Report looks at public media’s transformation into ‘frontline’ providers of local news

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Mike Janssen, using DALL-E 3

A new report released today explores public media’s potential to become a primary source for local news in communities across the U.S. Some stations are well on their way and others can’t find their way. This report serves up some insights that offer hope and possibilities.

Everyone knows about the tectonic shifts that have reshaped journalism in the past decade or so. Smaller community newspapers have stopped printing, gone digital only or gone under. Experienced, hard-working journalists have been left in the dust. Voracious hedge funds have grabbed newspapers by the throat, starving them of the oxygen and talent they need to serve the public. Billionaires have come to rescue local journalism by acquiring prestigious Pulitzer Award–winning dailies but have grown impatient with revenue losses, and have added to the wave of mass layoffs in the world of news.

How will journalism survive? Taking a page from the public media playbook, some for-profit newspapers have begun selling subscriptions and asking for reader donations and even foundation grants. They are struggling to replace advertising revenues that have plunged thanks to the explosion of marketing potential on social media and, more recently, changes to media consumption during the COVID pandemic.

When there aren’t any journalists covering state houses, local governments, school board meetings or local businesses, who will hold public officials and corporations accountable? When newsrooms disappear or become shadows of their former selves who will tell the stories that bring communities together and offer solutions?

As a longtime member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, I’m well aware that nonprofit news organizations have cropped up all over the country. Some of them are committed to serving underserved audiences. Sounds like public media’s original mission, right? But these relatively small-scale, digital-only startups can’t replace the newsrooms that have been downsized or completely shuttered. Can public media? How?

These are the central questions driving the Wyncote Foundation’s new report, “Reimagining Public Media: Strategic Leadership and Innovation in Local News.”

Through dozens of off-the-record interviews, the co-authors — Feather Houstoun, Mark Fuerst, Sarah Lutman and Paulina Velasco —have boiled down a bunch of recipes cooked up by public media news organizations across the country. What tactics and strategies do these news operations share and how do their approaches differ? How have their executives made decisions to let go of legacy programs, projects and people to build the journalism service their community needs?

Current has covered many of these stations and their initiatives: newsroom expansion through mergers and acquisitions, audience research and listening sessions, investigative journalism, community engagement, collaborations with local media and digital-first projects such as podcasts, etc. Our six-year, Wyncote-backed Local that Works project was all about spotlighting innovative examples of content and engagement-driven audience development.

The point of this new report is to flesh out the strategies that are proving successful — mostly in major markets with very large news staffs. Many of these stations, however, still haven’t figured out just how to sustain their growing newsrooms as terrestrial radio audiences wane and foundation grants run out. No one has come up with a sure-fire way to raise money on digital platforms.

Smaller stations face uphill struggles with these same questions. They often serve communities that are veritable news deserts and in many cases they’re the only news source in rural communities for miles around. They cannot fill the vacuum of local news and information alone.

This report is a narrative that illustrates one kind of impact. What I’d love to see is the data — the key performance indicators and metrics that are guiding decisions. In some cases, numbers can speak louder than words.

Comrades in this battle need to know what success means when it comes to audience size and diversity and revenues from on-air and digital platforms. That includes evidence of growing listenership, viewership and readership from people under the age of 30.

How are you doing with that? Are you engaging Tik-Tok users and YouTube-fluent digital natives to ensure your station’s viability and visibility on the platforms where younger and diverse audiences live? Until this kind of data is shared, we don’t really know how to measure progress, or which strategies are ripe for experimentation by others.

Still, I encourage you read this report and let its findings percolate. Come to the webinar that Current is co-hosting with Public Media Company Wednesday about Press Forward, the half-billion–dollar fund created to fuel local journalism. This report and the webinar are opportunities for people throughout your organization — executives, journalists, fundraisers — to start or continue a critical conversation about what it might take to become frontline news provider in your community, your region, your state.

What must you do, and what might you stop doing, to get there? Who can you partner with? Are there opportunities for NPR and PBS stations to work together? How might you diversify your station’s revenues to secure the resources it will take to build the kind of information service your listeners, viewers and reader need — the kind of service envisioned by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967?

As some of you know, the Wyncote Foundation has been a major supporter of many public media organizations, including Current. (Over the past 13 years, Wyncote has provided more than $4.7 million in grants that helped sustain Current through some of the same challenges that local news organizations are facing.)

The Wyncote Foundation provided the final version of the report to me a few days in advance. They did not require that we publish it, nor have they read this column in advance.

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