In case you need a reason to support public radio

Mar 21, 2013

If you really need another good reason to support your local NPR affiliate, we bring you the latest report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism: The State of the News Media 2013.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who watches local television in this or just any market across the nation, but there is more junk food-journalism on local TeeVee news than ever.

The Pew study found that ``in comparison with the topics covered in local news broadcasts studied in 2005 with a sample of newscasts from late 2012 and early 2013, sports weather and traffic grew to where they now fill 40 percent of the airtime.’’

Weather and traffic reports grew from 25 percent of airtime in 2005 to 29 percent in 2012. And the Pew researchers found that the time devoted to sports ``nearly doubled’’ from 7 percent of the news hole on 2005 to 12 percent in 2012.

What’s the problem with all this?

Well, the distressing part is that the research showed in local news that coverage of government dropped dramatically. In 2005, those issues accounted for 7 percent of airtime studied. By the late 2012 and early 2013 study, airtime devoted to politics and government has plummeted to just 3 percent.

``For some time,’’ the report states. ``Television consultants have been advising local television stations that viewers aren’t interested in politics and government and it appears that advice is being taken.’’

Over the same period, the report found a jump in other local news topics. Airtime given over to accidents, disasters and other unusual events went from 5 percent in 2005 to 13 percent in 2012/2013.

The problem with this, of course, is that traffic, weather, sports and disaster reporting is available on many platforms, digital and broadcast. But local television is crucial to reporting on politics and government. What TeeVee is doing on air is catering to a dumbed-down politically illiterate populace.

The only good news is that in the Providence market, WPRI-Channel 12 has at least invested in digital resources, including blogger par excellence Ted Nesi and sidekick Dan McGowan. But this can hardly make up for the on-air decline in coverage of serious issues.  And WJAR-Channel 10 still has such veteran political reporters as Bill Rappeyle and Jim Taricani. Both 12 and 10 have fine public affairs weekend shows that unfortunately run mostly when nobody is watching.

If you think newspapers can take up this slack, well, think again. According to the American Journalism Review, newspaper reporting staffs have been sliced by 30 percent since 2000. The AJR report found (from 2010) that daily newspapers were continuing to slash political reporters, particularly in Washington.

Rhode Islanders can view dramatically how the poor economic fortunes of dead-tree journalism and Internet competition has wreaked havoc on the Providence Journal, the main state legacy journalism outlet. The Projo has severely cut back on local reporting, closing all of the suburban bureaus. And for the first time in the memory of any living reader, the ProJo has no presence covering Rhode Island’s Washington political scene or our congressional delegation. Washington correspondent John Mulligan has retired and has not been replaced in a bureau that once held three or four reporters. The ProJo has also chopped its reports from the news services of the Washington Post and New York Times, meaning diluted national and international reports. With the ProJo bleeding readers and advertisers, this situation doesn’t appear to changing anytime soon. (The paper just laid off two of its top photographers). More fluff and less  serious content is also taking over the ProJo. How else to explain that the lack of blogs on politics, education, crime or medicine but two staffers working on a fashion blog?

By contrast, Rhode Island Public Radio is still a small outlet, but we have been adding reporters over the past several years and upgrading our digital presence. We continue to provide a strong menu of local reporting. Hopefully, you can help us support this.