A multiyear initiative led by NPR, Impact of Government, eventually will put two additional state-level reporters to work in each of the 50 states, along with a small team of editors and data analysts at the network. Pilot coverage in eight states will begin in March [NPR request for proposals].
The $1.8 million kickoff grant from the Open Society Foundations, founded and chaired by financier George Soros, will cover planning and part of pilot costs, but launching the full project will require $17 million, and sustaining it will cost $18 million a year, according to Ron Schiller, NPR senior v.p. of fundraising and president of the NPR Foundation.
The project, developed during strategic planning talks over the past 18 months, is public radio’s first major effort to make a fundraising case for a combined local/national project. NPR will join stations in asking funders to back their aspiration to take up enterprise and long-form reporting on a beat once dominated by daily newspapers — state government and public affairs — that public radio most often covers as daily spot news.
Two reporters will be assigned to public radio newsrooms in each state, digging deep into “meaty, serious topics” such as immigration, health care, transportation, housing and education, said Kinsey Wilson, senior v.p. and g.m. of NPR Digital Media.
One journalist in each state will be the lead blogger and the other a radio reporter, but they’ll collaborate on coverage in both audio and text. “It’s not a completely split division of labor,” said Wilson. “We’re trying to find ways for reporters to work across a variety of platforms and model new kinds of reporting workflows.”
The project is designed to “strengthen journalism in local markets where NPR member stations already have a presence, and to do it in a way that is consistent with the topics we cover,” Wilson said. After the pilot, the project will add 17 states in 2012, and then double to cover the country.
The proposal aims to fill gaps in accountability news coverage that have widened as newspapers cut their staffs.
The number of statehouse reporters dropped sharply over this decade, according to Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of Capitolbeat, an association of journalists covering state-level news. Staffing of that beat declined from 524 full-time reporters in 2003 to 355 in 2009, according to the American Journalism Review’s latest survey of the field. Capitolbeat’s membership, which historically has tracked very closely to AJR’s findings, has dropped another 15 percent since the last survey, she said.
By locating reporters in 50 states, the initiative also builds NPR’s capacity to produce in-depth national coverage on how government decisions play out in different states or regions.
“We are in a position to cover all 50 states and draw comparisons between them by leveraging the resources we have and by making a relatively small investment,” Schiller said. “The other advantage is that it requires us to think about fundraising in a different way and to talk about ourselves as ‘public radio’ as opposed to individual entities.”
Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, beginning a campaign to end federal aid to pubcasting, cited not only NPR’s firing of news analyst Juan Williams, but also blasted the network for working with “far-left bomb-thrower George Soros,” a billionaire financier and backer of liberal causes.
Ron Schiller responded in a Current interview: “We’ve been talking to [Open Society Institute] for a year about this project, so there really is no connection — none at all.” Referring to O’Reilly’s implication that Soros influenced NPR’s decision on the dismissal, he added, “We’re very clear about our firewall here. We always have been, and always will be.”
O’Reilly’s heated criticism of Soros and his philanthropy was “regrettable,” Schiller said, but it won’t undercut fundraising appeals to other donors. “I think that our audience and donors will not be dissuaded as a result. I’ve lived through plenty of controversies in other nonprofit organizations and am completely confident based on responses I’m seeing.”
Soros foundations have put $7 billion into projects supporting the rule of law, human rights and other causes around the world since 1979, including $636 million in 2009, according to the Open Society Foundations.
Goal for several big-city pubradio newsrooms: 100 reporters each, three licensees announced earlier in October.
NPR requests proposals from stations interested in participating.
Open Society Institute news release
American Journalism Review‘s 2009 Count of Statehouse Reporters
American Thinker webzine and other right-wing commenters accused Soros of financing media to further his political agenda.