As other local news outlets struggle, NPR affiliates are growing — and quickly

November 4, 2019
Category: Business & Work

In my first interview with Nancy Barnes after she took over as NPR’s senior vice president for news, I thought she misspoke.

“I think we can add 1,000 local news jobs in the next few years, maybe 2,000,” she said in August.

But sure enough, in my survey of the NPR local newscape, I found that was not as wild an ambition as it sounded.

Between 2011 and 2018, the 264 independent local NPR stations (plus 150 unaffiliated) added 1,000 full-time and part-time journalists, having started that timeframe with just over 2,000 journalists. At the same time, newspaper newsrooms were shrinking to half their peak size and local digital startups, with a few exceptions, are making do with well-focused but tiny staffs.

The 1,000 figure comes from Tom Thomas, co-CEO of the Station Resource Group, a foundation-supported trade association. I asked how exact the estimate was.

“It is pretty much a census,” he replied. “The stations need to submit their numbers (to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) before they get their money.”

In a planning exercise at the start of the decade, Thomas told me, the stations set a goal to add 1,000 journalists. They achieved it in seven years.

Public media ignored

I was steered to Thomas by Jon McTaggart, the CEO of one of the largest regional stations, and had not previously heard of the Station Resource Group.

As local news outlets, the NPR affiliates’ current efforts and their growth potential has largely slipped under the radar.

“The Knight Foundation had one of those future-of-journalism conferences earlier this year,” McTaggart said, “and a lot of us were distressed that public media barely had a seat at the table.”

Similarly, it is irksome to the public radio community that as foundations (and potentially governments, too) look to revitalize local news by investing in start-ups and nonprofits, they seem to be looking at a blank slate, ignoring the public media infrastructure that is already in place.

With the exception of the largest markets and a few others, the local effort at NPR was indeed nothing special a decade ago.

Many of the stations were owned by universities and tucked in a corner on campuses apart from schools’ expansion plans and fundraising priorities. (There are odd license-owners on the roster, too, like the public school system in Miami, Georgia state government, or the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, Texas.)

In addition, a business model that sufficed for many years had been to run the popular national shows — “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” Diane Rehm — with a few local news breaks and a lineup fleshed out with classical music and jazz.

That model has become shaky. A playlist of your favorite music is available in many other places. Top national shows are easier and easier to find in digital streaming formats, including the network’s own NPR One.

Now, a commitment to local news not only plugs gaps in coverage of a given community, state or region, but builds loyalty for membership donations and foundation support.

Embracing collaboration

Barnes and other NPR executives have also identified kicking collaborations up a notch as a key growth strategy. That can mean sharing stories among stations or with other non-radio nonprofits — ProPublica for the biggest stories, a local investigative start-up for others. As the newsrooms are staffing up, collaborations create a multiplier effect. NPR is putting substantial money (but won’t specify the amount) toward subsidizing the build-out.

A case in point is a regional group in Texas, run from Dallas. Vice President of News Rick Holter told me that four big-city stations — his and counterparts in Houston, San Antonio and Austin — provide assigning editors and some specialist reporters for the pooled coverage.

The work reaches into 12 stations around the state and is broadcast on 30 frequencies including those in small towns.

“A thing that has surprised us is (how much) people seem to view statewide content as local,” Holter said.

The coordinated effort has added benefits. News breaks in the middle of the national shows eat up the time and effort of a small local staff. Plugging stories from the state network into those slots frees up the local station journalists to do more substantive hometown stories.

The structure also smoothed out what could otherwise have been embarrassing holes in coverage. The El Paso station has a small news staff, and the station in the Rio Grande area went out of the news business earlier this year when the Catholic diocese owner disaffiliated with NPR and reverted to religious programming.

But KERA and the network had added a full-time immigration reporter who could roam the border as the flow of news dictated or could dispatch a team after the mall shooting in El Paso. The network has launched six daily live newscasts on top of KUT-Austin’s 4-year-old daily hour-long magazine, “Texas Standard.”

Not every opportunity is as big as Texas, but a similar structure is being put together in Ohio and a third is in the works for the Gulf Coast states. In a September press release on the Texas newsroom launch, Barnes expressed the hope that public radio can be “the strongest reporting network in the country and fill the newsgathering gaps that widen every day.”

NPR is also building out a national collaborative network, said Bruce Auster, who directs the effort. Reporters at stations around the country contribute stories on 10 beats. As in the USA Today network, that creates a local to national and national to local system for generating deeper coverage.

Is governance a key to success?

I was first exposed to an expansive vision for local public radio nine years ago in a conversation with Bill Kling, founding father and longtime CEO of Minnesota Public Radio. Having grown his own empire to Paul Bunyan-esque scale, Kling argued with some passion, that many other stations were underachievers in local news and could do a lot more.

Retired but not having lost interest, Kling told me by phone, “We still have the same problem we have always had, and it goes back to the governing structure. You need an independent board of directors who know what they expect and go out and raise money for it.”

Kling’s successor as CEO of MPR and its parent American Public Media, McTaggart, amplified the essential nature of an independent engaged governing board. A weaker advisory board, embedded in a university or other entity, doesn’t push quality and growth as effectively.

Two other elements of healthy self-sufficiency, he said, are “a full management team directed by a chief executive” and “a vision tied to what their audience needs.”

Minnesota Public Radio has a news staff of 85-90, McTaggart said. It also owns American Public Media, producer of “Marketplace,” and Southern California Public Radio. Altogether, that’s about 200 journalists.

Like MPR, stations in the largest markets — New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. — tend to have been big to begin with, and continue to grow and have the muscle to do national shows like Joshua Johnson’s “1-A” out of WAMU in Washington, D.C.

Real-life examples

I sampled a half dozen mid-sized markets. There was remarkable consistency to their stories — doubling or more news staff since the start of the decade and partnering within the state to go after bigger stories than a single station could tackle in 2010.

Some examples:

WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky, is part of two regional collaboratives and, after a current hiatus, looking to grow more. “We think there is an opportunity in philanthropy,” said Stephen George, president and general manager of Louisville Public Media, “and we can grow membership as well.”

In choosing reporting topics, he continued, “We don’t view it as plugging holes (left by shrinking newspapers); rather, that we are part of a (news) ecosystem that is thriving.”

Still, new coverage opportunities come up that might have been newspaper staples in the old days, George said, such as economic development and business in Louisville and traditional accountability beats like city hall and education.

The station showed its investigative mettle last year, when its Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting won a Peabody Award for its series, “The Pope’s Long Con,” exposing the power and many false claims of a state legislator.

Vermont Public Radio has a similar mix to Kentucky’s. Stations across the state are networked. Newspapers have declined, but the radio group partners with a strong investigative digital startup (Vermont Digger) and a well-established alt-weekly (Seven Days). Vermont PBS is independent but a frequent partner, too.

Put the groups together and there is a potential to do projects that draw on an assortment of reporting techniques, including data analysis, that can then can be presented in multiple formats — audio, print and video.

What sort of coverage? A project this fall is exploring how the crisis in rural America applies in a small state far from coal country or the Midwest heartland.

“We are finding that we are not immune,” from opioids, stagnant income and the rest, CEO Scott Finn told me.

Foundation support would be welcome, Finn said, but the group does not rely on it. Still, Vermont Public Radio does have a list of aspirations.

“We would like to have a journalist in every county … We want traditional broadcast but also a talk show … and we need to do more with digital and on demand.”

Wisconsin Public Radio, based in the state capital, Madison, also collaborates with a strong nonprofit start-up, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Ingeniously, it has created a loose beat system, assigning different specialties to different stations — for instance, agriculture to La Crosse in the Western part of the state on the Minnesota border.

News director Noah Ovshinsky told me “a very big project” earlier this year, “High Tolerance,” explored “Wisconsin’s complicated relationship with alcohol.”

He also had a thoughtful answer when I asked the extent to which the statewide network can make up for declining newspaper coverage. “I’m skeptical that we can fill that vacuum,” Ovshinsky said. “That would be a pretty big ask.” The state is not flush with foundations and rich people, he added, but the station is nonetheless exploring whether major gifts and planned bequests can be geared up.

Other considerations

Accessing philanthropy is an issue nationwide. Barnes told me that after only a few months she had become increasingly aware that the big cities also had the big money — San Francisco, for example, will be fine.

So while it is a strength of the independent local station model that the money flows from memberships, bigger donations, sponsorships and local foundations, all that can be a formula for the rich getting richer, Barnes conceded.

And certainly there are still stations that are only beginning to grow their news operation or who don’t do local news at all.

Besides the Rio Grande shutdown, KHSU in the northwest tip of California closed earlier this year. Both are isolated geographically and with a relatively poor population — pretty much the perfect breeding ground for a news desert.

In New Orleans, WWNO got to the news game late and still has a skeleton staff of reporters filled out with freelancers. Patrick Madden, who moved from a producing position at Washington’s WAMU this spring to become regional news director, told me he was starting modestly by linking up with the Baton Rouge station for statehouse coverage.

Close to home, I was at WUSF in Tampa earlier this year as a guest on “1A.” News director Mary Shedden and the rest of the newsroom were celebrating the addition of a 16th staff member.

Through the years, the station has been housed by the University of South Florida but not generously funded. When USF sold its broadcast license for $18.7 million in 2017, the proceeds went to “support university initiatives” rather than a reinvestment in news.

NPR is not indifferent to the inequality of resources. A new Corporation for Public Broadcasting initiative, for instance, will aim to support rural stations.

And at least a few networks were ahead of the curve in pooling resources and a regional perspective. Consultant Quentin Hope (who teaches in the Table Stakes program at Poynter) was a founder of the four-state High Plains Public Radio network in 1977 and still has a role there as strategic projects director.

From a management perspective, Hope said he sees great local news potential for the NPR stations but also some basic structural challenges. “They are local and thus accountable to local audiences,” Hope told me. They have long practiced, “the audience revenue model” that newspapers and magazines are now scrambling to build.

On the other hand, the audience profile is older, highly educated and affluent, Hope said, so the best member/donor prospects are already onboard. Reaching deeper into other demographics will take a lot of work.

I wanted to dig into the scope of NPR local news as a possible counter-narrative to the woe-is-me, hedge-fund consolidation, shrinking revenue, layoff-after-layoff stories of the newspaper industry.

As NPR has been growing over the last decade, the non-public not-for-profit sector has also created new journalism jobs — an estimated 1,600 according to a survey this fall from the Institute for Nonprofit News.

Though no longer in the trenches, I too mourn the erosion of print newspapers and consequent journalism job losses. Were I still in the trenches, I might jump into the podcast boom or otherwise try to polish voice storytelling, preparing for a possible move from where the opportunities are closing to where they are growing.

Corrections: This story has been updated to correct the following errors: It’s the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, not Reporting; the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting is part of the public radio group, not a separate entity; KERA is based in Dallas, not Marfa, Texas; the station is KUT-Austin, not KURA-Austin; and it’s American Public Media, not American Public Radio.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

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