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CPB-Funded Local Journalism Centers Grow in Fits and Starts

Katie Donnelly

In late March, CPB announced support for seven collaborative journalism centers in specific regions across the country, designed to counteract the decline of local journalism. Here we check in on how these Local Journalism Centers (LJCs) are progressing, and how well they’re succeeding in engaging users.

The LJCs play host to teams of multimedia journalists reporting on particularly important issues in their regions. This in-depth coverage is then “presented regionally and nationally via digital platforms, community engagement programs and radio and television broadcasts." CPB will provide approximately $10.5 million over a span of two years to the LJCs, after which point the they are expected to become self-sustaining—in preparation, the Centers must submit a sustainability plan to CPB by the ninth month of their grants. The startup money will be used to hire new staff (including community outreach coordinators), develop infrastructure, produce content and host events. To learn more, watch the original press event here, and read CSM's initial response here. And for more comprehensive background information, see this excellent Current article detailing the LJC concept.

So far, progress in the centers has varied greatly. Some of the LJCs have produced a great deal of content, while others are in the early stages. Some of this discrepancy has to do with timing and CPB's grant cycle—for example, the two most recent grantees are just getting started. Of the five centers that are currently online, approaches to the chosen topics are evolving differently.

CPB is planning a series of webinars to provide all of the LJCs with the same information regarding online development, but there is no pressure for the Centers to have similar sites or approaches. Says Kathy Merritt, CPB's Senior Director of Program Investments, "The LJCs reflect the needs, styles, communities, and regions that they serve." Unlike NPR's Argo project, another CPB-supported initiative with some similarities in goals, the Local Journalism Centers do not necessarily aim to be the "number one resource in a local area on a particular topic." Says Merritt, "With the LJCs, the goal is much broader, more specifically focused on community engagement."

Here’s a rundown on their progress to date.

Upper Midwest: Changing Gears

Changing Gears, an LJC that includes Michigan Radio (Ann Arbor), WBEZ (Chicago), and Ideastream (Cleveland) focuses on revitalizing the upper Midwest's economy. The project launched online officially in late September, and so far, it is in the early stages of producing engaging multimedia content. As the online components of the project are new, much of the website is unpopulated, including this map of geotagged posts and the calendar of events.  So far, Changing Gears has done an admirable job of linking on-air and online content by integrating special series, including documentaries and call-in programs. See, for example,  "Still Working," which explores the issue of older citizens who are unable to retire. The site also notes that Changing Gears will begin to hold community town hall events in 2011.

Central Florida: The Healthy State Collaborative

The Central Florida LJC, "The Healthy State Collaborative," is a collaboration among WUSF (Tampa), WEDU (Tampa), WGCU (Fort Meyers), WMFE (Orlando), WMNF (Tampa), and WUFT (Gainesville) that intends to "focus on creating multi-media content related to healthcare issues in central Florida. The goal is to create a platform for community discussion through generating new content and events, including online. The site is extremely informative — it is frequently updated with relevant blog posts and short articles about subjects like smoking bans, domestic violence, and health insurance rates. There is also a Health News Florida widget, and reporters tweet frequently. However, at present, the site is lacking in meaningful community engagement activities (only one event is currently listed on the events page).

Upstate New York: The Innovation Trail

Innovation Trail, the LJC from WXXI (Rochester), WMHT (Schenectady), WNED (Buffalo), WRVO (Oswego), and WSKG (Binghamton), is focused on innovation technology in relation to the dwindling economy in upstate New York. As of now, the Innovation Trail website, with its comprehensive blogging style, is focused on more on offering users information than  inviting community participation.  Only one community engagement event (a call-in "Innovation Conversation") is currently scheduled. Aside from this scheduled event, Innovation Trail currently includes little in the way of community engagement, multimedia, or participatory activities.


The Plains: Harvest Public Media 

Most recently, Harvest Public Media, an LJC comprised of KCUR (Kansas City), Iowa Public Radio, NET (Nebraska), KBIA (Columbia, MO), High Plains Public Radio/KANZ (Garden City, KS), and Kansas Public Radio/KNAU (Lawrence, KS) launched with a kick-off event at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. (See video from the October 12 release here.) According to the project site, "Harvest Public Media seeks to create a rich multimedia resource devoted to food, fuel and field." Although it's packed with interesting stories and blog posts on subjects such as food marketing, food regulations, and renewable fuel sources, the site currently lacks multimedia tools. However, Harvest Public Media does make use of American Public Media's Public Insight Network, relying on users as sources.

The Southwest: Fronteras 

Fronteras, a collaboration from KPBS (San Diego) and KJZZ (Phoenix) currently has the least  web presence of the five Centers that have launched. With a mission to "launch seven bureaus at public radio stations throughout the southwest," Fronteras plans to: 

. . .capitalize on the bureaus' geographical proximity to the Mexican border to highlight the impact of border issues on the American culture, politics, demography, and social order. . .We will develop a multicultural, bilingual reporting team that will set the news agenda for the region, developing community partnerships necessary to explore issues facing a Changing America.

This project has been slower to develop online, says Merritt, due to the risk management involved in sending people across borders. The staff is now in place, and the Fronteras website will be growing in the near future.

Moving towards Multimedia, Collaboration

These Local Journalism Centers are only in the beginning stages of publicizing their work, and they may be laying foundation for more innovative, community-centered programs behind the scenes. However, based on the current websites, it appears most of them are not yet utilizing a public media 2.0 approach. Both user-produced media and community events are currently lacking on even the most robust of the LJC sites. Additionally, while all of the sites are making terrific use of social media (including Facebook, Twitter, and blogging), none so far has a particularly comprehensive multimedia selection. At present, Changing Gears is the only one to have a dedicated multimedia section of the site, although the Healthy State Collaborative has extensive video embedded in individual posts.

As the sites continue to evolve in different directions and at different rates, it will be helpful to have the capacity for national discussion and collaboration across the projects. Merritt says that, so far, there have been monthly conference calls with contact people from the lead stations on each project, as well as recent discussions about collaborating around development, so that LJCs are not competing against one another when it comes to funding. "There haven’t been many opportunities for collaboration so far because everyone is in different places in terms of development," says Merritt. "Once everyone is doing content production, we'll see more of it. CPB is really trying to drive the ongoing conversation around collaboration. We think it's really important. And, frankly, it hasn't really been the practice up till now."