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America’s public broadcasters are thriving – here’s what Australian media can learn from them

When ABC chair Ita Buttrose told a National Press Club lunch earlier this year that the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol could be blamed on the lack of a “well-funded public broadcaster”, she echoed a dangerous misunderstanding about the American media landscape.

In fact, America’s public broadcasters are better funded than Australia’s, and the rise of Trumpism led to a golden age of journalism in the United States.

The January 6 insurrection happened in spite of excellent journalism. Australian policymakers and media leaders need a more sophisticated understanding of America’s information ecosystem if they’re to counter the same forces here.

Buttrose said in May that countries without a well-funded public broadcaster often have examples of right-wing extremism, as was evident in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Jose Luis Magana/AP

A different definition of ‘public funding’

The US has two public broadcast systems. The biggest of them - National Public Radio - attracts an audience of 57 million each week. One in five US adults gets their political news from NPR. That is the seventh-largest audience of any news organisation in any medium in the US.

If you’ve ever listened to This American Life, Serial or Radio Lab - among the most downloaded podcasts ever - you’re part of the American public radio audience.

Read more: Philanthropy is funding serious journalism in the US, it could work for Australia too

NPR staff would agree with Buttrose that they need more funding, but not in the way she means. US public radio has nearly twice the budget of the entire ABC, with US$1.3 billion (AUD$1.8 billion) in annual revenue for NPR, the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) and the 123 largest local public radio stations.

Annual revenue for public TV in the US is smaller at $US690 million (A$927 million). Still, 16% of all US adults get their political news from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), comparable to the BBC audience in the US.

The depth of NPR funding shows in deeply reported programs such as Morning Edition and The New Yorker Radio Hour, which feature experienced journalists (some of whom have been on the same beat for decades). Solid resources underpin shows that are dense with field recordings and interviews with real people across America and from 17 international bureaus.

NPR has also funded a spring of innovative, popular podcasts such as Invisibilia and In the Dark, which are finding large global audiences.

A different definition of ‘public broadcaster’

Buttrose’s narrow definition of “public broadcaster” is based on how much money comes directly from government.

NPR’s coalition of 1,000+ content makers and stations receives only 12% of its funding directly from the government. But the bulk of funding still comes from taxpayers. Public radio stations are structured as not-for-profits and all contributions are tax deductible. Nearly 40% of their funding comes directly from audience members, while another 10% comes from foundations.

“Corporate sponsorships” from carefully vetted companies – which are also mostly tax deductible – make up 19% of NPR’s funding.

Read more: NPR is still expanding the range of what authority sounds like after 50 years

In 2019, individual donations to the top 123 public radio stations totalled $US430 million (A$593 million) from 2.35 million listeners. The average listener contribution was $US183 (A$250).

Those are still taxpayer dollars – money diverted from government coffers where it might have been used on education, health care or infrastructure. But by making news media donations tax deductible, the US government allows audiences to decide which public interest journalism they want to support with their tax money, if any at all.

That, in turn, gives news media that qualify for tax-deductible status a strong incentive to reach as big an audience as possible with content that is so trusted, valuable and engaging, people want to pay to help keep it alive.

It’s the same case Guardian Australia has made to persuade 170,000 readers to voluntarily contribute to keep its content free for all.

This is not necessarily an argument to change the ABC funding model in Australia. (The ABC only accepts money from government – and none from donors – in the belief this protects it from influence.) Australia also has a more dispersed population and smaller news media market, which is highly vulnerable to foreign competition.

It is an argument for a more sophisticated understanding of the options available to all public interest media as they battle for financial survival.

Like NPR, Australian not-for-profit media should have access to tax-deductible status. Among content makers, only The Conversation, Australian Associated Press and the Judith Neilson Institute have made their way through the opaque and subjective government approval process.

The ACCC and a coalition of media and politicians have advocated for this change, but it has yet to gain parliamentary support.

A pioneer in reader-revenue business models

This audience revenue-driven business model made NPR a pioneer in the world of media “community building”, which has gone mainstream as advertising revenue has shrunk. Successful media businesses are now working hard to replicate NPR’s success in persuading audiences to pay.

Jad Abumrad, creator of the groundbreaking public radio program Radio Lab, explained the concept to my class at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York in 2015.

Build audience trust and engagement with authenticity, he said. Tell stories that are driven by real people, with language that is accessible to all. Reporter diversity is key to ensuring stories engage with a broad audience. Be transparent about the reporting process and funding (financial statements including staff salaries are published online).

Like all American public radio journalists I’ve met, he had no envy of the government-funded model for public broadcasters. Audience funding makes journalists answerable and responsive to their audiences, he said, and he liked it that way. It has also protected NPR from government pressure.

Read more: Funding public interest journalism requires creative solutions. A tax rebate for news media could work

A golden age of journalism is not enough to stop extremism

In truth, the rise of Trumpism has been a gift to American journalism in important ways. President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press and democracy itself unleashed a flood of funding from audiences and philanthropists, who saw quality journalism as their best defence against authoritarianism.

The New York Times quadrupled its subscriptions to eight million, while The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have each grown to more than three million subscribers.

The rise of Trumpism was rooted in America’s decades-long lack of investment in education, healthcare and a social safety net. The resulting inequality was fanned by right-wing media and voices on social media.

Those same forces have driven a big rise in far-right politics in Europe and the UK, in spite of government-funded broadcasters and strong social welfare nets. And, as the pandemic has made clear, social-media-driven, right-wing extremism and growing inequality are alive in Australia, too.

Australia will need strong media to combat this rise. A more nuanced understanding of what’s happening in the US media ecosystem is a critical place to start.

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