Is News Dead or Is the News Business Model Dead?

A lot of the time, it feels like I’m driving in a coma. That’s not to say that I’m unaware of what’s going on around me — I am, I swear! — but my mental processes are preoccupied with my own issues, leaving the radio (and it is radio because I haven’t gotten around to getting a decent CD changer or MP3 player for my car) as white noise. I joke that I absorb news and information by osmosis, but given how many current events I am conversant about, maybe learning-by-osmosis isn’t so far-fetched after all.

This is a long way of explaining how I spent over a week listening the KPCC (89.3, Pasadena, California) pledge drive. And at first, said drive was so much white noise, but then…osmosis did its thing. I realized that people were giving money, lots of it, to the radio station. While this is the desire outcome of a pledge drive, it struck me rather forcefully that listeners local and distant were willing paying money to become members of the station.

For the first time ever, I actually listened to the pledge drive. Guess what? In an era where (presumably) we expect information to be free and where (presumably) news can’t make money, KPCC was raking in some serious cash. The KPCC website doesn’t say whether or not this year’s goal was achieved, but I do know that quite a few challenges — where someone offers a plum contribution if certain events, a set number of new members or dollars, happen in a specific time period — were met. I spend a lot of time in the car, so this is practically a scientific study.

So what’s going on here? The way the contributors explained it, they believe in the station, in the people, and in the organization. KPCC has gone from sleepy NPR station to robust local news machine (with bureaus in Sacramento and Washington D.C.) in the years I’ve been listening. At a time when the Los Angeles Times is eliminating local and state coverage, KPCC is beefing it up. And — whoa! — people want to help support that.

As I listened throughout the week, I heard many stories from listeners who were moved to contribute to KPCC (we, ahem, did our traditional year-end donation, so I was guilt-free). Regular contributors, new contributors who realized the value, recently laid-off contributors who believe the station and its work is worth dipping into limited funds. The common thread was that this service which is available for free, across many platforms is worth going to a website or picking up a phone to help fund news gathering.

We hear a lot of doom and gloom about news, about the future of newspapers, the fact that people presumably won’t pay for the cow when they can get the milk for free. I’m not convinced this is true. Yes, some people see free as some sort of divine right (up to the moment when they are on the losing side of free), but most people get the concept of paying for goods and services.

While KPCC relies upon that oldest of public radio tricks, the fund drive, it also makes it a point to remain current on the technological front. Put another way, KPCC serves its community even as that community evolves. Like other news businesses, there is squeeze coming from outside organizations, such as NPR, which is looking for evermore cash, but the indicators are clear.

As long as KPCC offers the service its community desires, that community will continue to support the station. Now I’m not one to draw the obvious line (ha!), but it seems some struggling news organizations can learn valuable lessons from the story of KPCC…

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