NPR's top news executive announced plans to roll out a regional hub system at a speech for the Public Radio News Directors convention in Miami on Friday.
Michael Oreskes, NPR's senior vice president for news and editorial director, told news directors that he envisions, "more than four and less than 12 hubs around the country."
The hubs would be staffed by experienced managers who could help identify regional stories while making it easier for local stations in those regions to share expertise and resources around investigative work and digital content.
"Decentralizing would help NPR realize new audiences," Oreskes said.
Hubs, he said, would better allow NPR and its more than 900 member stations to act in unison. NPR now reaches a digital audience of about 40 million people while local stations combined have about 20 million digital listeners and readers, he said.
Bruce Auster, senior editor for collaborative coverage at NPR, is coordinating the hub plan.
"Too often good ideas don't find an audience now," Auster told Poynter. "Right now, with four bureaus, there are four entry points for stations to find their way into the network. This will increase the entry points."
Unlike traditional bureaus that only feed news from local stations to the network, the hub proposal would also connect local stations with each other. He envisions local stations in a region or state working together on projects that are of regional interest but may not have a national audience.
News directors wanted to know if NPR envisions taking over local stations or local websites. Oreskes assured them that is not the vision now, reminding them that, unlike newspapers and local TV, member stations are all locally owned and community-focused.
NPR is already moving toward stronger network and local station ties by combining coverage around beats including health, veterans, education, environment and covering state governments. Ninety stations are involved in that effort already. The regional hub idea would pull 200 stations together.
They have some big issues to figure out, including who will pay for journalists that work at these hubs, Oreskes said. It's also possible local stations will see NPR's growing audience as a competitor for financial underwriting.
Hubs will need to invest in editors and data and visual journalists, and they would need to hire investigative editors who can manage ambitious regional investigations that individual stations might not be able to pull off by themselves, Oreskes said. He did not say who would pay for all of those positions.
NPR is waiting for all of those answers before it begins implementing this idea. While it may take three years to build the entire system, NPR plans to pilot up to four regional hubs in the next year.
"The more dire development in journalism in recent years is the destruction of local journalism," Oreskes told Poynter. "The effect of digital is that news organizations are seeking bigger audiences further from their local base. It is an important part of their business now."
But news organizations that move toward scaling their work as their survival strategy begin placing less emphasis on local issues, he said. The hubs can connect those local issues while helping them reach bigger audiences.
"Local journalism makes our national coverage better," Oreskes said.