Last week, it was reported that Trump’s proposed budget would cut funding for public broadcasting. Last year, 445 million dollars were allocated to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Trump’s proposed budget allocates zero. We spoke with Philip Napoli, who joined our faculty in the summer of 2016, about what this means for local journalism.
For the past two years, Napoli has been the principal investigator of the News Measures Research Project, a research project designed to identify major influencers of the health of local journalism.
The project began by Napoli et al. identifying 100 random news ecosystems within America and archiving each community’s original news content¹ for seven days randomly chosen between July–September of 2016.
Napoli and his team are currently in the middle of the next step of the project: categorizing the 2.7 terabytes of data archived. They are assigning each outlet’s archived news to one of eight critical information needs: emergencies and risks, health, education, transportation systems, environmental planning, economic development, civic information, and political life.
These measurements serve as qualitative evidence of that community’s journalism health (how well is each critical information need being met for each community?). By cross referencing these measurements with the community’s demographics (income, ethnic composition, and the robustness of local politics) Napoli hopes to identify community areas that greatly influence the health of local journalism. The aim of the project is to identify targets for funders hoping to pump some life into the declining vigor of local journalism.
When asked how the budget cuts might affect local journalism, Napoli started by outlining local journalism’s biggest obstacle: its economy of scale (or lack thereof). “The economics of local journalism are so challenging relative to large market journalism [because] the economics of news are tilted in favor of content that has national reach just because of the economies of scale involved. Local journalism has no economy of scale.”
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has traditionally offset this tilt by subsidizing local journalism. Napoli says that, “Suddenly, the dynamics of public broadcasting are going to be weighted in favor of the national over the local.”
Large market journalism relies minimally on CPB funds to produce news (only 2% of NPR’s budget was directly funded by CPB in 2016). That is not the case for local journalism. And for local news outlets, Napoli says, “Their budgets are their ability to do anything other than be a passive conduit for what is getting produced by the PBS proper.”
When asked about the argument that news outlets should be able to support themselves, Napoli turned to the past. “The assumption has always been that the market is capable of providing what public broadcasting provides. And this first began in the 80s with cable. ‘We don’t need PBS anymore because in cable there will be a channel that finds it economically viable to produce all the stuff that PBS produces.’ Bravo and A&E began as opera and theater networks. A&E stands for Arts and Entertainment Network. They began as what was supposed to be the cable substitute for PBS. And clearly they didn’t see the economic incentive to be what PBS was! And the same holds for journalism. The market doesn’t support certain types of journalism as well as it does others.”
“[Trump’s proposed budget cut] will take the funding from the most vulnerable part of our journalism ecosystem.”
¹All broadcast, print, and digital news outlets for each community were identified and archived. The archived news was taken only from that outlet’s digital (online) format. The Internet Archive was used to catalogue the outlet’s homepage and then one click deep on all original news content for that day.