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Water for Deserts
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Courtesy of Lakeland PBS Common Ground show
Lakeland PBS

As news deserts spread, local public broadcasters look to fill the void

Today there is little in the way of local news reporting in the land of Paul Bunyon — the headwaters of the Mississippi River in north-central Minnesota. A couple of community newspapers have modest circulations. Signals of five small commercial and public radio stations are listed as offering news and public affairs to a widespread population of roughly 100,000 around rural Lake Bemidji.

The region’s only regular nightly television news show is produced by Lakeland PBS, which serves a large piece of Minnesota’s watery heartland.

Because of a dearth of professional journalists, the green region the Ojibwa nation calls Bemidjigmaag, “the lake with water crossing,” is becoming a desert. It’s a news desert, like growing swaths of the United States where newspapers are disappearing and few suitable digital or broadcast options remain.

This is bad.

The hallmark of American democracy – what really makes us different than any other democracy – is an unencumbered Fourth Estate, protected by the U.S. constitution. And since this country started, the local newspaper had been the backbone of American journalism. The local paper did the hard work for you, holding government and the powerful to account. An estimated 1,800 newspapers have folded in the last decade, mostly because advertising revenue is migrating to the Internet and national news sources.

The result: We’re increasingly ignorant. I can easily disarm anyone who’d deny my belief that today, despite all of the connected devices we have on us and around us, we’re more gullible to those who’d abuse political or financial power.

A Local News Hero

This is why Bill Sanford is a hero, even if you haven’t heard of him. The unassuming chief executive officer of Lakeland PBS in Bemidji is holding fast to a programming schedule that features a nightly local newscast with contributions from bureaus in a number of communities in Minnesota’s lake country.

Lakeland News, accessible by cable or antenna, reaches some 383,500 people on about 7,500 square miles of northern and central Minnesota. Two decades ago, when Sanford became Lakeland PBS’ chief executive, he made sure to sound out viewers, studying carefully what the majority wanted as local programming. Lakeland viewers overwhelmingly cited local news coverage as a priority. Today the Lakeland line-up includes the newscast and the shows Backroads, Common Ground, and Lakeland Currents.

Sanford said it was the viewers who, in effect, identified Bemidji as an emerging “news desert” at the turn of the millennium, before we saw use of the term rise with the collapse of local news. The viewers in the Lakeland area were, in this regard, canaries in the coalmine.

“Throughout our entire coverage area there is no local television news of any kind,” Sanford said in an email to me. “We heard overwhelmingly that local news was wanted by the region. So, we made a commitment to provide our weeknight half-hour newscast … over 20 years ago and it has been running continuously since that time.”

The True Cost of News

Broadcasting Lakeland PBS’ public affairs programming costs about $325,000 a year – 13.5 percent of the station’s $2.4 million operating budget. Sanford says it’s worth every penny, even if meeting the cash demand is a persistent worry. (The figures don’t include the cost of depreciation of the station’s news broadcast hardware. Off-hand, Sanford estimates annual equipment wear-and-tear costs $150,000 to $200,00. He says a small station like his, with limited resources, must make equipment last. It helps that he’s also the station’s chief engineer.)

“Honestly, sustainability of the local news is front and center in our discussions right now,” Sanford said. “Underwriting and membership support directly attributable to the news only funds a fraction of the cost of providing this service. While it’s inexpensive compared to commercial newscasts, our cost of providing Lakeland News is more than we pay for our all the programming we purchase from PBS. We have made many difficult decisions to allocate resources to support Lakeland, but every year it becomes more difficult to sustain.”

The Lakeland PBS dedication to local news, an outgrowth of listening to the community, seems like a straightforward model for how public media can abide by viewers and help forestall news desertification.

News managers across the country are announcing collaborations to pool resources and extend the reach of local reporting. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes federal funding for almost 1,500 U.S. public broadcasters, has targeted news deserts with support for local-reporting partnerships.

“Public media stations are locally controlled and operated, so they are in the best position to address growing news deserts,” said Kathy Merritt, CPB’s senior vice president, Journalism and Radio. “As the steward of the federal appropriation for public broadcasting, CPB makes strategic investments to sustain a strong public media system and fund local journalism.”

Meanwhile, mixed news teams are forming all around the country. The Mountain West News Bureau, for example, is a regional cobbling of reporting from public radio and television journalists in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

PBS also recognizes it must help.Typical of the service’s outreach are the ongoing training for local fundraisers that can help increase audience engagement and financial support; and training for station managers on producing their own news programming.

One such program, the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Lab, uses one need to meet another: Students learn how to become journalists by actually covering the local news in partnership with local member stations. This program started in 2009 under a modest CPB grant with six pilot sites. Today it’s in 150 schools in 50 states and is now funded by multiple sources, including CPB. “We believe that thoughtful, well-grounded local reporting and the interdisciplinary work of video production are powerful forms of learning and civic engagement,” the program’s website says.

Outside the educational realm, PBS makes other grants that can lead to local news production. For example it recently provided grants to member stations to produce local stories for the series Retro Report, which aims to “makes sense of the present by revealing the past.” 

These are laudable efforts and pin the new hope for local journalism on what some say is the best path forward: removing the profit motive from providing local news. Peter Kafka recently described the idea in this Vox essay.

Trust Has Value

In Bemidji, Lakeland News survives with support from viewers. It’s a relationship that has taken years to build. But it could also collapse if there’s a lapse in credibility or trust.

Fortunately, PBS once again scored highest in a survey of the nation’s most-trusted news sources. PBS commissioned the survey, by Marketing & Research Resources, Inc.

“Year after year, people turn to public television for high-quality programming that educates and inspires, and parents turn to PBS KIDS for educational media that prepares their children for future success,” said Paula Kerger, President and CEO of PBS.  “We’re excited to build on that legacy as we begin our next 50 years.”

A counterweight to PBS’ good record on trust is a disturbing national survey of local audiences by Gallup and the Knight Foundation. That review found readers, listeners and viewers largely rank local news as a vital resource, yet 60 percent say local media underperform in key areas of trustworthiness and holding governments accountable.

Viewers Like You

Lakeland’s Sanford – and other local news directors and editors – caution that it will be difficult to rescue communities left stranded in news deserts without new revenue sources. In his community, with one of Minnesota’s lowest median income levels, asking viewers to dig even deeper is an increasingly a difficult ask.

“ … News and public affairs programming typically doesn't generate a great deal of financial support through traditional PBS funding models such as on-air pledge and underwriting,” Sanford said. “Major donor fundraising may be a possibility to help support this type of service, but again, in the rural regions that really need local news service, there just aren't that many people with the financial resources to make this happen.”

Public broadcasters have shown they can be creative and stretch resources to meet viewer demands. But they can’t do it alone.

Here’s an idea I’ve long advocated to help community news gatherers:

Internet service providers like Verizon or Comcast, and tech giants like Google and Facebook have made billions of dollars providing “free” news content to customers. A tiny trickle of that, call it a local content fee, could easily be redirected to public broadcasters and nonprofit newsrooms now ramping up to cover news deserts. 

The Google News Initiative, which is the tech giant’s effort to “work with the news industry to help journalism thrive in the digital age” is a good start. But today these companies, the main beneficiaries of local journalism, ought to do more to help community reporting.

Viewers like us can’t do it alone.