Could public radio help solve the local news crisis? Perhaps. But first we have to determine what we mean by local news, and whether the folks who bring you national programs such as “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” are suited to that mission.
In late January, Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Harvard Kennedy School, published a “discussion paper” exploring that very question. The purpose of discussion papers, according to the introduction, is “to elicit feedback and to encourage debate.” Consider this my small contribution. (Patterson, I should disclose, was acting director of Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center during my 2016 fellowship there and provided me with valuable advice for my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls.”)
At the outset, Patterson writes that he seeks to answer two questions:
- “Do local public radio stations have the capacity to provide reasonably comprehensive news coverage of the communities they serve? Do they have the news staff needed to meet that requirement? And if not, what level of investment could put them in that position?
- “Do local public radio stations have the capacity to reach enough members of their local community to make a substantial contribution to its information needs? And if not, what would be needed to substantially expand their audience reach?”
The answers to those questions come from 215 public radio stations that answered an online survey — a response rate of 89%. A majority of executives at the stations themselves saw their operations as a leading — or even the leading — source of news in their communities.