WASHINGTON — NPR, PBS and local public broadcast stations around the country are hiring more journalists and pumping millions of dollars into investigative news to make up for what they see as a lack of deep-digging coverage by their for-profit counterparts.
Public radio and TV stations have seen the need for reporting that holds government and business accountable increase as newspapers and TV networks cut their staffs and cable television stations have filled their schedules with more opinion journalism.
"Where the marketplace is unable to serve, that's the role of public media," PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger said last year at a summit on the future of media at the Federal Communications Commission. "PBS exists to serve the people, not to sell them."
In the past three years, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has invested more than $90 million in federal funds on new journalism initiatives. That includes a $10 million local journalism initiative that is paying for the creation of five regional centers that will help local PBS and NPR stations cover news that affects wider geographic areas. Also, a $6 million grant from the group expanded the PBS investigative series "Frontline" from a seasonal series with a summer break to a year-round program.
Meanwhile, NPR has started an investigative reporting unit supported by philanthropic funds — including $3.2 million donated in the last year.
The need for such probing journalism was highlighted by a 2010 study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. It noted the "old model" of journalism that supported watchdog reporting — by valuing stories based on their significance over their individual popularity — is breaking down. In new models driven by the Internet, revenue is more closely tied to individual stories and how popular they are, leaving less incentive for civic news. Newsroom staffs also continue to shrink, the study found.
Still, the prospect of tax dollars going toward public stations' journalistic efforts has already drawn criticism. Their push for more news reporting also comes as conservatives seek to cut all federal public broadcast funding as part of their budget proposal. It's a threat public broadcasters take seriously, though similar efforts in the 1990s and 2005 did not succeed.
Randolph May, president of the Rockville, Md.-based Free State Foundation, argued at the FCC summit that government-funded media should not be involved in shaping public opinion.
"In an age of information abundance, we do not need, and should not want, government-supported media acting as a filter or a megaphone," said May, whose group is nonpartisan but advocates for libertarian principles.
Patricia de Stacy Harrison, the head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said she can take the heat for using public dollars for probing journalism, because it's an important public service.
"Doubtless, if all of these people do the jobs they're supposed to do, our phones will be ringing, e-mail will be coming in," Harrison told The Associated Press.
The corporation is the primary conduit for federal funds distributed to public media, and Harrison described it as a firewall between Congress and nonprofit stations so they aren't government media. She's a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee and a State Department official under President George W. Bush.
In 2010, Congress appropriated $420 million for public broadcasting, primarily for local stations. Many stations rely on that for more than a quarter of their budgets, while also seeking donors.
To increase its news content, PBS has created a show called "Need to Know," and it has revamped the nightly "PBS NewsHour." The network also is hiring journalists to coordinate local and national news content to expand its audience online. At the same time, a federally funded digital platform will allow local stations to share content with national public outlets.
In San Diego, public grants allowed KPBS-TV and Radio to hire two journalists to cover the U.S.-Mexico border. They're among nine hired at stations in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, who are creating a joint bureau called Fronteras: The Changing America Desk.
Senior News Producer Natalie Walsh said the effort is paying off with investigations and long-form pieces, including a recent story about an increase in Mexican cowboys in rodeos and their challenges in that arena.
"I think we have a place at the table," and more respect, Walsh said, "now that we have the boots on the ground to back it up."
Walsh said that as bigger outlets in the area have cut staff and reduced coverage of the border, her staff has been able to step in.
At NPR, the radio audience has grown substantially over the years as it increased its emphasis on news. The network recently marked the first anniversary of its investigative reporting unit, which has eight full-time journalists.
NPR investigations have included revelations about mine safety, the military's handling of brain injuries and a series that aired this month on problems in U.S. morgues. Many of the projects were done with nonprofit partners, including ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and PBS' "Frontline." Last week, two public broadcast projects with ProPublica earned George Polk awards, one journalism's most prestigious honors.
Susanne Reber, whom NPR hired from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to head its investigative unit, said she is asking reporters to flex muscles that they already have — namely good sources — in a different way.
"They've been asked to do a certain kind of reporting, and most of the reporting on any radio service is fast turnaround," she said.
While other networks have cut back on international coverage, NPR maintains 17 foreign bureaus. It is also preparing to launch an effort to cover state capitals.
Executive Editor Dick Meyer, who spent most of his career at CBS, said NPR needs to do investigative work because others have eliminated such expensive projects.
"At CBS, I saw a radical evolution in an organization that was about a mission, about news, to one that was about making money," Meyer said. "NPR right now feels like CBS when I got there in the '80s."
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Corporation for Public Broadcasting: http://www.cpb.org
Fronteras - The Changing America Desk: http://www.fronterasdesk.org/