April 17, 2020

Sarah Lutman photo

Across the United States, public media newsrooms are doubling down on their efforts to inform local communities about the dangerous unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re setting up remote reporting and broadcasting capabilities, adding reporters to their teams, and ramping up the flow of information to ensure timeliness and accuracy. 

Will public media also use this opportunity to address known challenges and accelerate change? And, if these strategies are successful, will public media have positioned itself more favorably in the minds of journalism funders? Here are three opportunities—for public service certainly, and for revenue, potentially—that the pandemic opens to public media newsrooms.

Serve the Full Community

Public media has long touted its “grass tops” service to affluent, educated audiences. But in recent years, this audience focus has become a significant liability for public media among grantmakers considering local journalism support. Gaps in the reach of news and information are increasingly well documented, showing that communities of color, immigrants, and low-income people are not reflected by or reached through legacy news, including public media.

Unfortunately these are the same populations being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The coronavirus demands an accelerated approach to advancing newsrooms’ equity and diversity efforts, to help vulnerable communities reverse the march of the disease and lift up disparities in health outcomes that require both short- and long-term solutions. 

Connecting with local partners who are trusted sources and conduits of information for communities of color, and translation of key public information into multiple languages, are just two of the ways that local public media organizations are responding. But there’s a reason grantmakers look beyond public broadcasting to support news organizations already devoted to serving diverse populations: for decades, public media’s track record has been weak. The pandemic offers all of the evidence needed to build an urgent, moral case for broadening the diversity of public media’s staffing, governance, sources, and reach.

Move Beyond Broadcast

News consumption is increasingly digital and social. Most public media organizations are using digital and social platforms to reach their communities beyond broadcast, but too often as secondary, not primary content platforms. One argument is that radio and audio listening remain strong and are clearly the wheelhouse of public media news.

Many grantmakers are familiar with the listening data, but a focus on audio-only seems outdated, ignoring the opportunity to bring the news to all the places people are looking for it. Nonprofit digital start-ups are attractive to funders who are looking for ways to support local journalism on new platforms.

The pandemic can help speed up public media’s digital adaptation. Newsrooms can convert resources to their digital news teams, and learn from audience behavior during the crisis. Audiences identified now can help build a multi-platform audience for the future. And, while audio editors work to polish stories for later broadcast that are mainly focused on drive-times, digital editors can be pushing out critical news and information to social and digital platforms on continuous content streams, using digital’s speed and agility to expand timeliness, reach, and service.


It’s no secret that newsrooms are shrinking and some communities are left with fewer (or no) viable local news organizations. There has never been a better time to collaborate among remaining entities to make the efficient use of time and resources. With social distancing mandates, stay-at-home schooling, and other constraints, reporters and editors also can spell each other by alternating shifts, dividing and thereby expanding coverage, sharing live feeds, and finding ways to collaboratively reach different audiences. 

Public radio collaborations have been largely built inside the public media system, as multi-regional editorial groups sharing topical coverage, or as state-wide alliances that cover state government and regional concerns. But public media also can collaborate with a whole host of local news organizations from network television to for-profit newspapers to community and ethnic media. By sharing content between and among news organizations, reach and capacity expand for all. That’s why many grantmakers support local journalism collaboratives, and efforts that encourage them. 

To participate, public media organizations will need to more frequently step out of the public media system, into the broader emerging practices around collaboration. Too often these intra-community relationships have been viewed as competitive to public media. That view is outdated.

The pandemic is nothing short of a global tragedy, one we all hope will soon abate. But it is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actualize change, to advance core elements of public media’s mission for the 21st century, and to become an even more essential service to the American public. Let’s not miss out on this chance to thrive.

Sarah Lutman photo