Well, it looks like NPR is rolling up its half-assed attempt to establish West Coast operations. The two programs produced here, News and Notes (N&N) and Day to Day (D2D) are getting axed. Surprise, surprise.
I suspect that many staffers and execs at NPR will look on this as a return to NPR’s core mission – covering news that matters from the Center of the Universe (Washington, DC) and the known universe (the Eastern Seaboard, from DC all the way to Boston). Many of the producer’s honchos will probably breathe a sigh of relief at ending NPR’s quixotic adventure of running a West Coast office with a different style and focus. I say this because I’ve been around enough nonprofits and public radio stations to understand the culture and the thinking at these places. I can read between the lines of what’s being said and what’s been left unsaid.
The poobahs in DC may well be right to have looked upon NPR West (NPRW) askance: the organization never put its heart, back or imagination into making NPRW anything more than a satellite office lost in the hinterlands of California. It’s a shame, though, because a lot does happen in California, and the Pacific Basin, that’s needs ongoing attention that the folks in DC only deign to provide when they get in the mood for a transcontinental plane ride. That’s not good enough, and I’m not just saying that as a Californian. I’m saying this as someone who knows about media and knows that an informed populace is crucial for digging ourselves out of the hole we're in. We need knowledge and context from a range of perspectives. We need to regularly inform society about the breadth and depth of the world. Repetitively dissecting the suffocatingly arid view of the world from inside the Washington Beltway falls well short of these needs.
NPR’s competitors (it all sounds like NPR to you, but there really are different organizations – NPR, Public Radio International, and American Public Media – producing the programs you think of as “public radio”) have a real opportunity here to tap one or two good West Coast-based programs for syndication to public and community outlets around the country, and perhaps beyond. Because PRI, in particular, has a more flexible, less cost-intensive structure, it can do so without getting into the real estate business as NPR did. More importantly, it can also cobble together reportage from different sources that have been here and are invested in the Left Coast, something that NPR simply never did and probably couldn’t do.
Beyond leaving the West and Pacific Basin under-reported, one other danger exists in the way NPR is handling these cutbacks: the organization is making the same kinds of decisions that got Detroit into trouble. That is, rather than developing innovative programming that adapts to changing audiences and new informational needs, the organization is hunkering down with their tried-and-true moneymakers. In this economy, who can blame them? If one does not survive in the short run, one does not survive in the long run. But if one focuses single-mindedly on the short run, the individual or organization will find itself moving into future that will render it increasingly irrelevant. In particular, these cutbacks strain shaky connections with Black and young audiences. Cutting N&N eliminates NPR’s one program featuring Black Folk, which further underscores the organization’s ineptitude at reaching out to audiences beyond their “core” White, college-educated, Boomer listener. Cutting N&N comes soon after the cancellation of the Bryant Park Project, NPR’s equally tepid attempt to reach out to Gen Y and Gen X listeners.
Cutting costs in a shaky economy makes sense. But tying an organization's fortunes to a 50+ audience is not sustainable in the long haul. NPR, like many other news organizations, will have to figure out a way to innovate and make money. To do so, it will need to redefine its audience and connect with them in new ways. If the economy continues to sour, that day of reckoning may well arrive sooner or rather than later.
Some news organizations have already begun to develop new approaches. A few political blogs, notably Truthdig and The Huffington Post, have launched and nurtured online models that now have some traction: the former, by offering commentary and reportage from a star-studded collection of writers and journalists and the latter by building on this approach with a turn toward intelligent, heartfelt celebrity contributions. (Disclaimer: I write for Truthdig, although I could hardly be called a “star” at this point. FYI, you can find my articles by starting at this link.) More locally-focused blogs, like LA Observed, thrive based on specialization, appealing to both industry insiders and those who watch a given industry (in this case, LA-based media) closely.
Nonprofit news organizations have begun to spring up as well. They offer a more service-based approach to journalism and reportage. George White, formerly with The Los Angeles Times (which, as part of the Tribune Company, has slipped into Chapter 11; just the latest turn in its soap-opera-meets-corporate meltdown of the last eight years or so), and now with the Center for Communications and Community (C3) at the University of Los Angeles, has offered a thoughtful introduction to nonprofit journalism at the C3 website under the title “The Rise of NonProfit News.”
This shift in news creation weighs heavily on hard news writers, as well as critics. The University of Southern California has two initiatives that have wrestled with this issue: the Norman Lear Center, and its Popular Music Project, and the Annenberg / Getty Arts Journalism Program, which have invited critics, reporters, and other thinkers to engage these topics. And in less formal settings, I’ve had an ongoing series of conversations with Howard Mandel, of the Jazz Journalists Association, as well as local writers like Kirk Silsbee and Brick Wahl, about the problem and how it might be solved.
Bottom line, we live in a time of flux. As such, we need information to guide our paths. This need assures that smart media, featuring well-told stories, will continue to be in demand. Now we need to come up with a viable business model to make sure that organizations, and writers, can make enough money to serve their readers and listeners. I don’t know what this model is, but it’s a problem we all need to think about and work toward solving because so very much is at stake now. That is, I’m not deeply worried about news organizations, but I am terribly concerned about the quality, depth, and relevance of reportage provided. The media function as the nervous system of the body politic and the economic mind. Without the feedback that the media provide, we will continue to make poor, ill-informed choices. Too many more of these and we will go from experiencing anxiety about the world to inflicting even more harm on it. We’re out of slack; it’s time to finally get serious. Good media can play a pivotal role in informing and deepening this seriousness.