Over the last twenty years, the sources of local news on which many Americans rely have disappeared. Since 2004, for example, more than 1,800 newspapers have disappeared. Across the country, this has left news deserts which no longer have any reliable source of reporting on a wide range of issues that only the local newspaper was covering. And while the news desert problem is very real, what has been less documented is the wide-ranging effects of cutbacks at the local newspapers that survive. From 2008 to 2017 total staffing at American newspapers fell by 45%, while the size of the average newsroom (reporters and editors) has dropped by even more since the early 2000s. This has left countless reporting beats, from city councils to school boards, virtually uncovered across the country.
Equally worrisome is that most Americans are unaware that their local news organizations are at risk. 71 percent believe that local news outlets are financially healthy. And yet only 14 percent say that they have paid for or donated money to any local news source in the last year.
In recent years a handful of non-profit news outlets have begun to fill this enormous void. Yet the number of non-profit news organizations remains small, and the number of reporters at each outlet can often be counted on one hand.
As part of its commitment to public media, AVDF is committing funding to support increased local journalism through public broadcasting stations. Filling the local journalism niche fits well with the mission of public broadcasting, which exist to serve the public with quality information and programming. More than 1,400 local public radio and television stations together reach 98% of Americans with free over-the-air and digital content. An average of 28.5M people weekly tune into NPR programming, and public radio’s digital audience — including podcasting from publishers like PRX and WNYC Studios — includes more than 60M unique users per month.
Unlike other news outlets, which are pulling funds from local reporting beats, public media has been investing in local journalism. According to data collected by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and shared by the Station Resource Group, station-based, full-time journalists at these stations have increased by 30% over the past 5 years to 3,068 in 2018. The total public broadcasting ecosystem is now greater than $3.2B, supporting over 4,600 journalists. As a result, there is a strong base on which to build.
In 2020, AVDF awarded two grants totaling $1M to support these efforts. The first is a $250,000 planning grant to WJCT, the public broadcasting station in Jacksonville, Florida, which aims to support the first stage of a multi-stage project that will build a comprehensive digital-first local news platform.
The second is a $750,000 grant awarded to the American Journalism Project, (AJP), a $50M venture fund that supports emerging non-profit news organizations. In 2021, AJP will conduct its third round of competitive grant funding to support the growth and sustainability of highly promising non-profit news outlets. AVDF funding will be used to support one or more awards to public broadcasting stations that are looking to establish a robust local journalism presence.
“Public broadcasting stations are well-positioned to play a major role in filling increasing gap left by the decline of for-profit local journalism,” says AVDF President and CEO, Michael Murray. “With these grants we aim to help public stations create a sustainable platform for local reporting, and to incentivize other funders to provide similar support in other local communities.”
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