Our Culture Of Journalism

Oct 31, 2018

Over the course of the last year there has been a conversation taking shape among NPR and member stations to define the “culture of journalism” that exists within our national public radio system. 

Central to this conversation are several questions being discussed by journalists and public radio leaders from across the public media landscape. A piece written earlier this year by NPR Standards and Practices Editor Mark Memmott lays out these questions:

• Is there a “culture of journalism” at NPR and those member stations that operate local newsrooms?

• Do we agree on what that culture should look like and how it should shape the system’s journalism?

• If we can reach a common understanding about the key attributes of such a culture, can we write it down so that everyone in every one of our newsrooms knows “this is what we stand for, and this is how we do things?”

The need for a common set of standards, values and practices that form the basis of our collective public radio journalism comes at an important time. In recent years, changes in the media industry have left an increasing number of communities without access to quality local news. 

The Pew Research Center reports that between 2004 and 2014, 126 daily newspapers closed or shifted to non-daily publication, and the industry shed more than 22,000 reporting jobs. 

If public radio aspires to become a meaningful resource for local journalism, a shared set of core principles should become central to our promise to our listeners.

Local television news, although highly-profitable, is not picking up the slack: Pew reports that traffic, weather, and sports comprise 40% of the typical local TV newscast, while a mere 3% is devoted to government, politics and civic affairs.

Yet local journalism has never been more vital. From investigative work that uncovers corruption, to sharing news of events, local journalism is the lifeblood of communities. It creates a shared sense of identity, holds government and those in power accountable and engages citizens in solving shared problems. 

If public radio aspires to become a meaningful resource for local journalism, a shared set of core principles should become central to our promise to our listeners. These common principles should embrace these values: 

Stronger journalism through collaboration. Although 95% of Americans live within signal range of a public radio station, the scope and breadth of the local news coverage these stations offer varies greatly. Stations in large metropolitan areas employ a cadre of reporters covering specialized beats, while smaller stations and networks, like JPR, often employ just one or two reporters to cover all of the news of a large region. While changing, public radio still lacks the systems to collaborate or share content, which sometimes leads stations to duplicate efforts, from reinventing strategies to publish stories online, to deploying reporters from more than one station to cover the same event. As a system, we must eliminate these redundancies, creating a stronger, more efficient, coordinated web of public radio newsrooms. In Oregon, stations have made great strides in this area in recent years—JPR, OPB/Portland and KLCC/Eugene now share content routinely and have begun coordinating statewide coverage in a more strategic way.

Allow reporters to tackle more ambitious reporting projects. Stations must develop the staff, resources and tools needed to dig deeper into local issues and tell more of the in-depth stories that inform our audiences. In particular, we should increase local and regional investigative and enterprise reporting by adding experienced investigative reporters and data journalists. While this continues to be a real challenge for JPR, we are expanding our local news capacity in the coming year following the completion of our new studio facility to accomplish more consistent in-depth work. 

Increase thematic or “beat” reporting. Instead of organizing reporters around geography, we should enable more local journalists to report upon specialized subjects or “beats.” By covering an assigned beat, reporters are able to develop expertise in a given subject area, gain a network of sources, follow stories over time, and produce reporting that is more contextualized.

Enable diverse local voices to tell local stories. Stronger, better trained and more collaborative local journalists with deep roots in their communities will find richer, more nuanced voices to tell important stories than national reporters who drop into a community. Whether it’s enriching national programs with these diverse voices, or covering breaking news, local station reporters should take the lead whenever possible, assisted by NPR and regional partners.

I welcome the continued work ahead to develop and articulate public radio’s shared “culture of journalism.” It’s work I believe will build a more robust and powerful network of reporters capable of expanding the fact-based, contextual journalism that is the hallmark of our mission and our service to our listeners.

Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.