Why doesn’t public broadcasting play a bigger role in American news coverage?

Americans provide comparatively little support for public broadcasting—an estimated $4 per capita in government funds and private donations combined. The roughly $400 million that Congress appropriates for public broadcasting each year amounts to $1.30 per US citizen—compared to an estimated $22 per capita in government spending on public broadcasting in Canada, about $80 in Britain, and more than $100 in Denmark and Finland. The federal money in the United States goes to the quasi- i ndependent Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB then gives grants to nonprofit public television and radio stations, most of which are licensed to colleges, universities, and other nonprofit organizations. CPB grants account for only a fraction of the budgets of most of those public stations—and only a tiny fraction for the largest stations. Most of their financial support comes from philanthropic, corporate, and personal donations and, in the case of a few large stations, the sale of programs they produce and syndicate to other public broadcasting stations. Many donations are credited on the air in what increasingly sounds to listeners as abbreviated advertisements.

Only a small amount of the CPB money makes its way into news. Three-fourths of CPB grant funds goes to public television stations, which, as we have discussed, do very little news reporting. Instead, the television stations spend most of their money on broadcast facilities, overhead, entertainment programming, and fundraising. Only a quarter of the CPB money—about $100 million each year—goes to public radio stations, even though they greatly outnumber public television stations. And most public radio stations' fundraising supports only very small news operations.

In recent years, the CPB has spurred a movement to increase local journalism on public broadcasting stations, investing more than $20 million in various projects since 2009. For example, to encourage collaboration among stations that could increase the impact of their news staffs and resources, as of 2014 the CPB had made grants to nine "Local Journalism Centers" in which a number of public radio and television stations partner on regional news coverage of subjects including agriculture in the Midwest, education in the South, the changing economy in Pennsylvania, energy in the mountain and prairie states, the environment in the Northwest, and immigration and border issues in the Southwest. Some of them have had difficulty collaborating effectively across distances, and two of the partnerships have disbanded. But the remaining seven—comprising fifty-five public radio and television stations—have been continuing the experiment.

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