The relentless decline in local news coverage across the United States could be countered by strengthening news teams at local public radio stations, says a leading media scholar at Harvard Kennedy School—and he suggests ways to raise the money to make that happen. 

Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, argues in a new research study that local public stations are positioned to help fill the vacuum left by shrinking and closing local newspapers. But local stations need substantial new funding to increase both their news coverage and their audience reach.  

Patterson built his findings and recommendations on data from a survey of senior editors and managers of public radio stations across the country on their current news coverage and the obstacles to expanding that coverage. Replies came from 215 out of 242 stations surveyed, a remarkable 89 percent response rate. 

Patterson, whose many books include Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, is the founder of Journalist’s Resource at the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, where he has taught since 1996. 

His study documents in detail how lack of funding limits local public stations from providing more news and reaching more people. The problems are especially acute, the study finds, in the “hard places”regions that are poorer, more rural, and often more conservative, where support for public radio is often weaker than in large urban centers.  

Radio stations have been gradually losing on-air audiences, and only some have grown their digital website and podcast services to keep up with evolving audience habits of news consumption, the report says.  Public stations with small budgets dedicate just 22 percent of their total spending to news and public affairs.  

Thomas Patterson heashot.

“With additional funding, public radio has the capacity to fill much of the gap in local news created by the decline of the newspaper. Strengthening local public radio stations is a democratic imperative.”

Thomas Patterson

But the senior staff at these stations were confident that with greater funding, local public radio could grow their impact in news and public information—half said they could become the leading outlet in their community compared with just 13 percent who say they already hold that position. Greater funding would have the most impact on news coverage in the hardest places, the survey found. 

“With additional funding, public radio has the capacity to fill much of the gap in local news created by the decline of the newspaper,” Patterson writes. “Strengthening local public radio stations is a democratic imperative.” 

How to grow that funding? For starters, Patterson proposes a national fundraising campaign, ideally driven by a newly formed independent entity (rather than from National Public Radio). Such a campaign could avoid concerns about conflict of interest and could allocate the new funds with an emphasis on the regions with the greatest news gaps.  

Foundations and the federal and state governments also could be sources for greater funding, Patterson says. The already considerable support from foundations tends to go to leading stations and national programming whereas if they were to contribute to a national news campaign, the aid could reach rural and smaller stations. 

The newsroom leaders surveyed said these additional funds could bolster local news staffs: Now, 60 percent of stations say they have fewer than 10 news reporters and editors; nearly 80 percent of respondents said they would grow their newsroom staffs if they had additional funding. 

“A journalism-heavy strategy is also necessary for local stations to retain and grow their audience,” Patterson writes. “Without broad local coverage, public radio stations cannot expect to become the ‘go-to’ source for local news in their communities.”

Banner image by Carol Yepes/Getty Images | Faculty portrait by Martha Stewart

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