Apr 2, 2012

Journalism hubs should continue, but with guidelines, evaluation says

A consultant who evaluated the performance of seven CPB-backed Local Journalism Centers has recommended that CPB continue funding the multimedia startups for another year.

But interactive-media consultant Rusty Coats advised CPB to qualify its continued support for LJCs by requiring the centers to adopt a set of best practices. These would help guide the centers through the more challenging aspects of their work, such as collaborating in multiplatform fundraising and media production.

In his evaluation of the seven regional LJCs launched with CPB aid in 2010, Coats found that four are performing relatively well, but the remainder struggle with issues of collaboration and long-term sustainability. The evaluation was presented March 26 at a meeting of the CPB Board in Washington, D.C.

The LJCs are entering an important time in their life cycle, said CPB radio chief Bruce Theriault. CPB backed them with the goal of establishing new models for producing multimedia journalism on specialized topics, bringing pubcasters together to report on subjects of particular regional interest. CPB initially provided $10.5 million to support the centers (Current, April 5, 2010)

CPB is now evaluating requests from each of the centers for their third year of operations. But one — Changing Gears, covering changes in the Midwest’s manufacturing sector — has opted to shut down rather than request additional aid.

The most successful LJCs have clearly defined their coverage areas and presented a compelling master narrative, Coats told the CPB Board. He cited in particular Fronteras, which covers the U.S. border with Mexico, and Harvest Public Media, with a focus on agriculture, as LJCs that have claimed their subjects and presented them coherently. Less successful in this regard was Healthy State which covers health issues in Florida and has lacked focus, Coats said.

Healthy State and Changing Gears are among the LJCs that struggled with cross-station collaboration, long-term sustainability and multimedia production, according to Coats. Fronteras and EarthFix, which focuses on environmental issues in the Northwest, have had the most success with collaboration, Coats said.

Although the stations behind Changing Gears — Chicago’s WBEZ, Michigan Radio and Cleveland’s ideastream — declined to request another year of funding, they will continue to collaborate, Theriault said. The broadcasters encountered conflicts in competing for foundation funding, fueled more by fear than reality, he said.

Coats told the CPB Board that the stations saw competition as a problem, but he didn’t see any evidence that they actually were competing with each other.

A PDF of the PowerPoint presentation Coats gave to the Board is available here.

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