Strategic Thinking with the "Five Tiers"

In 2006, former NPR programming VP Jay Kernis created an editorial evaluation tool called the "Four Tiers of News Coverage." The tiers structure created a new framework to help stations compare the types of stories their newsrooms produce with those our listeners most value. News Directors use the tiers as a tool to better allocate resources and staff time to strengthen the listener service of their local news.

Since the 'Four Tiers" system was created, the J-MEGS training team has identified an important gap in the framework. We describe them as "stories that explore the people, places, and activities that create the cultural fabric of our communities." We have inserted this "cultural resonance" category to the framework as the new Tier 3, placing it at the mid-level of listener value.


The Tiers system ranks stories from lowest value (TIER 1) to highest value (TIER 5). Click on each tier for a brief description and audio example. Our thanks to KJZZ, WGVU, Northwest Public Radio, KUOW and KPLU for sharing their work with us!

Lowest Value: TIER 1: COMMERCIAL

"If it bleeds, it leads." Crime, fires, sensationalized weather, local sports teams, plus those quirky/human interest kickers that inevitably end the TV newscast or create a "fun" moment on the bottom of page one. This is coverage led by the local newspaper or TV station, rather than by the curiosity or enterprise of the NPR station newsroom.

Example: Winter Storms Bring Snow to Arizona

Tier 2: STAGED

City council meetings, school board meetings, local government and political pronouncements, news conferences. These are scheduled events, pre-scripted in many cases by communications officers and rehearsed by participants. It's pretty safe to cover this stuff-it will usually sound like news. Much of it is not very important in the long run, or very interesting. Much of it is worth a line or two of copy-maybe an actuality-but not a report or interview.

Example: Selective Smoking Ban in Michigan Workplaces


Stories that explore the people, places, and activities that create the cultural fabric of our communities; profiles of local musicians, artists, writers, influential cultural thinkers or well-known local "characters" (such as the ferry boat operator who's worked the local river for 50 years). The "gold standard" for this category has been set nationally by series such as StoryCorps and Hidden Kitchens.

Example: Black Lodge Singers Earn Sixth Grammy Nomination


What is the local impact-or local representation-of a national or international story? This kind of reporting is more difficult, but can be more satisfying to the audience, as it connects local communities and activities to what is happening in the rest of the nation or the world. At its best, this kind of reporting fosters civil discourse, the desire to learn more, and to become more involved. ·

Example: Getting Northwesterners to Care About AIDS In Africa

Highest Value Tier 5: LOCAL MEANING

What news event, person, trend or new idea is or is about to make a real difference in my life and my community? What truly reflects who we are and why we live here? What will have lasting impact? What trends and events are not being noticed?

Example: Mentally Ill Children Face Long Wait for Treatment

Evaluate and Allocate

Listen to the 7-8am hour of Morning Edition across a single week. As you listen, map where your local news falls in the tier structure.

  • How much of your total local news time are you devoting to each tier?
  • Can we do less of Tiers 1 and 2 and more of Tiers 3, 4 and 5?

To see and hear how public radio listeners hear our work, check out the 2007 LNI study Localism and Morning Edition, the first study to gather real-time listener reaction to local segments airing in Morning Edition.

Maximize Return on Investment

By focusing your local news programming on the upper tiers, you will accomplish three goals:

  1. Differentiate your public radio news service from commercial news media.
  2. Allocate your people and resources the most effective way possible
  3. Deliver a greater service to listeners, by emphasizing quality over quantity


The creation of the tiers system was heavily influenced by a number of studies that identify and articulate the fundamental appeal of public radio programming.

Public Radio's Core Values

The Core Values of Local News/Information Talk Programming

Sense of Place: The Value and Values of Localism