WNYC CEO: Difficulty of Public Funding of Journalism Gets Underestimated

Will public funding, the public radio model be the savior for high quality, ethically sound journalism? Laura Walker, President and Chief Executive Officer of WNYC Public Radio, says, “I don’t think it is an easy model, I think it’s actually harder, and I think it gets underestimated.” To learn more, watch the Leonard Witt video interview with Walker and read the transcript below. The interview is part of the Center for Sustainable Journalism’s Future of Journalism series. Sign up for Future of Journalism alerts on the Center’s home page.


Leonard Witt:  Hi, I’m Len Witt and I’m here with Laura Walker and she’s with WNYC in New York, Public Radio…TV too or just radio?

Laura Walker:  Radio, just radio.

 Witt:  Just radio ok. We’re here at the Yale Conference- Who Will Pay for the Messenger. So the question that’s on my mind is what do you think the future of journalism is going to be?

 Walker:   That’s a big question. I think we’re in a real period of dislocation and creative dislocation, and financial – the economic model.  I’m not a pessimist, I believe that there’s going to be a lot of interesting journalism that will come out of this time.  I think that the model of what a journalist is, is going to change from somebody who sits at their computer, and calls up their sources, and writes a report that is a one way report, to something that is a much more organic process that includes input from lots of people out there.  I think in many ways it’s harder to retain the journalistic principals when you have so many sources and you have to check them all. But I think several newspapers, a lot of newspapers will survive, many will die. I just… I hope that there will be both the entrepreneurial ventures in the for-profit world, the non-profit entrepreneurial ventures, and some media organizations that are investing in journalism.

 Witt:   Now everyone talks about the public media models, so many of these new start-ups, you know, “Oh let’s do like public radio does, we can raise a lot of money.”  Now maybe they can but what does that do… Is the pot big enough for them and for you, and is that a good idea?

Walker:  I think that in some cases it can be very naive but I think we need to expand, too.  I think frankly there are a handful of public radio stations that are out there and have …. Maybe not a handful probably 30 to 40 public radio stations that are doing good really solid journalism in their communities. In terms of the philanthropic model there’s money out there if we all do good stuff and I think it’s really frankly about vision.  Somebody like Paul Bass in New Haven is, you know… yeah, he can do that because he has vision and he has a way he can raise money from foundations,  and he’s nimble and he’s ambitious. So yeah, I think, I actually think that it also will raise the bar for all of us.  And so I don’t think it is an easy model.  I think it’s actually harder, and I think it gets underestimated. I think you have to have a board in the end that’s going to also help with fundraising.  There are, I think, many major donors and some foundations that will fund this. As I said in the panel, I think the diversified revenue stream is critical, critical. For journalistic reasons as well.

Witt:  I’m thinking they really have to go out to the people and give them some ownership, that’s my own feeling.  In a place like Georgia right now you have WABE, which is owned by the school board.  And then you have GPB, which is kind of owned by the state.   This is not a good formula for high quality, ethically sound journalism and so how do we get around that?  You do have independents like yourself and MPR and OPB out in Oregon.

 Walker:   I think there are some that are owned – like WBUR in Boston.  They are owned by the University, they’re great. They’ve been able to build a really strong news department.  I was talking to somebody from WSHU.  They’re owned by Sacred Heart University. They have a real investment in news.  I think partnerships… where there isn’t a strong public radio station… Hopefully there will be entrepreneurial ventures even where there is. We’re working with Pro Publica.  We’re working with the BBC, WGBH and others, so I think partnerships will help. I think there are people in every community where there are great journalists, like you, and great reporters.  I think we need a new model.  Owned by the people?  I’d love to hear more about it. I’m not sure.

Witt:   Well I’m just thinking in terms of co-operatives. Go out a say “you want a journalist to cover civil rights?  We’ll get you the journalist, we’ll build the infrastructure, you can be an owner of this co-operative just like you would be of a food co-operative, or just like you would be if you were in Green Bay and that’s a co-operative ownership of that team. It would prevent the Sam Zells taking over, it would make sure the money went right directly to the news, and people would have a vote, even on some of the board members.

Walker:  So who are the members, just anybody?

Witt:  Anybody who wants to pay in the public. I know it sounds bizarre but I’m actually getting some traction on this in Georgia.

Walker:   That’s interesting.

 Witt:  It would be great to partner with public media stations especially those that have some problems with going out and doing the coverage themselves. It’s sort of like Pro Publica, but rather than doing just investigative reporting this might be on civil rights or endangered species or whatever.

Walker:  Vertical themes?

 Witt:   Right. Right.

Walker:  Somebody mentioned the Argo Project that NPR is kind of the catalyst for, and that’s really about, I think about 12 different streams of more in depth coverage. I think it’s a very interesting model.

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