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Public radio can help solve the local news crisis, but it will require expansion of staff and coverage


Since 2005, more than 2,500 local newspapers, most of them weeklies, are closedwith more closures on the way.

Reactions to the drop vary enticing billionaires to buy local dailies to encourage digital startups. But the number of interested billionaires is limited, and many digital startups have struggled to generate the revenue and audience needed to survive.

The local news crisis is more than a problem of locked newsrooms and laid-off journalists. It is also a democracy crisis. Communities that have lost their newspaper have seen a decline in voting percentages, the feeling of solidarity between the members of the community, knowledge of local affairs And government responsiveness.

Largely overlooked in the effort to salvage local news are the nation’s local public radio stations.

One of the reasons for that oversight is that radio operates in a crowded space. Unlike a local newspaper, which largely has the print market to itself, local public radio stations face competition from other stations. The widespread perception that public radio promotes people’s interests higher income and education may also have largely kept it out of the conversation.

But if a scholar who studies mediaI believe that local public radio should be part of the conversation about saving local news.

Since 2005, more than 2,500 local newspapers have closed.
Don Farrell/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Advantages are trust, low costs and reach

There are reasons to believe that public radio can help close the local news gap.

Trust in public broadcasting ranks above that of other major U.S. news outlets. Moreover, the production costs of public radio are relatively low – not as low as those of a digital startup, but much less than that of a newspaper or television station. And local public radio stations operate in every state and range 98% of American homesincluding those in news deserts – places that no longer have a daily newspaper today.

Finally, local public radio is no longer just radio. It has grown into digital manufacturing and has the potential to expand further.

To assess the potential of local public radio to help fill the local information gap, I conducted an in-depth survey of the nation’s 253 public radio stations. connected stations.

The central finding of that study: Local public radio has a personnel problem. Stations have a lot of potential, but are not yet able to live up to it.

It’s not for lack of interest. More than 90% of the stations I surveyed said they want to play a bigger role in meeting their community’s information needs. As one of our respondents said, “The need for the kind of journalism that the public media can provide is becoming more evident by the day. The desire of our editors is strong.”

To take on a larger role, most stations would need to expand their underpowered news staff.

Sixty percent of local stations have 10 or fewer people on their news staff, and that’s a broad definition of what staff is. Respondents included in this census are broadcast and digital reporters, editors, presenters, producers and others who contribute to local news and public affairs content in its various forms, as well as those who directly provide technical or other support to those staff members. In addition to full-time employees, stations have been asked to include part-time employees and any students, interns or freelancers who contribute regularly.

The staffing problem is greatest in communities that have lost their newspapers or where local news gathering has been greatly reduced. Many of these communities were judged by respondents to have below-average incomes, limiting the local station’s fundraising potential.

While the staffing problem is more pronounced at stations in communities where local news is scarce, staffing at almost every station falls far short of even a medium-sized daily newspaper.

The Des Moines Registryfor example, has a daily circulation of 35,000 copies and a newsroom of nearly 50 people – a workforce of more than 95% of local public radio stations.

Limitations on potential

A consequence of the personnel problem is that local public radio is not really that ‘local’.

The study found that in the 13-hour period from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, only about two hours of locally produced news programming aired on the average station, partly in the form of talk shows and partly as reruns. computer programming. For stations with a news staff of 10 or fewer people, the daily average of locally produced news – including repeat programs – is barely more than an hour.

This is just one indication of the limitations of a substandard newsroom.

For example, stations with a news staff of 10 or fewer people were only half as likely as stations with more than 20 people to routinely appoint a reporter to report on local government. Some stations are so understaffed that they do not provide original coverage and rely entirely on other outlets, such as the local newspaper, for the stories they broadcast.

A small news team also means it’s difficult to create content for the web, as evidenced by station websites. The stations with 10 or fewer people in their newsroom were only half as likely as stations with more than 10 employees to put local news on their home page. A local station’s website cannot become the “go-to” place for residents seeking on-demand local news if the station does not provide it.

Lawn signs in different colors advertise local candidates.
Who covers local political races when a town’s newspaper has gone under?
AP Photo/Ryan J. Foley

The commitment to democracy

With more staff, local public radio stations could help fill the information gap created by the decline of local newspapers. They could afford to employ a full-time reporter to cover local government agencies such as city councils and school boards.

It would still be a challenge for stations in rural areas that span multiple communities, but that challenge is also one that newspapers in rural areas have always faced and found ways to deal with in the past.

With sufficient staff, local channels could also make their programs really ‘local’, which would increase their appeal to the public.

Programming created by NPR, PRX and other content providers accounts for much of the appeal of local stations. But it can be a handicap in areas where many potential listeners have values ​​and interests that national programs fail to meet and where the station offers little local coverage. As one respondent pointed out, stations must provide coverage “that reflects their entire community”.

How much new money would local stations need to expand their reach? Based on our respondents’ estimates and a focus of funding on the communities most in need, approximately $150 million would be needed annually.

Since these communities are also usually those in lower-than-average income areas, funding should largely come from outside sources. It won’t be easy, but it has to be done. As Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation pointed out, local news gives people the information they need “must run their communities and their lives.”

This story has been corrected to include the name of one of the two content providers to public radio stations, PRX.

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