Public Radio and Broadcast TV Aren’t (Yet) the Answer to the Local News Problem
Recent scholarship offers cautions about leaning on these platforms.
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
As the breadth of the crisis in local news has become increasingly clear, and as responses such as the rise of new digital nonprofits make progress but also leave considerable gaps, people are increasingly casting about for large-scale alternative solutions. This week I want to offer a few words of caution about two of those—public radio and local television. My texts for this sermon are two recent academic offerings that shed important light.
There is less than you may think to local public radio
Prof. Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Kennedy School and its Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy (where I serve on the advisory board) recently published an important study on local public radio stations’ news efforts. It can be read (and seems to have been intended) as a call for much greater investment in local news on public radio, and that would be fine by me. But I took away from it a very sobering impression of where we stand today.
Patterson’s data is impressive in breadth and depth. He surveyed the assets and perspective of executives at more than 200 public radio stations. What did he find? Most stations “lack the news gathering capacity to be a substantial source of daily news and public affairs information.”
Many of us, when we think of local public radio, may have images of the quite significant reporting operations at a few of the larger stations, such as those in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. But Patterson establishes that these are exceptions, not the rule. In fact, just 13% of stations—fewer than one in seven, and only about 25 in the whole country—consider themselves the leading outlet in terms of news coverage in their locale. It seems a pretty safe assumption that neutral observers would place those numbers even lower. And, of course, the problem is most acute in the smaller cities and rural areas where the crisis of local news is most advanced and the peril greatest.
The median size of these newsrooms—nationally-- is just 6-10 people, and the average total station budget below $2 million (with the median likely much lower), of which around 30% is devoted to news. Some of them do lots of great original local programming on the air and online; many do not.
Patterson points out, as many of us have observed with frustration, that most local stations have been slow in their digital transformation over the last two decades, and that they generally remain far too radio-centric, even in the face of much greater consumer choice, particularly when people are in their cars (a key venue for all radio)— and especially in the wake of the reduced commuting rates during the pandemic and since then. The stations themselves more or less admit this: fewer than one third claim that their own digital efforts have had a substantial impact on the quantity or quality of news they deliver.
Well, you might say, this all describes an opportunity, especially as nonprofit funding for local news may be about to grow markedly. Perhaps. But only about half of stations say they could be their area’s leading local news outlet even with substantial new funding—again likely an overcount. The study also asked if stations believe they have the capacity to raise significantly more money. They largely said they do not, and “this problem is most acute in the communities most affected by the decline of the local newspaper,” that is, where the money is needed most. (You can find something of a counterpoint to all of this here.)
Local TV news remains mostly stuck on crime and weather
Some people, having observed the failure of most public radio stations to rise to the occasion of the local news crisis, have recently begun to place increasing hopes on local commercial television news. Before they get too enthusiastic about that notion, they ought to read News Hole: The Demise of Local Journalism and Political Engagement, by professors Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless, which just won the Shorenstein Center’s Goldsmith Book Prize for academic books.
Hayes and Lawless did their own study, in this case of 31 TV stations. Unfortunately, they found that local TV hasn’t risen to the occasion either: “There is no evidence of a consistent uptick in coverage of local government.” Specifically, as local newspapers retreated, the authors saw local TV advance in three markets (but with the quantity of coverage there growing only in single digit percentages), while coverage decreased in four markets and one showed no change. Overall, they observed, “local TV news is popular not because of its public affairs content, but because consumers like its staples: crime and weather.” Again, to be sure, there are outstanding exceptions.
Even more concerning, News Hole suggests that TV news may simply not be a great way to inform viewers about civic affairs. The authors’ study, for example, found that residents who regularly read the local newspaper were 11% more likely to be able to name their school superintendent than non-readers. But regular viewer of local TV news were actually one percent less likely to be able to do so than non-viewers.
I’m not opposed to trying to reverse these unhappy realities, but I am against ignoring them while investing scarce philanthropic dollars. The significant existing distribution for both local public radio and local broadcast television— TV remains the top source for local news— make them tempting grantees. Yet there needs to be greater recognition than I believe there is today that any investment in either local public radio or local TV will need to be aimed not just at scaling efforts already underway but also at fundamentally transforming them along the way.
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