Three Things for January 6, 2022
This week: Public Radio needs to take a Pro-Democracy stand. Plus, a hectic 1st week of 2022 and the the state of individual giving to public radio
THING ONE: Pro-Democracy, Journalism and Public Radio
Don’t be afraid to stand for something as basic to our mission as voting rights, governmental checks and balances, and democratic standards. In other words, shout it from the rooftops. Before it’s too late.
— Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post1
In short, the Republic faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends. No self-governing society can survive such a threat by denying that it exists. Rather, survival depends on looking back and forward at the same time.
— The New York Times Editorial Board2
With this edition of Three Things falling on the first anniversary of the Insurrection on the Capitol, I think it’s vital to explore how public radio can be a champion for democracy in this moment where it is clearly under threat.
Let’s start with a few things that have been done by NPR as of late worth highlighting:
All Things Considered has run two major features, one just before Christmas and the other this past Monday, that detailed the “Big Lie” and a chilling account of the timeline for the events of January 6, 2021. Jay Rosen of NYU, who has been one to often criticize coverage from NPR, gave high compliments to the reporting of the December 23 Melissa Block piece.I don't know what led to do this, but I am sure glad they did. A stark look at the Big Lie and the dangers ahead. npr.org/2021/12/23/106… No dilution via "both sides." No "critics say." No turning facts into opinions. Just a straight up warning. Listen to it.
Also, on Monday, NPR and Ipsos released the findings of a nationwide poll that found that 64% of Americans believe U.S. democracy is "in crisis and at risk of failing." The survey results were the focus of the NPR Politics Podcast on Monday and included throughout the day on NPR newscasts.
While there wasn’t any further coverage about the stunning and worrisome results of the survey on Tuesday’s Morning Edition, Tovia Smith did a substantial piece on Tuesday’s ATC on “Why is the 'Big Lie' proving so hard to dispel?” Meanwhile, a scan across several NPR member stations’ websites showed a few had pulled in the NPR story to their sites, but there’s little other acknowledgment of the threat facing the country.
So what more should public radio be doing in light of this five-llc alarm fire that we seem to be headed toward in our nation?
I want to recommend that we first need to acknowledge this crisis with a clear statement from station leadership that the organization stands for the democratic principles that are currently “at risk of failing.” Beginning in the summer of 2020, many public media organizations stepped up with important statements committing themselves to anti-racism and others acknowledging past shortcomings in dealing with diversity, equity, and inclusion.
A public statement like this is only as good as your work to back it up. But it is a start.
I think the same type of public statement is needed that addresses this grave threat to democracy.
In her Washington Post piece earlier this week, Margaret Sullivan put it this way.
This new pro-democracy emphasis should be articulated clearly — and fearlessly — to (listeners) readers and viewers. That could be in statements from editors or publishers, in advertising campaigns, or in other ways, declaring, in essence, “we are devoting more resources to this crucial subject because it is at the heart of our mission.”
But that’s only the beginning.
We need to reassess the structure and focus of our journalism and content so that public radio, particularly local stations, have the resources, staffing, and subject matter expertise to cover the issue. KPCC in Los Angeles is taking a step to get out in front in this effort, as seen from this tweet from Kristen Muller, the Chief Content Officer at KPCC.
💫 Margaret Sullivan @SulliviewNews orgs must get serious about pro-democracy coverage — teams of reporters, new beats, *center* it, and put it in front of the paywall. Read my new column (for free) here https://t.co/96JoIEQtBF
One of the other important initiatives that we need to undertake is to build trust with audiences beyond those who traditionally use our service. Since so much of the disconnect in our very polarized nation comes from where people get their news, an intentional effort to reach across those divisions could result in a more significant impact of the work coming from public media organizations, particularly local organizations with deep ties into their community.
The chart above from the Pew Research Center shows the partisan gap in trust with national and local news organizations. Suppose we’re to break through this divide. In that case, it has to start on the local level in communities across America where public radio, with our network of stations across the country, is perfectly positioned to connect across the political spectrum.
That’s where the Trusting News Project3 can serve as a guide to help newsrooms better connect with conservative and right-leaning audiences. The video below is from August 2021 and covered research highlights and takeaways from the Center for Media Engagement's research on how journalists can connect with conservative audiences, strategies journalists could use, and insights from partner newsrooms.
You can read the complete study here. Among the recommendations are six approaches journalists can take to better connect with their conservative and right-leaning audiences:
Build relationships with people who have conservative and right-leaning viewpoints in your community and listen to them.
Include a variety of voices from people with conservative and right-leaning views in stories. However, journalists should be cautious of using “conservative” or other terms as catch-all labels for people who may have very different beliefs.
Consider the diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring for the newsroom.
Focus on story facts, not interpretation.
Correct mistakes promptly to demonstrate trustworthiness.
Don’t criticize only one side of an issue.
Another theme throughout the research was how conservatives see themselves reflected in news stories. According to the research, “multiple interview participants said they felt that media portrayals of conservatives seem to rely on narrow or extreme stereotypes, which they felt assume conservatives are racist, uneducated, unkind, or only care about money.”
Finally, I would love to see how public radio can work together to convene pro-democracy conversations locally, regionally, and across the country. This anniversary today (January 6) would have been an excellent opportunity to use the power of our network to bring voices from across the country to discuss what democracy means to citizens in the U.S.
It seems that we’ve forgotten one of the superpowers of public radio is the role of bringing people together for these kinds of conversations. I urge us to remember Margaret Sullivan's words to “shout it from the rooftops” and show leadership and action because there’s so much at stake right now.
THING TWO: This and That from a Hectic 1st Week of 2022
The content for this newsletter has shifted since Monday morning as several events and announcements have overtaken my original plan for this second “thing” this week. Instead, let’s highlight a couple of these items.
Audie Cornish is stepping away as host of All Things Considered.
The Tuesday morning news resulted in a wide range of news and social media coverage, including the Twitter thread (below) and newsletter post from Eric Nuzum, former NPR Programming VP, on public radio’s talent drain.
In his post, Nuzum’s main point is that public radio lacks a vision for the future.
Public radio’s leaders need to understand that people don’t follow money, they follow vision. Full stop. Talented producers and hosts leave public radio because they look around and look at the future public radio’s leaders articulate—and simply see a more exciting vision elsewhere.
I hope to spend more time discussing this talent drain and how it relates to a shared vision for public radio in future editions of this newsletter.
NPR adding subscriber-only bonus material with “NPR Plus”
Axios media reporter Sara Fischer was the first to report NPR’s plans to add subscriber-only bonus material to several of its podcast with “NPR Plus.” This is in addition to the sponsor-free benefit for subscribers that I first wrote about back in April 2021.
One of the major pieces to come out of this news is that this expanded effort will, later this year, provide donors to member stations access to expanded podcasts and digital content similar to PBS Passport.
Subscribers4 have six different podcasts apps to options to listen including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Pocket Casts. One that is missing is NPR One, which I hope can be added to this list soon to help collect vital user and usage data. This has been one of the positive outcomes, along with bringing significant membership growth, that Passport has provided to PBS stations.
For those with long memories in public radio, the use of “NPR Plus” returns us to a time in the early 1980s and NPR’s financial crisis. The clip below is from The New York Times from June 2, 1983, titled “What Went Wrong at National Public Radio.”
The Two Smiths to lead a New News Start-Up
“The news industry is facing a crisis in consumer trust and confidence due to the distorting influence of social media and rising levels of polarization and parochialism. My plan is to launch a premium news business that serves unbiased journalism to a global audience and provides a high-quality platform for the best journalists in the world.”
Those were the words of the Bloomberg Media Chief Executive Justin Smith quoted in The Wall Street Journal, announcing his departure from Bloomberg Media and starting a new media company. Ben Smith, media columnist with The New York Times, will be the second Smith joining the new venture and will lead the newsroom.
This will be a fascinating venture to watch, both from the financial investments needed to the speed of getting this new news organization to market. I also found one of Ben Smith’s quotes in the press coverage5 worth noting.
He said that many readers are “in some ways alienated from the way news is done now, who maybe feel that they’re being talked down to or that what they’re reading is kind of in a feedback loop with social media.”
They want news that “treats them with respect.”
The idea of respect for the audience has always been a hallmark of public radio, going back to Bill Siemering’s original Mission Statement for NPR. Ben Smith added another quote about the new venture’s audience in a New York Times interview.
“There are 200 million people who are college-educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience, but who talk to each other and talk to us. That’s who we see as our audience.”
Again, this is something that folks in public radio should be paying attention to since it sounds pretty similar to the public radio audience.
THING THREE: The State of Individual Giving in Public Radio
One of the major takeaways from this session was that donor growth for public radio stations was basically flat.
While retention has been strong and most stations are seeing revenue growth; public radio has not been bringing in enough new donors to outpace attrition.
So the question is, does radio continue to get more money from fewer people, or do we change strategy and make a concerted effort to bring new donors into the system?
On Wednesday, January 19 at 4 pm (Eastern), I’ll be moderating a conversation with public media colleagues to dig deeper into this issue and explore strategies that have led to success in acquiring new donors for public radio. Joining me for the discussion is a terrific group of really smart folks from across the system:
Melanie Coulson – Executive Director of Member Station Services for Greater Public
Jill Hirshi - Development Director with Yellowstone Public Radio
Susannah Michaels – Direct Mail & Sustainer Coordinator with Wisconsin Public Radio
Greg Petrowich - President and CEO with WFYI Public Media
Stephanie Patterson – Chief Customer Officer with CDP
Ken Siebert – General Manager with Yellowstone Public Radio
You can sign up here to participate in this conversation hosted by CDP.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading.
“If American democracy is going to survive, the media must make this crucial shift,” Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post
In 2020, Trusting News put together a comprehensive slide deck examining the perception of news and how that affects the trust that different people have wiIt’sournalism. It’s a fascinating study.