Oct 19, 2009

Study backing subsidies for local journalism calls for sweeping pubcasting reform

Another report on the future of American journalism takes aim at public broadcasting for failing to develop the local news gathering capacity that would enable it to deliver on its mission to inform the public.

The study, distilled over the weekend by David Carr of the New York Times, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, and Poynter's Rick Edmonds, recommends a new mechanism for supporting local journalism and calls for an overhaul in how resources are allocated within public broadcasting. Leonard Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post, and co-author Michael Schudson of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism collaborated on "The Reconstruction of Local Journalism," commissioned by the j-school.

After surveying the field for news chops and innovative thinking, Downie and Schudson conclude that too much of the money spent on public broadcasting is directed to maintaining local television and radio stations and not enough to independent news reporting. "Overall..., local news coverage remains underfunded, understaffed and a low priority at most public radio and television stations, whose leaders have been unable to make or uninterested in making the case for investment in local news to donors and Congress," they write.

They find exceptions at big pubcasters operating multiple outlets--San Francisco's KQED-TV/FM and Minnesota Public Radio and its California cousin KPCC in Pasadena--and with NPR's new Argo Project. But they also point to the "often dysfunctional, entrenched culture" of public TV and the recommendations of Tom Bettag, longtime producer of Nightline with Ted Koppel, whose study on creation of a Web-based public news site for public TV and radio has yet to be released by PBS.

Pubcasting's failure has as much to do with inadequate federal funding as it does with the allocation of the money that is available from the government and private donors, the co-authors say. They call for several reforms at CPB, including requirements of local news reporting by every publicly funded station. The corporation should also "increase and speed up its direct funding" for experiments in local news coverage for broadcast and Web distribution and "aggressively encourage and reward collaborations by public stations" with other nonprofits and universities.

Downie and Schudson recommend creation of a Fund for Local News, backed with FCC-collected fees on telecom users, broadcast licenses and Internet Service Providers. The fund would be modelled on those managed by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation, and award grants on a competitive basis in each state.

Columbia's study, which has been adapted for the new edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, is the second this month to conclude that public broadcasting is way behind the curve in adapting to the news and information needs of local communities in the digital era. In a report issued Oct. 2, a blue ribbon panel convened by the Aspen Institute and the Knight Foundation said pubcasting must "move quickly toward a broader vision of public service media," one that is "more local, more inclusive and more interactive."

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