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.
Between the years 1995 and 2010, public television stations’ cash revenues rose, plateaued and then crashed with the 2008 recession, falling altogether 14 percent. Public radio stations, meanwhile, expanded their revenue by 67 percent,
In four years that include the deepening recession, fiscal 2008 through 2012, public broadcasting stations in 24 states have lost a total of $85 million in financial support from state governments, according to a study released last week by Free Press, a progressive media-reform group. Those states reduced spending on public media by 42 percent of their 2008 amount. Free Press, which has joined the defense of federal and state aid to public media, gave the study a timely release date, one week before the congressional Super Committee’s Nov. 23  deadline to cut vast sums from the federal budget and deficit. “As federal lawmakers are considering making further cuts to public broadcasting nationally, we wanted to make sure they understood the full picture of public broadcasting in their states,” said Josh Stearns, co-author of the study and associate program director of Free Press.
When President Clinton had just taken office in 1993, Current asked an assortment of outside-the-Beltway people connected with public broadcasting to write open letters to him about the field’s public-service potential. One was Bob Larson, then president of Detroit’s public TV station, WTVS, and originator of the local City for Youth outreach project and the national Nitty Gritty City Group. Mr. President:
Your messages to the American people have reflected a fundamental commitment to reconciliation — bridge-building that both creates understanding and celebrates diversity. Please consider the potential of public broadcasting as a means of renewing community in our land. Already, at the beginning of your administration, the treasures of public television were evident in the Washington ceremonies: in the inaugural parade, characters from programs that have so passionately nurtured the minds and spirits of our children; and the magnificent presence of Maya Angelou, who recently graced the national PBS schedule (in “Maya Angelou: Rainbow in the Clouds”) to tell a story of healing in the city.
NPR was shaken, President Frank Mankiewicz and other top managers toppled and some 60 staffers laid off in the network’s 1983 financial crisis. NPR, then largely dependent on federal aid through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, had expanded activities to generate nonfederal money. But those efforts contributed to NPR’s near-collapse. The U.S. Government Accounting Office found that revenues lagged behind budget, expenditures exceeded budget and management lacked systems to monitor the situation, resulting in a $6.4 million deficit in fiscal year 1983. In this statement, Frederick D. Wolf, director of GAO’s Accounting and Financial Management Division, reviewed factors in NPR’s fiscal crisis and cutbacks that barely enabled it to break even at that point.