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Public Radio And News: More Being Spent On Content Than Fundraising.

A just-released study of public radio from National Trust for Local News, which has gathered data from multiple sources to offer what it calls “the most comprehensive view to date of the size, scale, and scope of public media local journalism,” shows that the medium is poised to fill the void left by other local news sources, based on its commitment to spending and hiring newspeople.

The report titled “The Growing Strength of Public Media Local Journalism” says that news-focused public radio stations are spending 3.52 times more on content and its delivery than they are spending on fundraising, this while revenue for the largest public radio licensees has grown from $678 million in 2009 to just under $1 billion in 2020. “More than 40% of FY2020 revenue in this group came from individual giving, while underwriting accounted for about 23% of revenue that year,” the report says. “These two categories represent the largest streams of revenue for public stations in FY2020.”

While money from major and monthly donors has increased over the last five years, even as public funding has declined, the number of journalists working in public radio has increased along with investments in new news formats and new forms of collaboration. According to data cited from Corporation for Public Broadcasting, NTLN reports that between 2016 and 2021, the number of local journalists in public media grew from 3,694 to 4,148 positions, while newspaper newsroom employment dropped from 42,450 to 30,820.

As that has happened, the report notes that several stations are growing newsrooms that rival the size of metro daily newspapers, with, during 2020, more than 10 stations supporting at least 40 full-time local reporting positions each, and more than 40 with at least 15. Singled out are Boston's WBUR, which as of 2020 had close to 100 full-time local news positions, and Chicago Public Media's acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, and its newsroom of about 100 people, earlier this year.

NTLN's research also shows how local public radio newsrooms have become innovation hubs for local media, in many cases hiring editorial talent from shrinking newspapers and expanding their public-service mandate to include text-based local news. “The most sophisticated public radio stations (and a few sophisticated public television stations) now have large multi-platform newsrooms with an array of local media products,” the report says, citing stations' wide variety of local program offerings including news call-in shows, regular newscasts, news magazines, news digital sites and podcasts.

While the report concludes that many public stations are ready to serve as anchor institutions for their local news ecosystems, there is still much work to be done. “The evolution and increasing strength of some local public broadcasting institutions in providing local journalism deserves a close look, not just to understand the role public broadcasting can play in rebuilding local news, but to draw lessons from a robust and mature media ecosystem that can inform the development of new local media enterprises everywhere,” it says. “While public media has made progress toward addressing the market failures in local journalism, adjustments to public media funding, strategy, and governance are required to truly reach its potential.”

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