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America’s local newspapers are in steep decline, creating a deficit in local news. In affected communities, civic life is receding, social cohesion is declining, misinformation is increasing, and governmental accountability is weakening.
The question our study sought to answer is whether local public radio stations can substantially help meet the deficit in communities’ information needs resulting from the decline of the newspaper. To address the question, a lengthy online survey of National Public Radio’s member stations was conducted. The survey was sent to 242 stations. Replies were received from 215 stations, for a response rate of 89 percent.
The study’s main findings and recommendations are the following:
- Most local public radio stations serve communities where the quality and quantity of local news and public affairs information is inadequate to the communities’ information needs.
- In terms of news coverage and audience reach, most local stations are positioned to be a leading news source for their community, a positioning that would be strengthened if they were to receive substantial new funding.
- The biggest obstacle to a more prominent information role for most local stations is their understaffed newsrooms; they lack the news gathering capacity to be a substantial source of daily news and public affairs information.
- The problem of under-capacity is most acute in communities that are most in need of quality information; these locations also tend to be “hard places” in the sense that there is less community support for public radio.
- To position themselves to better serve their communities’ information needs, local public radio stations must accelerate their digital transformation; excessive reliance on over-the-air content limits stations’ audience reach as well as the depth and breadth of their news and public affairs coverage.
- Local public radio stations do not have the ability to acquire on their own the substantial new funding required to greatly strengthen their capacity to provide quality news and public affairs coverage to their community; this problem is particularly acute in the communities most affected by the decline of the local newspaper.
- In addition to appeals to longstanding funders of local public radio, including governments and foundations, there’s an urgent need for a national fundraising campaign directed at major private donors who have not previously helped underwrite local public radio.
- Virtually every local public radio station has a need for substantial new funding, but such funding should disproportionately be allocated to well-positioned stations in communities where the decline of the local newspaper has created a severe deficit in local news and public affairs information.