As the chorus calling on public media to add more local journalists grows, let’s be mindful of the specific ways adding journalists can dramatically improve local public service. Just by enlarging its newsroom to four, five or six journalists, a station will gain the human wherewithal to unleash a proper beat system. Beats cause reporters to become specialists. With a news staff of six, for example, a newsroom could have reporters well versed in the actors, history and nuances of a starter set of beats — education, health, business, law, environment and arts/culture. These specialists are more likely to break original stories, to know when it’s important to follow up, and to extract meaningful news analysis from a week’s events.
WLRN Radio and the Miami Herald have been collaborating on multiplatform news production for eight years, but the investigative-reporting package that they published this month, “Neglected to Death,” took their partnership to a new level. The package of radio reports by WLRN’s Kenny Malone and articles by Herald reporters grew out of a year-long computer-assisted reporting project that revealed systemic failings in the regulation of Florida’s assisted-living facilities. Over several months, Malone followed up on the Herald investigative team’s findings of incidents of negligence and abuse to produce two character-driven radio features, the first of which aired locally and on NPR’s Morning Edition. Malone’s first piece focused on the case of Aurora Navas, an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient and facility resident who wandered outdoors one night without supervision and drowned in 18 inches of water. It was one of many accidental deaths for which Florida regulators failed to probe or prosecute.
Whenever public broadcasting is threatened by hostile politicians, the conventional wisdom is to circle the wagons and fire back. As a member of the public television community for almost 50 years, I would rather see today’s challenge as an opportunity to reassess public television’s goals and achievements. Perhaps we should do this every few years to make sure we haven’t gone astray in our aims and practices. In many ways I think NPR has surpassed its original goals and promises, but public television is another matter. We have accomplished many things.
“Let’s face it,” writes a prominent pubradio station news director, “despite 40 years of evolution, we have produced a lot of journalism, but we still lack full commitment. Especially local news commitment.”