How NPR and stations are working together to expand regional news

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Howard Sanders

Gulf States Newsroom health care reporter Shalina Chatlani gives an elbow bump to Dr. Robert Smith, one of the founders of the community health center movement, at his home in Jackson, Miss., in March.

Gigi Douban admits she was skeptical when she first heard of a proposal for NPR and public radio stations in the Gulf States to build a journalism collaboration. To Douban, news director at WBHM in Birmingham, Ala., it sounded like “this big grand idea” to collaborate across state lines in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. 

She wondered, “How do you get people to care, who are in Alabama, about what’s happening in Louisiana or Mississippi?” 

“It was one of those things that sounded amazing, but in those early days it was hard to get your head around how this would look and how it would work logistically,” Douban told Current.

NPR announced plans for the Gulf States Newsroom in February 2020 with the promise of increasing journalism resources in the region and backing by a $1.2 million grant from CPB. 

Douban’s doubts dissipated after the Gulf States Newsroom hired Priska Neely in September as its managing editor and three reporters who are now covering criminal justice, health care and wealth and poverty. 

“With under-resourced stations that have limited capacity to cover the news that we need to cover, it’s a welcome thing to have beat reporters who are dedicated not only to their beats, but also filling in the gaps in these local newsrooms at these local stations as well,” Douban said. 

Douban (Photo: Kenwyn Alexander)

Douban, who has led WBHM’s newsroom during planning and launch of the Gulf States Hub, is leaving to become news director at KUOW in Seattle next month. 

She pointed to reporting by Stephan Bisaha, the Gulf States Newsroom reporter on the wealth and poverty beat, on union organizing at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Bisaha’s stories aired on the partner stations and on NPR. Bisaha, who lives in the region, was able to give a story like that “the weight that it deserved,” she said. 

“The more that time goes on, the more trust builds within each of these stations and among the reporters,” Douban said. “… It’s just one of those things that the more you do it, the more you see how it works and … how everyone benefits.”

The Gulf States Newsroom is one of four regional journalism hubs initiated by NPR in partnership with member stations in Texas, California and four Midwest states. 

While some of the four hubs have different editorial focuses, the model has garnered early success at attracting support from major donors, adding reporting capacity to the system and — at the Texas hub — developing new corporate underwriting revenue.

What remains to be seen is whether NPR and partner stations involved in the hubs can turn the early enthusiasm into long-lasting collaboratives that live on past their initial three-year funding terms. 

NPR laid out the ambitious plan to the public radio system in 2017 as a way to improve local, regional and national journalism, and for public radio to attempt to fill gaps left by the decline in newsgathering by commercial media. The hubs also grew out of discussions around the NPR-Member Station Compact as a way to work more closely with stations.  

The hubs are the “regional prong” of NPR’s larger effort to collaborate with member stations through the Collaborative Journalism Network, according to Tamar Charney, NPR’s acting senior director for collaborative journalism. In addition to the hubs, the collaborative has brought together reporters and editors from 100 stations to collaborate on seven beats and topics ranging from criminal justice to health policy. Additionally, the network added a Station Investigations Team in February that works with member station reporters on investigative projects.

Through the hubs model, “we think we can make a difference not only in transforming how stations work with each other and NPR, but also how we can really start to better serve underserved areas by getting the stations … coordinating resources and … coverage,” Charney said.

The first hub, the Texas Newsroom, launched in 2019 and produces live weekday newscasts that air on stations statewide. The California Newsroom and Midwest Newsroom were announced in May 2020 with a focus on building investigative reporting capacity in the regions. In the Gulf States Newsroom, journalists focus on beat reporting on issues important to the three states. 

The unique structures of the hubs “really all came out of conversations with the stations,” said Kathy Goldgeier, NPR’s network hub content manager. “This wasn’t something that NPR imposed on anybody.”

“We worked with the stations there to identify topics that they really all wanted to be covering anyway,” she said. 

While NPR partners with the stations on the hubs, it doesn’t employ hub staffers, and the hubs don’t operate under a separate legal entity. 

In the case of the Gulf States Newsroom, each of the three reporters is employed at one of the partner stations with Neely at WBHM. The stations pay salaries to the hub employees but are reimbursed for those expenses through the grant.  

Eventually an NPR employee may be assigned to more than one of the hubs “to help be connective tissue in between the hub and NPR’s newsroom,” Charney said. But there is “no intention right now that there would be an NPR employee dedicated to any individual hub,” she said.

Exceeding expectations

Before the Gulf States hub started, Mississippi Public Broadcasting Executive Director Ronnie Agnew thought he could assign his network’s news director to take over the project. 

“Of course I realized I couldn’t, because there’s a business side to this,” he said. And so far he’s “ecstatic” with the early progress of the hub.

Agnew

“It’s actually exceeded all of my expectations,” he said.

The hub’s regional coverage is carried by all of the partner stations — which include WWNO in New Orleans and WRKF in Baton Rouge, La. — and quickly reached a national audience on NPR. After the collaborative released its first news story, reporter Shalina Chatlani appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and Weekend Edition Saturday to discuss it. 

“This is a great thing for journalism,” Agnew said. “This is a great thing for journalism in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. … Some of these stories are going to reach the national level with the proper context that they need.”

The hub is also providing support and training for news staff of the partner stations. Neely organizes workshops on a range of topics, including records requests and social media best practices. 

Journalists from WBHM have even sat in on training from the Texas Newsroom. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination in that way and a lot of investment in talent, not just … across the region, but across the system, which is very, very needed,” Douban said.

Having an additional journalist in WBHM’s newsroom also provides flexibility for members of the news team to pick up emerging stories and enhances “our capability to cover big breaking news,” she said. 

“It’s not like we wouldn’t be doing these stories or some of these stories,” MPB’s Agnew said. “But, man, we’ve got more people now. We can tell better stories, we can go into more depth.”

Neely emphasizes the importance of “getting ahead of some of the stereotypes” about the region through the hub’s reporting. For instance, “there is extreme poverty here, but there’s also extreme wealth,” she said.

“I don’t want it to only be downer stories about the problems, I want to focus on the people who are working to change the problems, too,” she added.

Neely

One of the early challenges has been navigating the different governance structures of the partner stations — from state governments to university licensees. “Everything takes longer,” she said. 

Agnew agreed, noting that the partner stations have different back-end systems and procedures for everything from billing systems to travel requirements. When GMs were working out the memo of understanding, for instance, “everything that you might consider minor, it was major,” he said. “‘How are you going to pay people when they travel?’”

But one early solution was to hire a business manager to help navigate those systems, Neely said.

“I do think that it’s key to have someone who can really own that space so that the managing editor … has time to think about the content,” Neely said. Gulf States Newsroom Business Manager Kim Homer “protects me from a lot of stuff,” she said.  

As the collaborative grows, Neely sees possibilities for investigative journalism “to hold officials accountable in this region.” She also envisions more long-form storytelling.

There’s also a plan to make content produced by the Gulf States hub available to all public radio stations in the region, she said.

Collaboration is hard

While leaders of the hubs are encouraged about their prospects for the future, they acknowledge that the process of ramping up has been bumpy because of the nature of collaboration.  

A common refrain among the hub participants is “collaboration is hard.”

“No two entities, people or organizations go about doing things the same way,” NPR’s Charney said. “And when you’re collaborating, people have to agree to work in a certain manner. That just takes time and trust-building and a level of compromise.”

As with so many aspects of life over the past year, the coronavirus pandemic slowed down the hubs’ momentum. “It’s hard to do transformational collaborative work when all of a sudden your whole work life has been thrown up in the air by the pandemic,” Charney said. 

When the first wave of lockdowns hit, station leaders wondered, “‘How do we do this when we’re all not in the building?’” NPR’s Goldgeier said. “And it took a while for everybody to sort of get their pandemic sea legs and then refocus on going forward with this.”

Neely found the first few months in the job lonely in a new city, starting up a new collaborative from home. When people asked her how it was going, she would respond: “It’s a managing editor job, and I have no one to manage and nothing to edit.”

If the pandemic hadn’t required employees to work from home, she would have spent time in each of the different station newsrooms, embedding herself long enough to get to know the people on staff and how their newsrooms operate.

Instead, Neely said, “it was just a lot of awkward Zoom gatherings and figuring out what is this thing and how do I explain it to the staff and how do I make it something that people can be excited about and not just like, ‘What is this one other thing that we have to do?’” 

But one benefit has been “everyone has had to be more agile online and get used to using Slack,” she said.

A boost to investigative reporting

Two of the hubs are focused on investigative journalism, and their coverage is bolstered by a $4.7 million grant from Eric and Wendy Schmidt.

The Midwest Newsroom, which NPR announced last year, is currently in a “steep startup phase,” said Iowa Public Radio Executive Director Myrna Johnson. The partner stations recently have clarified their mission to focus on expanding investigative reporting on the region. 

“We’re hoping that this will really raise the quality of our journalism overall, both in our individual newsrooms and regionally,” Johnson said. “And we’re really aware that the investigative reporting in particular is … really disappearing as newspapers are pulling back. And so we think it’s a place that we can really offer our region some real value.”

The collaborative is led by KCUR in Kansas City, St. Louis Public Radio, Iowa Public Radio and Nebraska Public Media, with NPR as the national partner. All public radio stations in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska have access to the coverage produced through the collaborative. 

In addition to data reporter Daniel Wheaton, the collaborative plans to hire five employees, including a managing editor, senior content editor, investigations editor and a second reporter. 

Already Wheaton has provided regional data journalism that the stations didn’t previously have access to, such as a county-by-county map of vaccination rates for the four states in the region.

The Midwest Newsroom adds “an investigative component to our reporting that we just don’t have the capacity to do without this collaboration,” Johnson said. 

Each of the lead stations in the Midwest Newsroom also collaborates on agricultural reporting through Harvest Public Media, which launched as one of CPB’s Local Journalism Centers in 2010. 

“I feel good about the fact that we have found a way to keep Harvest sustainable,” Johnson said. “So I’m hopeful that we can do the same on this one.”

“Now we have the scaffolding in place, we are in a really good position for broader growth.” 

Ethan Toven-Lindsey, executive editor of news, KQED

The lead stations in Harvest Public Media each brought on at least one staffer onto their payroll, Johnson said. She doesn’t know if that will be the sustainability plan for the hub. The stations are in the early stages in thinking about how to keep the hub going after the initial grant cycle. They plan to bring in an outside consultant to help guide those decisions. 

But one lesson Johnson has learned from Harvest Public Media is the importance of buy-in from the stations and the “commitment of the stations to take and own pieces of it and to own the collaboration.”

In California, the hub is farther along, with two managing editors and an investigative editor who have assisted stations with investigations. The reporting has covered topics such as housing and nursing homes, and the team is planning projects around public utilities and wildfires, said Ethan Toven-Lindsey, executive editor of news for KQED in San Francisco.

Toven-Lindsey sees the California news hub as “a permanent shift in the way we work together.”

Beyond investigations, the hub is assisting stations in covering breaking news events. Its staff also takes a lead role in producing special broadcasts, such as live briefings by Gov. Gavin Newsom and other significant news events.  

During wildfire season, the hub will function as a “key conduit” to help stations plan and coordinate their coverage and resources, he said.  

“The hub has facilitated relationships and conversations that allow all of us to better share needs and learnings, and serve our audience,” he said. It will also play a role in facilitating newsroom training for stations throughout the state. 

The California hub has gone through “growing pains” as it ramped up during the pandemic, he said. Managing Editor Joanne Griffith had to build “a lot of the processes and workflows from scratch.” 

“But I think that now we have the scaffolding in place, we are in a really good position for broader growth,” he said.

‘Shared vision’ attracts major donors

So far, NPR and its station partners have raised more than $10 million for the regional hubs. About 81% of the funding has come from individual donors, according to Pamela Thompson, NPR’s senior executive director of development. Foundations have also provided significant support. 

Seth MacFarland, an actor and creator of TV shows such as Family Guy, was one of the first major donors to support the hubs. He donated $2 million to NPR in 2018 to help launch the initiative. In addition to the Schmidts’ $4.7 million gift, the hubs have also attracted two anonymous $1 million donations. 

The startup costs for each hub are about $2 million, Thompson said, with the majority of those expenses going to salaries and shared infrastructure. But the costs vary depending on the cost of living in different regions and resource needs of the stations. 

Since NPR’s development team began talking with funders about the hubs in 2017, the staff has found that “these grand visions are really compelling to donors,” Thompson said.

“Our reach across the country is unique, and knitting our network to get 200-plus newsrooms together is compelling,” Thompson said. “They want to know we’re working together, combining our resources, sharing expertise. … It shows we invest their money wisely.”

In general, collaboration “is always attractive to donors,” Thompson said. It resolves questions about how their money is invested and managed, and enables them to look at the problems you’re trying to solve and how. 

Thompson is hopeful that attracting early major gifts for the collaborative network can lead to more successful fundraising. Large donations can inspire “confidence for other donors” to say “‘if they’ve vetted NPR and this idea, we’ll consider it as well,’” Thompson said.

NPR is also working collaboratively with stations on sustainability of the hubs. A foundation approached NPR with an interest in supporting immigration coverage. NPR shared information about Texas Public Radio’s work on immigration reporting at the southern border and the Texas hub. The foundation eventually awarded a two-year $500,000 grant split between TPR and the hub, according to Dianne Brace, NPR’s senior director of institutional giving. 

“We spend a lot of time working with our stations,” Thompson said. “And these hubs provide a really nice structure for us to tell our story together. It’s a shared objective, a shared vision. So it takes some focus, just like the hub teams take some structured focus, but we really dedicate a lot of time to that, and we’re making progress.” 

Chuck Holmes, former WBHM GM who helped develop the Gulf States Newsroom, said that national fundraising for the hubs, especially in the Gulf States, will be crucial to their longevity after the initial grant cycle.

“I frankly don’t think there’s enough wealth and enough donors in the region necessarily, at least initially, to sustain the Gulf States Newsroom,” he said. 

“It’s hard enough raising money for your own station and its needs, and keeping your own local newsroom going,” he added. “The hope is that … by creating an entity like Gulf States Newsroom you’ve got something to sell to donors.”

Sustainability head start

The Texas hub has a leg up on the others when it comes to sustainability.

In addition to reporting collaborations, the Texas Newsroom partners produce six live newscasts every weekday that air on public radio stations throughout the state.

The hub has earned new underwriting revenues through those newscasts. Nico Leone, CEO of KERA in Dallas, estimates the newscasts have brought in up to about $250,000 in annual revenues that are reinvested in the hub. 

“From a sustainability standpoint, we’ve got some money to raise moving forward, but we’ve got a pretty good head start with the joint underwriting work,” he said. 

The Texas Newsroom was the first hub to launch in 2019 and had already established some of its collaborative journalism processes through its work on Texas Standard, a statewide weekday news program. 

“We’ve really developed … a really good way of working together in breaking-news situations, whether it’s just in one part of the state or across the whole state. And I think that that strength is probably rooted in the collaborations that preceded the Texas Newsroom,” Leone said.

On the journalism side, the Texas Newsroom gives the stations “a lot more heft,” he said. “We’re able to share content and work together more broadly than just exclusively through” hub staff, he said. 

That experience in collaborating helped when storms hit the state in February and “everybody was scrambling, in part because large chunks of our operations and a pretty good percentage of our staff and multiple markets didn’t have power, didn’t have water,” Leone said. 

“We were able to work pretty effectively … to tell the story locally, to tell the story regionally as a state, to help tell the story to national audiences, to support each other as we were dealing with our own issues,” Leone said.

Despite the stations’ experiences with collaborating, it’s always a work in progress, he said. “We have to work every day and every week and every month on … communication, just on all the details that make collaboration run smoothly,” Leone said. 

“I don’t think we’re ever going to move out of learning mode with these,” he added.

The Texas hub recently hired Corrie MacLaggan as managing editor. She succeeds Mark Memmott, who retired in February, Leone said. With the transition, plans for the Texas Newsroom’s next steps and priorities are up for evaluation.

Leone sees a “huge opportunity to do more digital work together. I think we’ve only started to scratch the surface there, in part because it was built around a newscast, breaking news and Texas Standard strategy.”

Expansion on the horizon

The broader vision of the hubs within NPR is also in transition with the recent hire of Kenya Young as managing editor for collaborative journalism. 

Young has yet to begin in the role, where she will oversee the regional newsrooms, but “it’s going to be really up to her to chart a course for how this expands,” Charney said.

Still, the general plan is for NPR to continue to add regional hubs in parts of the country “where there’s both interest from the member stations and a need for it as well as, obviously, the resources to fund it,” Charney said.

“The intention is absolutely to continue expanding,” she added. But where the expansions will happen has yet to be determined. 

Though each hub is different, they provide lessons to NPR and stations that can be applied to new hubs going forward, helping to speed up the process whenever decisions are made about the next collaborative newsroom.  

Two years ago, as NPR and the Texas stations were working on launching the Texas Newsroom, “we spent hours and hours and hours in meetings,” Goldgeier said. “We had all sorts of different working groups and all sorts of different topics, and we hashed everything out.”

Through that work NPR has developed templates to make launching a new hub go more smoothly. “We’re not reinventing the wheel each time,” Goldgeier said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article contained a map that displayed incorrect information about participating stations in the Midwest Newsroom. No stations in Illinois are participating, but stations in Kansas are.

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