are managers thinking?
I’m beginning to call it, “The Paralysis Effect,” because I think the will to “go local” is getting stuck somewhere in the process.
Could it be the research message is too scolding?
Heck, if I was a station manager and had to make difficult decisions about my limited resources, I might very well be scared to venture down that local news path based on the cautionary tales in circulation. After all, the prevailing message might be heard as A) it is too expensive, B) the audience is indifferent, and C) you may do more harm than good by doing it!
There’s empirical data involved, but those aren’t the ABC’s of good local programming.
The point is that there’s tremendous service opportunity in local news, and if any interpretation of audience research has resulted in investment avoidance, that is a case of lost opportunity.
Let’s focus on the examples of how local investments have yielded audience and revenue returns. These stations didn’t become great overnight and most still have a long way to go to live up to their aspirations. But they are moving along the path! And, to their credit, they recognize that community trust in journalism is a long-term proposition.
Ultimately, it will be about hiring strong journalists, treating them as creative, valuable knowledge-workers, giving them the training and the tools they need, and retaining them through good salaries and incentives.
Only when your audience grows to know and trust your local journalists – and they will if you let them – only then will you fully know the wisdom of the investment.
Let’s trust each other and make the “Network for the Future” the truly visionary idea it is.