Cuts in Coverage by Hometown Papers Inspire ?Local Journalism Centers?

By: Jennifer Saba

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), best known for presenting national documentary programs like Frontline, is moving to report local news, saying cutbacks at newspapers have cut into hometown coverage. In a partnership with PBS and NPR, CPB is launching a new project that will create “Local Journalism Centers” across the country.

CPB kicked in $10.5 million to jump-start five centers — with two more in sight — divided by regions of the Southwest, the Plains, Upstate New York, Upper Midwest and Central Florida. Centers are also planned for the South and Northwest. With the funding, the centers are hiring reporters, editors and social media adepts.

The idea, explains CPB President and CEO Patricia Harrison, is to enable these centers to “do a really deep dive and impact the region” and to “engage with communities.”

The timing of these projects couldn’t have come at a better time, says Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS: “We have been very interested in trying to seed journalism at the local level.” Mass layoffs by newspapers both created local news coverage voids, and a pool of recruits for the centers. “ There are very talented people who need a place, and we plan to bring in some print journalists. It’s the right moment,” she adds.

Each regional center is dedicated to exploring one area of interest. The Southwest Center, for example, is focusing on cultural shifts and border issues among Latinos and Native Americans in project called “Fronteras: The Changing American Desk.” The center involves the participation of stations KJZZ in Phoenix, KPBS in San Diego, Nevada Public Radio, KRWG in southwest New Mexico and far-west Texas, Texas Public Radio, KUAX in Tucson, Ariz., and KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz.

While all the news organizations participating in the centers so far are broadcaster, PBS CEO Harrison says newspapers are welcome as well.

The reporting of the centers will be presented nationally through TV and radio broadcasts and digital platforms.

CPB did a call-out for member stations to submit proposals for ways to engage the community, explains Harrison. Frank Morris, news director of KCUR in Kansas City, a member of the Plains Center, says the application process was pretty straightforward: “My boss came in and gave me a piece of paper and said, ‘Try and get one of these.’” Morris has been working on agribusiness stories for NPR and thought it would be a good subject to explore since it not only has regional implications but national and international interest as well.

“I will say in the Midwest the best source of agribusiness is the Des Moines (Iowa) Register,” Morris says. “It’s a fantastic paper, and they still do a terrific job covering agribusiness. Like lots of newspapers they have had cuts. It’s happened all around the region.”

Morris is working with reporters and editors from other regional stations including Iowa Public Radio, Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, KBIA in Columbia, Mo., High Plains Public Radio and Kansas Public Radio. The center is seeking to hire three full-time reporters and one-part time reporter, an editor and an outreach coordinator.

“We think if these stories work as they should, generating and driving news coverage, we honestly think that people are going to want to be associated with it,” says Morris.

Which brings up another point: The CPB funding is good for two years. By the end of the period, the centers are expected to be self-sustaining with member and possibly corporate donations.

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Published: May 19, 2010

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