Tom Webster, writing and speaking

A Local Content Model For The Future

Added on by Tom Webster.

NPR recently relaunched their web site as a more complete destination for news and information--it looks more like the New York Times than a radio site, and you'd have to look closely to figure out that the "R" in NPR stands for radio. This change, along with a number of new mobile and web-based tools for downloading and listening to NPR programs, firmly places NPR's focus on the mothership, and blurs the lines between NPR and its member stations--all of whom pay NPR for the privilege. With so little local content on a typical NPR affiliate, and so much NPR content available on-demand and online from NPR itself, this move would seem to further marginalize the "local" aspect of public radio. My own local NPR affiliate, WUNC, is one of the strongest NPR-affiliated public radio stations in the country, but the number of regular programs devoted to local content (which is different from locally-produced shows) can be counted on one hand with fingers left over.

With print journalism in decline, NPR is smartly moving to fill a void, and with their not-for-profit status and tax advantages, may be able to succeed where profit-crunched newspapers have failed. Where does this leave the local NPR affiliate? In many ways, squarely in the same camp as local commercial stations and local newspapers--struggling to be relevant and serve the public under increasing financial constraints.

The last bit is the real sticking point--with the tsunami of the Internet disaggregating and disintermediating media, finding ways to keep local journalism alive and profitable remains elusive. One answer might be further consolidation--not simply amongst radio stations, but amongst media properties in general. Mark 'Rizzn' Hopkins, over at siliconANGLE, notes that FCC regulations hamstring local media properties even as "New Mediaists beat the crap out of them." He suggests allowing newspapers and radio stations to merge, creating stronger local news organizations and supporting journalism. Certainly, since the FCC revised their cross-media ownership guidelines in 2007, it does seem like more and more potential partnerships would meet the FCC's criteria for such mergers being in the public interest (mainly, that the properties are failing and that the merger actually would create a new source of local news and content.)

Still, with so much financial distress in the newspaper business, and so little credit available in either business, it's hard to see this sort of thing happening in 2009. So how can local radio and print entities capitalize on the "local" opportunity? The answer for public and commercial radio both is the creation of local content, local news and local features online. This means, as I have noted before in this space, creating text and video in addition to audio. With so much of the on-air product on an NPR affiliate coming right off the bird, the web is where the local station can make a difference, stay relevant and provide a real service for its listeners. Commercial radio, too, could make a difference by stepping up to fill the local news void, but most stations lack the skills, personnel and resources to really do this effectively. Merging with a newspaper would provide these capabilities, but again--given the credit instruments available and the financial condition of both industries, those deals would be difficult.

The answer might be to do something a little more radical--and a little more in the spirit of the "New Mediaists" that are able to beat the crap out of commercial media outlets with little more than a Flip camera and a Wordpress site. Instead of merging media properties, why not simply merge newsrooms and create a communal, hyper-local version of Reuters? If most of the commercial and non-commercial radio stations and print outlets in a market kicked a little money into a pot, a truly local news organization could be created that would benefit the community, provide text, video and audio content for its member media outlets, and even provide a way to employ bloggers and citizen journalists and provide them with the resources they need to cover stories properly and possibly quit their day jobs. Heck, why not have the local government kick in a little money, too--it's good business.

Radio stations and newspapers would not necessarily all have the same stories--they could pick and choose the features that suit them--and nothing is stopping the stations themselves from generating their own supplemental content. But local news would survive, and flourish, under this scenario. Representatives from all the member media outlets could serve as a steering committee for such an organization, with a separate editorial board overseeing content. The news organization could focus on content creation without worrying about distribution or even turning a profit (there would be no need for a sales department) and radio/print organizations would no longer need to fund internal local news/information services and could instead focus on distribution, sales and whatever content is unique to their format.

Really, this sort of thing already exists for things like traffic and weather--I'm just carrying it to its natural conclusion. In effect, what I am suggesting is a back-door to doing what probably should have been done a while ago--converting news organizations to non-profit entities--but doing it less by fiat and more through the free market.

What do you think? Is this an "unholy alliance?" A flight of fancy? Leave your thoughts below!

Note: this was originally posted on my company's radio-facing blog, The Infinite Dial, but as it has broader implications I am cross-posting here as well. I checked with the author, he seems cool about it :)