News: Our most important edge

There’s been a lot of chatter this week about NPR’s coverage of the earthquakes and their aftermath in the Sichuan province of China, and for good reason. Reporting, especially by Melissa Block from Chengdu, has been remarkable: it’s immediate, detailed, dispassionate, and yet so completely human and humane. Lots of folks in public media have noted how proud they were to be professionally associated with just this kind of public service, and I felt the same way.

Indeed, I felt about NPR’s coverage exactly the opposite of what I feel every time I see or hear commercial media reporting on, well… anything. I’ve cited before my disgust for all things TV news and especially cable news. The disasters that are CNN, MSNBC, Fox, CBS, ABC, NBC and so on would be laughable if they weren’t so fundamentally damaging to our democracy. They’re a cancer, not a public service, as they make our nation dumber with each minute of air time. They’re part of what I call the “bread-and-circuses” media. (And I’m not saying this for dramatic effect — I’m literally angered and saddened with each appearance of Wolf Blitzer and the army of morons that make up commercial TV news.)

Which leads me to a positive point, rather than just a rant.

In a world where…

  • commercial news media are collapsing their operations and dumbing down their product at every turn
  • the nails-on-chalkboard Nancy Grace is given a show on a channel called “Headline News”
  • right-wing ideologues hold court on Fox
  • Anderson Cooper promotes videos of nannies mistreating babies on hidden cameras as if it were news
  • Katie Couric is paid $15 million a year to read a teleprompter

…in this world, NPR and public media has a tremendous opportunity.

Think about it — the kind of work NPR is doing is unavailable anywhere else. There are a few newspapers and freelance reporters here and there doing quality news work, but it’s a small group (and the newspaper group is shrinking). In the past, the competition for quality news was intense, but that’s relaxing now. The market is opening up, ironically at a time when there’s more opportunity to distribute media than ever before.

The future of successful ongoing media companies will be found in providing a service for a “tribe” with a shared set of values or tastes. In the case of public media these values include intellectual honesty and humanity and fairness and curiosity. Consider what the Public Radio Program Directors (PRPD) cite as their Core Values:

  • Qualities of the Mind and Intellect
  • Qualities of the Heart and Spirit
  • Qualities of Craft

Isn’t that what our “tribe” wants? Isn’t that what we fundamentally believe in?

By contrast, what are CNN’s core values? Well, there’s only one: shareholder profits. I’m sure there are still a few hard-core journalists left inside CNN, struggling onward. But they must be frustrated because selling advertising and gathering an audience to see those ads — that’s the game, and it’s a game played in a tougher and tougher media market. Public service, when it happens, is a coincidence and a side effect, not a goal.

So bring on the Britney Spears stories! (Even the Associated Press has admitted they’re spending more time gathering and reporting celebrity news because “that’s what the people want.”) More pedophiles, please! Serve up steaming plates of self-righteousness and indignation as red meat for racists! Yep, it’s time for another Princess Diana anniversary! Do whatever you must to gather the audience our advertisers crave. Foreign bureaus? Boring!

Public media is different and everyone knows it (even if they don’t watch or listen).

That said, there’s a lot of stuff we do in the name of public media today that isn’t news. To be sure, there’s always some niche that’s served by this food show or that music show and so on. Those are fine programs and they round out our offerings nicely. After all, “man does not live by bread alone.”

But news — reporting from all over the world and from neighborhood to neighborhood — that’s the core service I think we need to embrace as our first priority, even to the exclusion of other programming.

Why? Consider our competition outside the news sector: Discovery has effectively duplicated our food shows and nature shows and science shows and so on to the point where lots of folks don’t make a distinction between public media and commercial media. Discovery is, for much of America, the new PBS.

News is the our most important edge. It’s the thing we do best, and it’s the service no one else is providing. Consider Frontline on television — who else is doing that? C-SPAN is probably the closest competitor we’ve got on TV, but they don’t do news. And on radio? We have no competition. None. Newspapers are viable competitors for news coverage, but they’re so disrupted and distracted they’ve lost their way. Further, they have shareholders they must satisfy with juicy profits. Again, our shareholders are the American people… the citizens; plus a “tribe” that will actively support us.

So let’s go get those stories and cover them in a way that no one else does. Let’s deepen public media’s grip on quality news and serve our public in a future in which our former competitors give news short shrift. It’s our calling, and it’s a niche we can own outright.

7 thoughts on “News: Our most important edge

  1. Bang on John!!!!!

    This must surely be the underwriting and sponsor story too – the ONLY place where there is real news – someone at CPB said the other day that there eas no more money for Jane Austen – but if PBS could tell the news as it is …. well!!!

  2. To your point: I recently listened to Diane Rehm's interview with George Soros. Only on NPR could such a complex and critical topic be thoroughly and patiently explored with a slow and deliberative speaker. Can you imagine the interview Bill Riley would have done?

  3. To your point: I recently listened to Diane Rehm’s interview with George Soros. Only on NPR could such a complex and critical topic be thoroughly and patiently explored with a slow and deliberative speaker. Can you imagine the interview Bill Riley would have done?

  4. Thanks guys!

    I feel like I completely dissed all the non-news stuff in public media, which I don’t want to do out of hand. I think there’s lots of non-news (cultural) stuff that only public media can do, too. And should do.

    But news — factual, insightful, relevant news — is the lifeblood of our democracy in media, it directly impacts our ability to self-govern. Through quality news we can make informed decisions about other investments, such as investments in cultural things.

    I think the function of libraries — the keepers of information after it passes from contemporality into history — are also critical in this way, though they have less immediacy.

  5. John,

    When serving as president of PRNDI (Public Radio News Directors, Inc), I attended the national meeting of NPR member reps and made remarks exactly in line with this argument. At the time, I thought I was stating the obvious — as a prelude to my main point. In actuality, not everyone in the room agreed… despite the dramatic results and stark trends owing to our investment in news. So I had to adjust my view of the system but not my conviction that news is what we are and what we need to grow. And what was my main point then? The same as now: LOCAL news (done properly) is a vital aspect of our public media news service.


  6. Thanks for the comment Michael. Yeah, it seems so obvious to me now, but I think it’s easy for all of us to forget — we’re right in the middle of it and just do it out of habit.

    I’m hopeful we’ll do exactly what you’re promoting — more and more LOCAL news. Then all we have to do is figure out how to share that in a meaninful and federated way across the country.

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