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Harvard Kennedy School Professor’s Research Shows Radio Stations Can Fill Local News Gaps

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Thomas E. Patterson published a paper last week about the role that radio stations could play in filling the gap left by the decline of the local paper.
Harvard Kennedy School Professor Thomas E. Patterson published a paper last week about the role that radio stations could play in filling the gap left by the decline of the local paper. By Julian J. Giordano
By Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writer

Radio stations could potentially fill the gap in local news left by the decline of the newspaper — but only if they are given more funding, according to a study by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Thomas E. Patterson published last week.

Patterson’s study collected data from 215 National Public Radio member stations through online surveys. The surveys consisted of questions about the station’s staff size, average funding and income, and conditions of local news in their area of coverage.

Patterson said his search for a potential alternative to the “crisis at a local level” was prompted by observations of declines in newspaper popularity dating back to 2000 and its detrimental effects on local neighborhoods.

“We have a crisis at the local level in many communities, as the newspaper either shuts its door or gets hollowed out to the point where it’s just a shallow former self,” Patterson said in an interview.

“What we know from good studies is that what happens in those communities is that they stop acting like communities, the social trust diminishes, participation in local elections goes down, the accountability of local officials weakens,” he added.

After analyzing the data, Patterson said he was surprised by the extent to which many radio stations are understaffed and the impact this has on the station’s type of coverage. According to Patterson, understaffed stations produce fewer local stories and instead “carry the national programming.”

“What the study shows is that the smaller your staff, the less local you do,” he said. “If they want to, pretty much through the day, they can carry the national programming.”

Patterson said that though he sees the value in exploring alternatives to fill the gap in local news, such as newsletters or television, the production cost for radio is much lower than the cost for other forms of media.

“If you’re talking about production costs, you can do a lot of radio for much less than you can do television,” he said. “You can be telling the same story on television that you’re telling on radio, and it costs many times more.”

Mark Jacobs, former metro editor of the Chicago Tribune, said the news scene in Chicago strongly supports Patterson’s conclusion. According to Jacob, the Chicago Public Radio Station WBEZ, after merging with the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, has since become “one of the most influential — if not the most influential — news sources in Chicago.”

“Public radio is indeed an area that could help rescue local journalism from the widespread disinvestment we’ve seen in recent decades,” Jacob said.

According to Patterson’s research, using radios to fill the gap in local news coverage can only be achieved with government funding and a “national fundraising campaign directed at major private donors.”

“We need more poured into local news because of information deficits at the local level,” Patterson said.

“All sorts of players, they need to think harder about what happens when information about the community begins to dry up — that can be a democratic crisis,” he added.

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at asher.montgomery@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @asherjmont.

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