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To Save Local Journalism, Update The Public Broadcasting Act

The Hill

February 7, 2024

During his time as the U.S. ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson wrote that if he faced a choice between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Jefferson would be disappointed with today’s trends. Increasingly, we are seeing government without newspapers, especially at the local level, where they are vital in informing the citizenry.

Some 2,900 newspapers have closed since 2005. According to just-released numbers by the State of Local News Project the Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism,  an additional 2.5 of the remaining 6,000 close each week.

The term “news desert” has become both commonplace and accurate.

Concern about the business model and quality of local journalism is mounting. Most recently, this came in the form of fears from the staff of the Baltimore Sun that its new owners, David Smith and Armstrong Willliams, would turn what was once H.L. Mencken’s paper into combination of Fox News and a local “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” organ. On the other hand, Baltimore might be lucky to have any newsgathering at all.

This makes it important to recognize and assist the growing number of oases in the midst of these deserts — the news gathering of public radio stations.

In a role not anticipated by the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act — which added radio to its charge only at the last legislative minute — public radio has emerged as a major source of local news, at least in major metro areas. From WNYC in New York to KPCC in Los Angeles, from WBUR and WGBH in Boston to WBEZ in Chicago, public radio has gone from reading the news to hiring staffs of reporters. NPR reports that 393 local stations employ 3,000 journalists (including reporters, managers and talk show hosts). Fifty employ more than 15 journalists each. Eight of these stations, including WAMU in Washington, reach more than 400,000 listeners weekly.

What’s more, these non-profit news organizations go far beyond radio to maintain robust online “newspapers.” They produce videos as well, and their pages blur the lines between print, radio, and television. Indeed, many produce popular podcasts, the advent of which can be traced to public radio. In Chicago, the local public radio station actually purchased and merged with a major newspaper.

All Things Considered alone attracts some 11.9 million listeners weekly, compared to fewer than a million households who tune in each night to its television counterpart, the PBS News Hour (which often includes interviews with NPR correspondents).

For public radio journalism to continue to flourish — and expand to more of the nearly 1,000 public broadcasting license holders across the country — the legislation that created public broadcasting in the first place needs a crucial update.

A section of that law requires that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes some $574 million in federal support to the public media system, devote “75 percent of such amounts…for distribution among the licensees and permittees of public television stations.”

For 2024, that meant $383 million for television, compared to $128 million for radio. The emphasis on television may have made sense in 1967, when there were still just three major television networks and radio seemed a dying medium. But it no longer makes sense now, as public television struggles to find a role among an abundance of creative streaming services, whereas public radio has eagerly embraced local journalism. Federal support, in other words, should be agnostic about which medium a licensee employs to distribute news and information.

This is especially true because public radio stations, after a a 44 percent increase in reporter hiring between 2011 and 2020, have more recently been forced to cut back their newsroom investments, putting the growth of these news-desert oases at risk. According to the Pew Research Center, “Program and production expenses for the 129 news-oriented local public radio licensees was $480.2 million in 2021, compared with $539.4 million in 2020.” They are in need of a greater share of federal support, at a time when we are in greater need of local journalism.

Moreover, the support for television continues an operations mission that has already overtaken by technology. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is mandated to support free over-the-air broadcasts, whereas both public television and public radio programming are now available “over the top” on smartphones. If broadcast was crucial in 1967, it is broadband access that is crucial today.

So far, the Biden administration has not acted to change this status quo. It is as if the government, through CPB, were intent on building new train tracks, just as air travel was taking off.

It is time to move on.

This is not to say that public radio cannot do better. Whether because of story selection or other factors, it does not reach a broad cross-section of the American public. Indeed, the Pew Research Foundation reports that “consistent liberals are more than twice as likely as web-using adults overall to name NPR (13 percent versus 5 percent)…as their top source for political news.” Moreover, it is largely in “blue cities” on the East and West coasts, where public radio local journalism is most robust and popular.  

Media enterprises are, of course, free to cultivate specific audiences (see Fox News) — but not necessarily at the taxpayers’ expense. NPR and its local affiliates should strive to reach a far wider audience — geographically, politically and culturally — in order to demonstrate that it continues to deserve its subsidy.

Conservatives might be reluctant to do anything that expands public radio. What they need to understand is that more support for public radio stations can mean more local journalism in smaller cities and towns, and in red states — and thus more political diversity as a simple function of covering what’s going on in them.

It is also important to understand that federal support does not cover anywhere near the full expenses of local operations. Licensees must rely on the financial backing of local audiences. That’s one reason public radio moved toward local newsgathering in the first place. If local news leans too far in one political direction, there is a risk of losing audience support. In other words, public broadcasting is not immune from a market test.

It has been 56 years since Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, which has gone virtually unchanged in the interim. It is long past time that it were brought into the contemporary media era to help news deserts bloom.