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Platforms, Polarization, and Journalism
Tow Center for Digiital Journalism | Pulitzer Hall | Brown Institute
Wednesday, October 19th | 4:00pm ET

To what extent are the personalization algorithms of social media platforms making our politics more divisive and extreme? Could they be designed differently? And what are news organizations' roles in all of this, both as investigators of algorithms and as media actors subject to their own polarizing incentives?

These questions have become clearer in the last few years as social scientists, communication scholars, technologists and conflict professionals have started to work together. This talk will present an interdisciplinary theory of political polarization, which clarifies its relation to a variety of concerns including radicalization, political violence, social justice, and the strategies of politicians and activists across the ideological spectrum. Jonathan Stray will present emerging evidence on the connections to algorithm design and news framing, and show how platforms and journalists could collaborate in pursuit of a healthier political conflict.

This event is open to members of the Columbia University community only. Please RSVP using your CU email.

Register here

The Hidden but Growing Strength of Public Media Local Journalism
By Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, Mark Fuerst, Caroline Porter

The public media ecosystem is proving to be a bulwark against the hollowing out of local newspapers. Traditional public broadcasters reach 99% of Americans and now generate more than $3B in revenues. With solid local ownership and sophisticated membership and fundraising operations, many public media organizations are enjoying more runway to provide public service, scoop up newspaper talent, deepen local reporting, and leverage the network and the strength of National Public Radio. Some are even acquiring other news businesses to expand their reach and local service. 

So why does it seem like the strengths of public media for rebuilding local news are hiding in plain sight? We have seen firsthand how the growing strength of public media has been often overlooked in policy and practice discussions aimed at crafting a new future for local news. We believe this stems in part from a knowledge gap about what public media is and how it works.

Our research sheds light on the growing strength of public media local journalism by laying out the key metrics of public media’s growth in sustainability, journalism capacity, and audience reach over the last decade. For industry leaders, funders, and policymakers, we also offer some key lessons learned not just about the what of public media local journalism, but the how and the why. Our hope is these insights will inform a richer discussion about the future of local news.

We are sharing a few of the research highlights here. You can find an abridged version of the research with methodology here, and a downloadable version of the full report here

To generate insights about the public media system, we interviewed and gathered data from individuals at Audience Research Analysis, Blackbaud, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, GBH, Greater Public, National Public Radio, Radio Research Consortium, and the Station Resource Group. We compiled data on the growth of public media local journalism with three areas of focus: sustainability, journalism capacity, and audience reach. 

What we found is a system with strong financial footing, growing journalism capacity, and organizational sophistication that also must evolve quickly to meet the changing habits and needs of its audience. It is true that public media faces the challenges of an aging audience, a lack of diversity in leadership, and a general decline in broadcast consumption. Amidst these strengths and challenges, public media is evolving to a new era of public service.

Here are some research highlights:

Journalism Sustainability

  • News-focused public radio licensees have enjoyed stable and growing revenue across the decade. According to an analysis performed by one of our authors, total direct revenue for the largest 123 news-focused public radio licensees has grown steadily, from roughly $678 million in FY2009 to just under $1 billion in FY2020. More than 40% of FY2020 revenue in this group came from individual giving (a term that combines small and major gifts), while underwriting (the public media form of advertising) accounted for about 23% of revenue that year. These two categories represent the largest streams of revenue for public stations in FY2020.

  • Americans have been giving to public radio in greater numbers across the past decade. If we look more broadly at the entire system of public radio stations (including all news, music, and eclectic formatted stations), the donor base and individual giving capacity for public radio stations continues to grow, even in the face of increasing competition for media donations. In FY2020, according to CPB annual financial reports analyzed by the Station Resource Group, individual giving came to nearly $600 million across the entire set of public radio stations, from a donor base of about 3.5 million. By comparison, in FY2009, the entire set of public radio stations had a base of just 2.5 million donors who provided just under $400 million. 

  • The last five years has seen an increase in giving levels in the public radio donor base. Available data suggest that small-level, mid-level, and major-level givers have all increased their support to public radio in the last five years, according to a detailed analysis of giving patterns in 54 public radio stations by Greater Public. Small-level givers are those who donate up to $249 per year. Mid-level givers are those who donate $250 to $999; and, major-level givers are those who give $1,000 to $9,999. Greater Public found that the size of each cohort of small-level, mid-level, and major-level givers increased from 2016 to 2020, and the amount that the individuals were giving in each cohort also increased. Relatedly, a 2021 report prepared by Blackbaud’s Target Analytics of 63 stations found that the revenue per donor increased from $150 in 2016 to $175 in 2020. 

  • Public radio has enjoyed an increase in both sustainers (those who give monthly) and major donors over the last five years. According to the same detailed analysis of giving patterns in 54 public radio stations performed by Greater Public, the percentage of public radio donors who are sustaining members grew from approximately 500,000 in 2016 to approximately 700,000 in 2020. In 2016, about 20 stations surveyed by Greater Public reported that at least half of their donors were providing support through sustainer programs. By 2020, nearly 40 stations reported that at least half of their givers were sustainers.

  • Major giving and planned giving are poised for expansion in public radio. The public media support organization Greater Public has been leading an initiative to encourage public radio licensees to expand their major giving and planned giving programs. Amongst the licensee members in their initiative, Greater Public found in April 2021 that medium-performing licensees in the cohort were receiving around $2 million per year in major gifts, high-performing licensees were receiving $7.6 million and very high-performing licensees, $8.4 million. Based on projections of giving capacity in the donor base, Greater Public set expansion expectations of more than double those amounts in the next five years: $4.7 million for medium-performing licensees and $19 million for high-performing and very high-performing licensees.   

  • More growth potential remains across the public radio system. While there is a top tier of very successful news-focused public media licensees, we see an opportunity for more licensees to capitalize on their strong positions in their local markets. For example, of the 123 news-focused public radio licensees analyzed by one of our authors, seven earned revenue of more than $25 million each in FY2020, with another 15 licensees earning more than $10 million each. These midsize news-focused licensees have room to grow. Beyond the set of news-focused licensees, there is a long tail of smaller licensees with revenue earnings of less than $10 million. Most CPB-funded radio licensees fall into this third category, and there is room for growth here too.

  • News-focused public radio licensees are supported by a declining share of public funding. According to an analysis performed by one of our authors of the largest 123 news-focused public radio licensees, the share of public dollars supporting these licensees (in the form of CPB funding, state funding, and public institutional funds) has declined as their other revenue streams have expanded. This trend among the largest news-focused licensees, however, does not shed light on the inequalities between station owners. Smaller stations, typically those serving sparsely populated rural areas, are supported by a much larger share of federal dollars than large stations serving populous areas.

  • News-focused public radio licensees are spending more on content than fundraising. As revenue has grown in the sector, the data we collected suggest news-focused public radio licensees are spending more resources on producing content and expanding news capacity than on fundraising. In our analysis of 123 news-focused public radio licensees, we found that these licensees spent $640.2 million directly on content production in FY2020. If we account for the full cost of content production, including promotion and delivery, that figure rises to $712.4 million or 69% of total revenues. By comparison, the combined cost of fundraising for licensees’ "generated income" was $202.4 million in 2020, representing 19% of total FY2020 revenues. In other words, as revenues in the system have expanded, public radio stations are spending 3.52 times more on content and its delivery than they are spending on fundraising. 


Local Journalism Capacity:

  • Increasing numbers of journalists work at a local public broadcasting station. Despite the significant headwinds facing local journalism in recent years, the number of journalists working in both local public radio and local public television has grown. Drawing from data from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, our research found that between 2016 and 2021, the number of local journalists in public media grew from 3,694 positions in 2016 to 4,148 positions in 2021. By comparison, between 2016 and 2020, newspaper newsroom employment dropped from 42,450 to 30,820.

  • A few public radio stations are growing newsrooms that rival the size of metro daily newspapers. More than 40 public radio licensees supported at least 15 full-time local reporting positions in FY2020. Of those licensees, more than 10 stations supported at least 40 full-time local reporting positions each. One licensee, WBUR in Boston, was nearing 100 full-time local news positions as of 2020. And in a remarkable advance for the public media industry, Chicago Public Media in Chicago announced in January 2022 that it was acquiring the Chicago Sun-Times (and its newsroom of about 100 people) as part of a local journalism strategy that attracted $61 million in philanthropic funding. 

  • Local journalism content is both increasing and maturing. As local public media newsrooms have expanded, they have also become innovation hubs for local media, often hiring editorial talent from shrinking newspapers and expanding their public-service mandate to include text-based local news. The most sophisticated public radio stations now have large multi-platform newsrooms with an array of local media products. These media organizations, like WFAE in Charlotte and WBUR in Boston, are building on a foundation of local news broadcast formats which are, in some cases, decades old. 


Audience Reach:

  • The public radio network is particularly strong. It is easy to overlook or underestimate the size of the NPR member stations’ audience reach. NPR's most recent estimate for its total weekly audience was 53 million audience members in fall 2021. (This represents a slight decline from spring and fall 2020—which saw a jump to 60 million during the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic and a U.S. presidential election—but an overall increase from 2016 through 2019.)

  • The broadcast audience for public radio is both large and stable. For the past decade, the weekly audience for public stations has held steady at roughly 30 million listeners, according to data provided by Station Resource Group, which performed this analysis using Nielsen Audio data. NPR estimates that in fall 2021, the weekly audience for all of public radio was 35.8 million. Looking specifically at the weekly broadcast audience numbers for NPR member stations, the total for 2021 came to 33 million. In 2011, that number was more than 34 million, and in 2001, that number was more than 25 million.

  • The cumulative local digital audience for public radio has been mostly stable with a spike during the pandemic. The number of weekly unique users visiting NPR member stations websites has been stable in the last five years. NPR Audience Insights reports that between 2015 and 2021, weekly uniques remained at about 5 million. During the early days of the pandemic that number rose above 15 million and slowly declined back to about 5 million. 


Explaining the Growth of Public Media Local Journalism 

What accounts for the growth of public media local journalism amongst public radio stations? 

Organizational sophistication and maturity. One key driver of the sustained expansion in local journalism capacity and local public service is the increasing sophistication and maturity of public media organizations, especially amongst the largest stations. Leading public media stations have invested in developing efficacy across key organizational components. Investment in strengthening editorial, formal human resources capacity, product development capability, marketing and sales expertise, development muscle, and editorial strength have each been critical to the local journalism growth of the strongest stations. 

The federated structure of public media. The U.S. public media system is structured as a federated network in which local licensees retain their own governance and decision rights but affiliate together through contracts and membership in national organizations. This means that while there are strong network actors (NPR and PRX, for example) that can share pools of resources, licensees operate independently of each other with their own governance and ultimate decision-making for products and services. 

Increased resources and business model sustainability. Our analysis leads us to conclude that the result of growing organizational sophistication, buttressed by the federated structure of public media, has been an increase in resources and sustainability for individual licensees and the public media system as a whole. Mature stations in major media markets in particular have grown dramatically over the last five decades, especially compared to other local media outlets. This is remarkable given the overall corporatization and digitization of media and shrinking of commercial local news media during the same time period.


Lessons for the Field

We draw three lessons that contribute to the overall task of rebuilding local news. 

First, the “network effect” of public media cannot be overstated.

Public media organizations and public media audiences benefit hugely from the highly networked structure of the field. These networks take many forms: content collaborations, shared services, professional associations. The most visible network is the formal local/national content sharing system, which itself is supported by shared distribution technologies.

Policymakers, journalism funders, and industry leaders in other parts of media can learn from the successes of public media networks and invest in growing the networked capacity of news organizations operating in other media.


Second, media organizations and media systems take decades to mature.

True change in local media takes time, because media organizations and media systems require time to mature. Most public media stations are at least 50 years old. Many digital news organizations in operation today, by contrast, are less than a decade old. For example, according to the INN Index published in July 2022, more than 135 member organizations launched within the past five years, about double the number over the prior five-year period. 

But we have also learned from our research that smart investments can speed the maturation of organizations and the evolution of local media systems. Our research shows that the pace of growth amongst the public radio stations that have become old enough and large enough to have specialized development staffing has increased relative to peers that have not made those investments. 

The current strength and vitality of public media took decades to come to fruition. Because organizations and media systems take time to mature, funders and industry leaders should continue to take the long view in the task of rebuilding local news. 

Third, many public media organizations are ready to serve as anchor institutions for their local news ecosystems.

Public media presents rich opportunities for those looking to rebuild local news. The last decade has seen an explosion of experimentation in local news and new news organizations foundings as the newspaper-based local media system has atrophied. If the challenge is to sustain and grow these new experiments and new newsrooms, then local ecosystem-level leadership has to be in place in order to achieve greater impact with fewer resources, and to foster collaboration instead of competition. 

We would argue that many public media organizations are now ready to step into the role as anchor institutions in their local news ecosystems—providing the platform services, governance, and coordination support that their national network counterparts provide for local stations. Strong public media organizations are absolutely ready to acquire other forms of news media, as has happened in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere. 

Public media acquisitions of news media providers are one of the most exciting developments in public media in recent years and show huge promise for rebuilding local journalism. We anticipate public media organizations will become even more critical local journalism anchors in the years to come.


Digital Platforms and Journalistic Careers: A Case Study of Substack Newsletters. In 2018, the technology reporter Taylor Lorenz predicted journalists would adopt influencer tactics to grow their own audiences and directly distribute content to their followers. Since then, journalists have continued to experiment with using digital platforms as part of their career activities. Shira Zilberstein for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism
The Revolution Will Be Radioed: Absent other options, ham radio provides a sneaky way to communicate. “The government has no way to know if you have your radio on,” Valladares told me. “They know if you transmit, but not if you receive.”  Mary Cuddehe for the Columbia journalism Review.
“Every four years we shoot ourselves in the foot”: Should news outlets still endorse political candidates? Endorsements for politicians have a long history in U.S. newspapers, which until the 20th century were usually explicitly aligned with one political party or faction. Traditionally, endorsements have fallen under the purview of a newspaper’s owner or its editorial board. Journalists may know the decision of which candidate to endorse is distinct from the newsroom’s reporting, but many readers don’t separate the two. Gregory P. Perreault and Volha Kananovich for NiemanLab.
Copyright © 2022 Tow Center for Digital Journalism, All rights reserved.

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