BY KINSEY WILSON · APRIL 29, 2020
Efforts to address the crisis in local journalism have accelerated in recent years, but not fast enough to arrest a more than decade-long decline in news gathering capacity that many view as a profound threat to democracy.
Google, Facebook, and Knight have committed close to $1 billion to the problem in just the last few years. Organizations ranging from the American Journalism Project, to ProPublica to Report for America have launched significant local news initiatives.
But the question looming over all of these efforts is whether they can truly turn the tide. As Ann Marie Lapinski, former editor of the Chicago Tribune and head of the Nieman journalism fellowship at Harvard put it in an article headlined Journalism needs a Strategy: “A central challenge for the industry is whether innovation, new platforms, and alternative ownership structures can progress fast enough to make up for the loss of legacy journalism.”
The financial fallout from the global pandemic has given new urgency to the question as more and more newspapers face financial extinction and some 36,000 journalists have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced in just the last six weeks.
Michael Luo, writing for the New Yorker, suggests that the economic shutdown created by the spread of COVID-19, has cast profound doubt on the future of ad-supported news and with it, the entire media ecosystem. “The question at this point,” he writes, “is how much of it can survive and how can it be rebuilt.”
There’s clearly no silver-bullet. Calls for Congressional relief may help in the short run, but will do nothing to alter the disruption of traditional media business models. And accelerating investment in local news startups runs up against the question of how quickly those ventures — crucially dependent on individual leadership and community connection — can actually scale.
There’s one area of potential promise, though, that has been largely overlooked, even as media organizations have begun to move from a dependence on ad revenue to a reliance on membership and subscription: namely the role that public radio could play in speeding the transformation of the local news ecosystem.
With more than 250 locally run news organizations across the country, a deeply entrenched public service mission and a long history of member support, public radio embodies many of the editorial and business-model attributes that local news startups aspire to build.
And with over $1.2 billion in annual revenue and a largely centralized digital infrastructure that can serve the entire system, it is both self-sustaining and scalable.
Among its core attributes:
This is not to say that public radio by itself is the answer. It suffers from some of the same institutional challenges as other legacy news media. Radio has been slow to be disrupted and innovation in public radio has been uneven. There are also cultural and governance issues that often get in the way of needed change.
Yet at a time when media models are shifting to a reliance on subscription and membership support; when local media is attempting to build relationships with foundations and major donors; when digital audio listening is on the ascent; and when not-for-profit models are challenging previously dominant commercial models, there is not only much to learn from public radio, but much to build upon.
The question is how to leverage those assets without getting bound up in some of the institutional obstacles to change and to do so with a speed and conviction that is suited to the urgency of the moment.
Simply throwing money at existing institutions is not likely to yield the best results, whether that money is directed to public radio, newspaper chains or even digital startups.
A more promising and scalable model would be to provide funding for business outcomes that compel collaboration across existing institutional boundaries — in this case by combining smartly-run local digital startups with innovative and well-managed public radio stations.
They are already aligned in important ways in terms of mission and business model. And they have the potential to bring complementary strengths to the table:
- The best public radio stations have broad, general interest orientation; while the smartest startups tend to focus on selected areas of coverage where they can differentiate themselves and deliver journalism of distinction.
- Digital startups tend to be savvier about exploiting new technology and reaching younger audiences. Where public radio still enjoys enormous reach, allowing it to amplify its reporting.
- Both, at this stage, tend to have similarly sized reporting staffs.
- Public radio enjoys wide public support, but from an aging listener base. Digital startups are still in a growth phase, need runway, but have an opportunity to build loyalty and reach among younger, more diverse audiences.
How would this best be undertaken? I recommend a three-pronged approach:
- Rapid research: Examine the most promising models that have been pursued to date where the advantages of legacy and digital development have been combined:
Start by looking at the merger of digital startups and public radio stations in New York, Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles and assess what’s worked and what hasn’t. This is already underway under the auspices of the Public Media Merger Project, funded with support from Google News Initiative and led by Eizabeth Hansen. First findings due in June.
- Focused experimentation: Fund a series of directed experiments with requirements that support desired outcomes, not merely the preservation of institutional players (whether legacy or startup).
Identify, in consultation with public radio, the American Journalism Project, INN and others, communities where there are promising public radio and other locally owned media that, with appropriate investment, could combine their efforts. Or if no digital startup is present, could accelerate the transformation of local public radio.
- Capital formation: Begin to build a coalition of potential funding partners outside the usual media-funding circles who see this as essential to the future of democracy.
Community foundations have begun to see the financial collapse of journalism as a threat to democracy and to the broader civic fabric of their communities. But they struggle to know where to place their bets. This could serve as a way to leverage additional investment and give the best models more runway — appealing to the historic philanthropic support that public radio has enjoyed while extending it to a deeper support for journalism in the interest of democracy.
This approach alone will hardly answer the future of local media. But by building on one of the strongest remaining pillars in the local news ecosystem and providing incentives to combine with the most forward looking digital players, it could ensure both that the legacy of publicly funded media is not squandered and that emergence of a more modern and sustainable set of local media institutions is accelerated.