Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Aisha Mohammed: Community Newspapers Find their Voice on the Radio

When people say journalism is in crisis, they are primarily referring to the fact that the financial model of newspapers, advertising revenue, is failing. The challenge facing newspapers as the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) reports is finding new ways to fund online news production, while using declining revenues to finance the print-to-digital transition.

Discussions on saving journalism have focused primarily on newspapers, and of these the two most popular are micro-payments and nonprofit ownership of media. According to PEJ, both are untenable. Whatever the solution, PEJ concludes that several new revenue streams need to be cultivated.

To cut costs, media organizations have started collaborating within platforms, but collaborations across platforms are rarer. Collaboration between radio and newspapers is an avenue worth exploring, not only for financial reasons but also for ensuring and improving local reporting.

What strengths can radio bring to the partnership? Radio remains more attractive to audiences and therefore advertisers in part because it lends itself easily to multi-tasking. For commuters, radio may be the primary source of news. It is also more appealing to youth, who may tune in for programming other than news and then stay tuned in as other shows comes on the air. Finally, as PEJ points out, radio content is easier to move online.

Below, I take a closer look at some current collaborations in terms of the benefits they bring to both partners. Partnerships range from the informal to the formal and stations and publications are coming together for a number of different reasons.

Reporting news that no one else will.

In the 2008 election, Radio Free Nashville was one of the few media outlets that covered civil rights abuses and pre-emptive arrests of journalists and citizens during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. In spite of the fact that law enforcement officials engaged in blatantly illegal behavior, the incidents didn’t make front-page news. To highlight stories ignored by corporate media, RFN began sharing content with The Nashville Free Press, a community newspaper.

While RFN is an important forum for voices that are missing, misrepresented or marginalized in corporate media, it is an LPFM station with limited signal strength and therefore a limited reach. Putting content on The Nashville Free Press website allows RFN “to extend the reach of reporting” said Ginny Welsch, the executive director of RFN.
Welsch also contributes a column, “Eye on the Media,” to the paper, along with other RFN programmers. “We have similar goals and sharing content allows us to feed each other’s news stories,” she said.
Through its affiliation with the newspaper, RFN also aligns with other groups working for social justice like Project Censored. Each month, the free press features a story from Project Censored, an organization which conducts research on news stories of national importance which are underreported in corporate media.

Attracting audiences, online traffic and dollars.

For newspapers, investing in a radio station can lead to dividends in terms of reaching out to new audiences and driving online traffic to websites. The Southwest News Herald, a Chicago community newspaper launched a morning show on WJJG 1530 AM with a popular political columnist as host. The Herald initially paid for the time slot, but quickly was able to support it through advertising because the show provided a compelling host at a peak listening time, 8 to 9:30 a.m.

Host Ray Hanania summed up the benefits to the Herald, when he told Radio World, “By putting ourselves into their cars as they drive to work, we make ourselves a part of their daily lives. This motivates them to read our newspaper and come to our website and that helps our advertising sales.”

The show also helped Hanania gain access to high-profile newsmakers. “If I called a senator on behalf of my newspaper, they put me over to the PR guy. But if I'm calling for the WJJG morning show heard in Chicago, the senator himself wants to talk to me,” he told Radio World.

News Production.
Drops in local ad spending have led to declines in news production at radio stations across the country. Compared to a few decades ago, radio offers a fraction of the news it did, but locally-owned stations seem to do a better job.

For Rick Stone, acting news director of the WRLN/Miami Herald News, collaboration translates into a “stunning benefit for the quality of news.” Stone was previously involved in a partnership between South Florida’s Sun Sentinel and Palm Beach County’s public radio station, WXEL for five years. The relationship was mutually beneficial.

Sun Sentinel paid WXEL for news products, and WXEL got a news department by proxy because radio journalists had full access to Sun’s news gathering resources, such as reporter’s notes and sources. Often, the Sun Sentinel would print a story in the morning newspaper, and reporters would serve as experts on WXEL shows that same day. For the Sun, the partnership not only yielded more news coverage, but also “helped extend the brand to new audiences and put the paper in the company of NPR,” said Stone.

Stone’s current project, the WRLN/Miami Herald partnership was launched in 2003. The Herald employs five full-time radio journalists to produce news and information to air on WRLN, a public radio station licensed to the school board of Miami-Dade County. Herald staff writers who are trained to do radio also contribute to broadcasts and the collaboration has led to special public affairs programming and live special reports on developing stories. The paper and the station also cross-promote.

Beyond newspaper and radio.

For Ellen Stein, development director of KDUR-FM, Durango Community Radio at Fort Lewis College, the collaboration was not so much a survival mechanism, but a way to provide as much local content as possible to listeners and the community in a variety of formats. Currently KDUR shares content with Durango Herald, a daily newspaper. KDUR airs Cycle Squawk, a show dedicated to bikes, and community members who miss the live version can access the online archive through the Multi-Media section of the Durango Herald’s website.

Collaboration with a newspaper is just the beginning for KDUR. Fort Lewis College is currently planning the development of a media center at the school which will house the radio station along with The Independent, a student-run newspaper; Durango Community Access Television; Images, a literary magazine, and a video conferencing facility for Rocky Mountain PBS.

Being in the same location will not only foster content-based collaboration, but also bring in new revenue streams. Businesses often advertise on one platform but not the other because of limited advertising budgets. “There are lots of businesses that underwrite KDUR but who won’t advertise with Durango Herald, because it is expensive.” To lower costs for businesses and bring in funds for various platforms, Stein envisions offering businesses an advertising package that would include underwriting KDUR, and advertising on Durango Herald online, and in the student newspaper, etc. “In this way, for a little bit more money they can get more diversified media exposure,” said Stein.

For Stein, the collaborations achieve multiple short and long objectives at once. Using Cycle Squawk as an example, she said the collaboration “gets the show out there, expands the listening audience and could result in additional business sponsorships and membership dollars down the road.”

As the popularity of print media declines, multi-faceted collaborations like Stein’s open up a new channel for newspapers and radio stations to maintain relevance in a digital world and deliver the news that matters.

No comments: