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Public radio’s important role in local news

by THOMAS E. PATTERSON The Conversation | March 26, 2023 at 1:47 a.m.

Since 2005, more than 2,500 local newspapers have closed, with more on the way.

Responses to the decline have ranged from luring billionaires to buy local dailies to encouraging digital startups. But the number of interested billionaires is limited, and many digital startups have struggled to generate the revenue and audience needed to survive.

The local news crisis is also a democracy crisis. Communities that have lost their newspaper have seen a decline in voting rates, the sense of solidarity among community members, awareness of local affairs and government responsiveness.

Largely overlooked in the effort to save local news are the nation's local public radio stations.

Among the reasons for that oversight is that radio operates in a crowded space. Local public radio stations face competition from other stations. The widely held perception that public radio caters to the interests of people with higher income and education may also keep it largely out of the conversation.

But local public radio should be part of the conversation about saving local news.

Trust in public broadcasting ranks above that of other major U.S. news outlets. Moreover, public radio production costs are relatively low -- not as low as a digital startup, but far less than that of a newspaper or television station. And local public radio stations operate in every state and reach 98 percent of American homes, including those in news deserts that no longer have a daily paper.

Finally, local public radio is no longer just radio. It has expanded into digital production and has the potential to expand further.

To assess local public radio's potential for helping to fill the local information gap, I conducted an in-depth survey of National Public Radio's 253 member stations.

The central finding: Local public radio has a staffing problem. Stations have considerable potential but aren't in a position to make it happen.

That's not for lack of interest. Over 90 percent of the stations I surveyed said they want to play a larger role in meeting their community's information needs.

To do so, most stations would need to expand their undersized news staff.

Sixty percent of local stations have 10 or fewer people on their news staff, and that's by a generous definition of what constitutes staff. Respondents included in this count broadcast and digital reporters, editors, hosts, producers and others who contribute to local news and public affairs content in its various forms, as well as those who directly provide technical or other support to those staff members.

Although the staffing problem is more pronounced at stations in communities where local news is in short supply, staff size at nearly every station falls far short of even a moderate-sized daily newspaper.

The Des Moines Register, for example, has a daily circulation of 35,000 copies and a nearly 50-person newsroom--a staff larger than 95 percent of local public radio stations.

One consequence of the staffing problem is that local public radio is not all that local.

The survey found that in the period from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, only about two hours of locally produced news programming was carried on the average station, some of it in the form of talk shows and some as repeat programming. For stations with a news staff of 10 or fewer people, the daily average of locally produced news--even when including repeat programming--is barely more than one hour.

Stations with a news staff of 10 or fewer people were half as likely as those with more than 20 to have a reporter routinely assigned to cover local government. Some stations are so short of staff that they do not do any original reporting, relying entirely on other outlets, such as the local newspaper, for the stories they air.

A small news staff also means it's hard to create content for the Web, as illustrated by stations' websites. Stations with 10 or fewer people in their newsroom were half as likely as those with a staff size of more than 10 to feature local news on their homepage. A local station's website cannot become the "go-to" place for local news on demand if the station fails to provide it.

With more staff, local public radio stations could help fill the information gap created by the decline of local newspapers. They could afford to assign a reporter full time to cover local government bodies like city councils and school boards.

Programming created by NPR, Public Radio International and other content providers accounts for much of the appeal of local stations. But it can be a handicap in areas where many potential listeners have values and interests that aren't met by national programming and where the station offers little in the way of local coverage.

How much new money would local stations require to expand their coverage? Based on our respondents' estimates and a targeting of the funding for the communities most in need, roughly $150 million annually would be required.

That won't be easy, but needs to get done. As the Knight Foundation's Eric Newton noted, local news gives people the information they "need to run their communities and their lives."

Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard Kennedy School.

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