Tag Archives: NPR

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The Fourth Estate is in serious trouble. 

[The nation is in the midst of a continuing crisis of distraction that is weakening the habit of consuming reliable journalism].
                                              AT Image

If we want to understand how far our civil life has drifted of course we can look to what has happened to the “Fourth Estate.” That phrase was coined by a British parliamentarian Edmund Burke and adapted by American writers to describe one of the essential parts of any democracy.  A free press is what Americans now understand as the fourth addition to the three formal branches of government (Congress, the presidency and the courts). Together they work as checks on each other: a fact that is well illustrated in the First Amendment, guaranteeing a free press. Interestingly, the practice of journalism is the only profession singled out for protection in the Constitution.

We have drifted into uncharted territory when the press is no longer able to function as our eyes and ears tuned to the other three branches. I’m repeating an obvious but vital warning: the nation is adrift because we are losing the compass of the Fourth Estate. The problem is not primarily the fault of news organizations, but with those of us who no longer feel motivated to make room for the news media. The nation cannot function without a vital press and motivated news readers. Video news helps, but it tends to shun ideas in favor of action. We need the longer view that a text-rich medium more naturally provides.

                                                  Pew Research Center

The decline of the American newspaper now has its own history. Independent owners have nearly disappeared as big city papers have closed or been bought up by chains. It can be hard to find a newspaper to buy in a big city. And the papers that remain have dramatically reduced their reporting staffs. It’s also an obvious fact of modern life that younger Americans mostly consume news in fragments, having been given the endless distractions of social media. There is great reporting that remains, but the outlets producing need-to-know stories are on a shrinking list of outlets unknown to a growing portion of the population.

We can count ourselves fortunate to still have organizations like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal. Ditto for opinion outlets like The Atlantic and The Economist. And The Associated Press still provides on site coverage of major political developments that remaining news organizations still use. But it seems that fewer media managers want straight reporting, opting for the creation of reality-based fantasies like those favored by Fox News and Newsmax.  The differences between reporting and opinion-giving haven’t changed. Real reporters depend on facts and accounts of the observable to shape their journalism. News polemicists are freer to let their imaginations shape their conclusions. Calvin Trillin recalls that old-line reporters would call these self-satisfied pieces “thumb suckers.”  And, of course, facts alone can be selectively chosen or ignored. But we better start teaching young news consumers the critical tools needed to weigh claims and evidence. (What that unit of education might look like is taken up in the next blog.) The current pattern of catching passing glimpses of national events on platforms like TicTok and Facebook will doom us low levels of understanding that will cripple our capacity for self-government.

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“Your audience has halved in recent                                  years. People are not reading your stuff.”

This grim view of the future of quality journalism was brought home in the last few weeks by the resignation of Editor Sally Buzbee at the Washington Post. Prior to her decision she refused to pull an article that mentioned the Post’s publisher, Will Lewis, as among those allegedly involved in a scheme years ago to hack into the private communications of Prince Harry and other royals. At the same time, Lewis reminded observers of his roots in the sometimes shabby standards of British journalism by trying to kill that bit of news as it was being prepared by NPR’s media reporter. The quid-pro-quo for not running the story would be an exclusive interview with the radio network. Lewis was brought on by owner Jeff Bezos to turn around falling circulation figures: a fact brought home to staffers in an early meeting. “We are losing large amounts of money. Your audience has halved in recent years,” the new arrival declared. “People are not reading your stuff.”

The Post remains one of the great American news outlets. It is disheartening it should be in so public a feud, and doubly so if the root cause is declining circulation numbers. Less scrupulous news-creation techniques of some popular forms of the press are no cure for the underlying problem of declining public interest. Will we be able to sustain a vigorous fourth branch of government when the other three legs of our civil life are so wobbly? 

Before he passed away this month, political reporter Howard Fineman worked at many “legacy” news organizations like Newsweek. But he also added a sober observation about their tenuous status. “We are in what I view as a new global world war for control of the search for the truth,” he noted. “We have to mobilize our truth-seeking strength . . . for America and democracy to survive.”



Public Radio Thrives

Future of public radioA recent forum of radio executives made it apparent that public radio is thriving. Audience sizes are up, contributions from sustaining members are up, and many stations have benefited from powerful new digital tools.

We are used to hearing laments about the decline of the big city newspaper, the traditional broadcasting networks, and other broad-based “legacy” outlets.  Most assume that social media have swallowed up the attention of younger Americans.  While there is some truth to that observation, a recent forum of radio executives at The College of New Jersey made it apparent that public radio is thriving.  The event was held in part to honor the 50th Anniversary of the College’s station, WTSR.

For most larger stations in the United States (and there are many), audience sizes are up, contributions from sustaining members are up, and many have found digital tools that have made them community assets.  Dean Cappello, the Chief Content Officer of New York’s WNYC—which is actually an amalgam of about seven stations—cited monthly listening rates that are huge for radio: well over 20,000 million.  Leading programs on National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and American Public Media—some of which are produced by WYNC—now reach Americans in every corner of the globe.  Radiolab, On the Media and Studio 360 all originate at WNYC, as do live opera broadcasts from its sister station, WQXR.  And then there are key shows from other stations around the nation.  Who knew that Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me or This American Life or A Prairie Home Companion would become American touchstones, rivaling old and venerable models of audio programming like BBC radio’s Desert Island Disks?

Another recent factor in station membership growth is the recent election.  The New York Times recently reported that  more Americans are contributing to news organizations, including public radio, presumably because they want the struggling press to ramp up their traditional “watchdog” functions, even in the face of relentless press attacks by Donald Trump.

Roger LaMay
                                  Roger LaMay

While New York is clearly a special case as the largest media market in the country, the story is no less bright in the 5th largest market of Philadelphia.  Roger LaMay who is the General Manager of WXPN and also Chairman of the NPR Board described how WXPN has grown their station with a special devotion to new music and live performance. WXPN’s syndicated World Café Live is picked up by 100 other stations in the United States. Much of the show is produced in a way that is becoming more common for big city public radio outlets.  Live concerts are featured, using a station’s own dedicated performance spaces, sometimes with restaurants and bars attached.

Another of the city’s stations represented on the November 30th panel was WHYY, the home of NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The station is also known for originating substantial news coverage of the region, extending their reach with an ambitious internet site. Audio News Director Gene Sonn credits their success in part to how well matched radio is to news and information programming. As he noted to me before the formal panel started, a print story drains its human subjects of the emotion and feeling in their voices. We understand stories better when we can actually hear participants in their own voices. And, of course, audio technology is so much more portable than the equipment that is required to shoot a well lit-video that also has a clear audio track.  In short, radio is more immediate and nimble in covering many kinds of news stories.

All of the participants reminded the audience that “radio” doesn’t necessarily mean a station with a broadcast license. WNYC’s Dean Cappello notes that “The audience is in charge now,” deciding when and how to listen to programs.  Listeners who are “streaming” programming from the internet will at some point probably surpass those receiving signals over the air. This explains why these stations are now truly global. With streaming, a listener can receive the programming of a station virtually anywhere, vastly increasing the potential audience size.  For example, I like a classical music “station” in Athens Greece. A friend is devoted to a jazz station in Paris. Newer audio equipment can be programmed with station URLs to receive signals from virtually anywhere on the globe.

Newer “On demand” listening  via podcasts helps public radio counter its tendency to appeal to older listeners.

Add in the use of the iPhone, notes WNYC’s Cappello, and the world of radio changes dramatically. The phone’s storage capabilities make it ideal to receive and hold podcasts downloaded from stations and sources such as iTunes. Periodic updates provide targeted programming to Americans on the run or on the road.  A friend reports loading up his phone with lots of podcasts that can be played later on the train or whenever he is in transit. This “on demand” listening helps public radio counter its tendency to appeal to older listeners with a NPR network average age of 58.  And there’s an advantage for program producers going into the podcast business, with avid listeners mostly in their 20s or 30s. The panelists pointed out that they can sell advertising space in podcasts, a revenue stream not open to true “non-commercial” radio operating at the bottom (“educational”) end of the FM band. The ads may not always be a plus for listeners, but they make these executives more comfortable about the future of their organizations: optimism that seems fully justified.