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The Joy of Local News: Public Radio Curious and Curated

Every day in America, hundreds* of intrepid public radio reporters grab their mics and digital recorders and hit the pavement, digging for audio gold, interviewing people and collecting sound for stories that are closest to home.

Local news is an important part of a station’s commitment to serving and engaging its community. Only a fraction of the stories produced around the country on a daily basis grab the attention of editors at network news magazines and wind up on national broadcasts. That means that most of content created in the public media world isn’t heard or shared as widely as perhaps it could be. 

Larkin Page-Jacobs is trying to do something about that. An AIR member, Page-Jacobs is a reporter and news host for WDUQ in Pittsburgh, PA. She created a blog called Pfeffer News where she curates what she considers to be the best in local public radio news reporting. Launched in March, 2009, Pfeffer News isn’t aiming to compete in the cut-throat news business, but it is an excellent resource for people working in local public media and those teaching the how-to’s of hyperlocal coverage. News-curious types will enjoy discovering stories of interest on the site, and the list of links to local public radio newsroom webpages is very helpful. I caught up with Page-Jacobs by email over the Labor Day weekend and asked her more about her project.

JD: Why are you doing this?

LPJ: I decided to create the site after thinking about all the great stories that don’t make it onto NPR or syndicated news radio shows. As a reporter I know how much effort and how many hours go into quality news stories — then it airs that one time in your local market and that’s it. This is a chance to share great reporting on relevant topics with an audience that probably would never hear the story. In fact there have been a number of times when I’ll listen to a story and think “perfect!” and then will hear it the next day rebroadcast on NPR. Personally, it gives me the chance to see what other people are doing around the country — the kinds of stories that are being reported as well as production style, writing and use of sound.

JD: How are you pulling all of this together? Through RSS?  

LPJ: I’ve always been passionate about public radio and initially looked for a one-stop-shop to visit public radio newsrooms. But I couldn’t find it, so I ended up creating my own links to the newsrooms on Pfeffer News. Now that the links are in place, I visit each site to scope out stories, but there isn’t a shortcut so it’s pretty time consuming.

JD: Are you aiming to post links daily, or is it that some days nothing sings to you?

LPJ: I try to post stories as often as I can, but realistically it ends up being just 3 or 4 times a week. Sometimes that’s because of my own time constraints or there really isn’t anything out there that day that I think works for the site.

JD: This is the kind of thing PRNDI [Public Radio News Directors, Incorporated] should be involved with — are they?

LPJ: PRNDI isn’t involved, though I have considered sending out a blast email to news directors giving them a heads up about the site. I do however try and send an email to every reporter whose story I use, and I’ve gotten a really positive response.

JD: Are you doing this work independently or with station support?

LPJ: I do this independently. The station knows I do it, but that’s about it.

JD: How do you decide what to include if it’s one piece a day – news value, production value, originality, etc?

LPJ: I look for pieces that will appeal to an audience outside of the reporter’s territory. But even if the topic is place specific, if it’s well reported. I think it can resonate with people that don’t live there (for example I don’t tend to use a lot of stories from state capitol reporters, but every now and then a great one jumps out). I try to feature original story ideas and the off-beat. I look for fluidity in delivery and writing, number of voices and contrasting view points when it’s relevant, and also use of sound and production quality. I know that seems like a lot, but great reporting jumps out at you so it’s not very hard to identify. That said, it’s not an exact science, it’s a just a blog highlighting quality reporting.

JD: Are you featuring work other than radio pieces (web only, slideshows, video, special series, commentaries, mobile, crowdsourcing efforts, etc…)

LPJ: This site is solely for news pieces between 2 and a half and 8 minutes long. I occasionally carry a special series or audio postcards, but I don’t do interview pieces, slide shows etc. Every now and then I’ll find two stories from different stations that are complementary and I’ll combine them into one post, like a series.

JD: Do you ever get ideas to “replicate” a story from another city?

LPJ: So far I haven’t had the urge to report on something just because I heard it at another station, but that’s not to say I’m not influenced by what I hear. I constantly pick up tips on delivery, writing, production and use of sound that I want to incorporate in my own reporting.

JD: Do you ever post your own work or work of reporters in your own newsroom? Do you want to?

LPJ: I do sometimes post my own stories, though not always. I’m open to posting stories from my station and have from other reporters in my city who aren’t employed in my newsroom.

JD: Have you predicted any award-winning pieces?

LPJ: Not that I know of, but I hope I have! There are some amazing reporters out there and I look forward to listening to their work when they come out with new pieces. Someone asked me once which reporters’ work I enjoy; I know he meant NPR or other big news names but I started rattling off reporters’ names in Chicago, Arizona, Milwaukee, Seattle and North Carolina. It’s been really cool to follow radio reporters from all corners of the country.

JD: Why Pfeffer News? Christmas cookies?

LPJ: The site isn’t named after the cookie, though I do enjoy them. When I was a little kid I used to call my dad “fa-fa-feffer-noos.” I do not know why. But I decided to name the site after it.

Feffer News is a welcome addition to a growing number of projects in public media that are aggregating or repackaging content to extend the reach and expand the audience. I am watching these various platforms develop and will share more information about them in a future post.

*A recent census commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and conducted by PRNDI found that nearly 6000 journalists are contributing to local news and information programming at CPB-qualified public radio and TV stations (see Current). Most of these folks are working in public radio, which, as the chart below shows, relies heavily on “non-professional” staff including students, interns, volunteers and others. For details on this research conducted during the summer of 2010, see Census of Journalists in Public Radio and TV. 

AIR will be undertaking with ITVS a survey of public media’s independent journalists in fall 2010Market Trends Research has been contracted to do the study.  We’ll be posting information on this site as it comes available.