Quicker <i>and</i> Deeper?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2004

Quicker and Deeper?   

That's the ambitious goal NPR has set for itself as it continues to evolve into a primary source of news. Its audience and endowment have grown dramatically, as has its roster of foreign correspondents. But some fear the heightened emphasis on breaking news will come at the expense of depth and innovative programming.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

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In 1979, Robert Siegel went to London for National Public Radio. Siegel was the foreign staff, the first person to work overseas for the 9-year-old broadcaster. The Big Three television networks, meanwhile, each had overseas bureaus numbering in the double digits. In those low-tech, no-money days, Siegel used to take his audiotapes to Heathrow Airport and ask a flight attendant or passenger boarding a plane to Washington, D.C., to kindly transport them to NPR headquarters. It was a trick he learned from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Once he took his daughter along to appear a little less suspicious.

Twenty-five years later, NPR's foreign desk is far from the days of plying random airline passengers with tapes. In a complete role reversal, the network now has 14 foreign bureaus more than ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox News Channel.

NPR has evolved from a lone man in London to a leading source of foreign news, from a pack of revolutionary radio artistes to a cadre of journalists, from an alternative outlet where staffers constantly had to explain to potential sources what the heck National Public Radio was to a primary news provider. A place that would like to be known for more than kicking Bob Edwards out of the "Morning Edition" anchor chair.

While many media outlets have watched their audiences decline over the past decade--and radio has largely bowed out of the news game--NPR has grown tremendously. Listenership more than doubled between 1993 and 2003. Twenty-two million people tune in to NPR programming weekly, almost 19 million of them for its newsmagazines. Twelve years ago, the budget was $36 million; today, it's $106 million, $48 million of which is for news. In 1998, the news staff numbered about 250. It's grown by 50 people since, and Bruce Drake, vice president for news and information, envisions adding another 20 to 25 within the next 16 months.

Despite their success and near monopoly of radio journalism, Drake and other executives don't talk as if they're sitting pretty. They want to continue to grow, and with a more than $200 million bequest from the late Joan B. Kroc, most of which was added to the measly $35 mil previously in the NPR Endowment, funding such expansion is less of a problem.

NPR seems to be heading in the opposite direction of most broadcasters these days. Either that or it's merely two decades behind. While staffers love more resources, more people, more bureaus, many worry that this evolution into the mainstream may go too far--they don't want to become the enemy. From top executives on down, NPRers talk about not wanting to be CNN. Not that there's anything wrong with a network that has correspondents in 27 foreign bureaus, but those who love NPR's depth, its lengthy, heavily reported features and its trademark sense-of-place sound fear that a move to be faster is a move to endless stand-ups on the courthouse steps. Breaking news could leave room for little else.

Diplomatic correspondent Mike Shuster is happy with the combination of offbeat features and more hard news, and the competition among correspondents for airtime, he says, has made the network sharper. But, he says, "There is a worry among some that CNN for radio is some kind of worthy goal... I think it lowers the quality of journalism." The addition of programming and the need to update shows as new editions air across the country means correspondents are asked to file more often. The discrete shows give reporters time to "fashion something that's more clear and coherent and actually reported, therefore, in my view, more closer to the truth," Shuster says.

Constant standing-in-front-of-the-microphone news? "That's not the kind of journalism I want to do and that's not the kind of journalism that I want NPR to do," he says. "And there is pressure to do that sometimes."

NPR President and CEO Kevin Klose, who joined the network in 1998, doesn't see NPR turning into a headline service. "It needs to be there for the breaking news, but it needs to be there for the context... We're not going to be a camera looking down on Times Square to define a blackout," Klose says. "We're going to have to go into the streets to find that out. So we're always going to be somewhat slower."

He envisions an explanatory journalism machine that spits out an incredible amount of material--but gets going faster. "So the question is can we be both deeper and quicker?" he asks. His answer: "Yes."

In the hour after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, anyone who wanted to know what was going on in New York City wasn't listening to National Public Radio. Around 9 a.m., in a news update, NPR included a short, low-key line: A plane had hit the trade center. More later.

While television morning news carried live video that showed a second plane exploding into the building, NPR had no automated system for preempting the feed of "Morning Edition" to its stations. Minnesota Public Radio, for one, cut to live programming of its own.

It's hard to believe there wasn't a contingency plan in case a horrific event occurred, but NPR isn't a broadcaster with its own air. The 275 members (with 773 stations) are very protective of their broadcast rights and responsibilities, says Klose, a former Washington Post reporter and editor who also oversaw the U.S. government's international radio and television news services. It took a catastrophic event to change that and to move NPR another giant step toward becoming a comprehensive news organization.

"I don't think that before September 11 that we really thought of ourselves as being in the breaking news business," says Senior Vice President for Programming Jay Kernis. "But the world changed in such a degree that it meant as a primary news provider, we couldn't hesitate."

NPR has since instituted a system that enables the network to take over the air of its member stations if big news breaks. About 90 of its members have the equipment, which can be turned on and off, to allow NPR to do this. The network also has adopted a procedure for informing stations how urgent the news of the moment is.

No matter the importance of breaking news, Kernis says the goal is to be right rather than first. "We don't want to be late; we don't want to be last," he says. "But there's so much rumor that gets on the air," and NPR doesn't want to broadcast speedy-but-wrong information.

As for 9/11, whatever listeners NPR lost because of its sluggish start, it more than made up for it in the following days. The network went live for more than two-and-a-half days with award-winning coverage and watched its audience numbers soar. Says Klose: "On the day before [9/11] the national audience was measuring around 16 million a week, and literally the day afterward it was measuring around 20 million. And it's never gone down from that, and it keeps going up." (NPR won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for coverage of September 11 and the war in Afghanistan.)

That day lit a spark under NPR to quicken its pace toward becoming a full-service, primary news source, but the movement had been underway for most of the network's existence. As FCC news requirements loosened and most radio stations pretty much abandoned journalism, NPR, aided by listenership growth and member stations' demands, became a formidable news operation.

Shuster, a roving foreign correspondent who once worked in Moscow and London for NPR, points to the fall of the Berlin Wall as a critical moment. "I just saw the growth coming from 1989, when the world changed, and when we decided to be comprehensive about our coverage of big world events."

In the past two years NPR opened bureaus in Baghdad and Istanbul and moved the Tokyo bureau to Hanoi. (In the U.S., NPR has correspondents in 23 cities.) The investment in foreign news, and the subsequent audience augmentation, Shuster says, "challenges the conventional wisdom about foreign news and American journalism since the end of the Cold War... We built the foreign desk... And it's paid off."

Bruce Drake, who joined NPR in 1991 and became V.P. for news in 2000, says the first gulf war was a milestone moment for the network. Bill Buzenberg, Drake's predecessor, was committed to providing substantial war coverage, and he devoted $1 million to that effort. But Drake says that decision didn't have a lasting effect.

Getting the organization to shift to a primary-source culture, Drake says, was a struggle. Those who had grown up with NPR worried that more hard news meant less depth and less time to actually report. That 24/7 CNN effect was, and remains, the ultimate fear for an organization that made its mark with long-long-long-form journalism.

But the organization needed to quicken its pace. Drake recalls days in the mid-1990s when the national desk "would not have one story to offer for that night." Now, there's a half-dozen daily. Hourly newscasts weren't a part of NPR programming until 1989. The evolution accelerated, Drake says, in the mid-1990s, when he brought in now-Managing Editor Barbara Rehm, a former colleague from Drake's time at New York's Daily News. "She's 10 times tougher than me," he says.

Drake also says that age-old criticism that NPR is a left-leaning news outlet used to have some merit--but not anymore. "We weren't as conscious of the need to be balanced in our coverage as we have grown to be in the last 10 years," he says. Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin says the overwhelming complaint he hears from listeners is that NPR is too conservative and practices less journalism than stenography for the government.

Buzenberg, now senior vice president of news for Minnesota Public Radio, recalls other moments when NPR didn't jump on big news. "I can remember the Waco fire and disaster, the day that hit [in 1993], and again, there was an effort to get something on." But people could turn on CNN and see what was happening, and member stations said, " 'Hey, where's the network?' and I would say, 'Well, we have one reporter in Waco and he's filing tonight,' " Buzenberg says. The transition to covering breaking news was very tough, he says, "but we had to be able to move to that capability."

And it's a big effort for a relatively small organization, he says. With a 300-person newsroom, "to cover the nation and the world on a 24/7 basis..this is amazing; this is an incredible feat."

That 300-strong newsroom may not have grown quite as quickly as the hard-news ambitions. When I mention the word "depth" to legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, she interrupts: "Forget depth. How about just do the job? I mean, you can't jump at every twitch and then expect to know what the whole picture is. You can't. We don't have a big enough staff to do that."

Totenberg and others say the addition of "Day to Day," a midday newsmagazine that launched in July 2003, has increased the demand to file reports and updates, taking time away from filling a notebook. One day earlier this year, Totenberg says, she was asked to update a report for "Morning Edition" and file for "Day to Day" and the first hour of "All Things Considered." In a staff meeting, she finally said, "If you want me to know anything for me to report, you have to leave me alone for a few hours to do it." Everybody nodded, she recalls. "I think they got it."

Drake agrees the staff is stretched a little thin. "One of the truisms of NPR," he says, is that "your goals get out ahead of your resources." With "Day to Day," the network "had not anticipated the amount of reporter material that has ended up going into it" for the show to be successful.

He doesn't want NPR to be CNN, Drake says. "The mark of NPR is the produced piece... If we get to the point where reporters are doing endless series of stand-ups, then, to me, the franchise isn't worth it."

With the Kroc money and a company commitment to invest in news, he says, the staff will be bolstered, and he and other executives aren't seeking less depth--they want more. NPR wants to add investigative and enterprise journalism to its repertoire, and to make that goal a reality, the company hired former Baltimore Sun Editor William K. Marimow as a managing editor to oversee national news. Rehm will be in charge of foreign coverage.

Part of Marimow's mission will be to infuse an investigative predisposition throughout the staff. "Everybody who has a beat ought to be doing investigative work..and in-depth work," Marimow said in April, a few weeks before his start date, emphasizing that this newspaper guy intends to listen and learn from his radio colleagues.

(The lack of investigative work on the network is one of the main complaints of internal critic and Ombudsman Dvorkin. His other beef is a tendency toward soft and overly civil interviews.)

Drake says NPR will be reviewing its beat system, determining which ones should be retained and adding reporters to some, so there's someone to do the daily reports and somebody to break free--to do "more of the kind of reporting that I would like to get on the air."

NPR executives acknowledge that balancing breaking news with in-depth reporting isn't easy. "The issue for us is to be both faster and deeper, which is kind of a contradiction," says Klose. "But that's what we're trying to do."

He says NPR was still slow off the mark after the Columbia space shuttle disaster on February 1, 2003, and during a massive blackout that hit the Midwest, Northeast and part of Canada last August. "All these events are telling us what more we need to do here."

In the meantime, the audience keeps coming. "We're not just rewriting wire," Klose says of NPR's popularity. "Our specialty, as you know, is sort of long-form radio journalism, and nobody's doing that. It's an absolutely unique niche."

Those inside and outside NPR want to keep it that way. Can the network enter the breaking news business, an admirable and perhaps necessary pursuit, without being swallowed up by it?

Adam Clayton Powell III, who teaches at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, was vice president of news and information at NPR from 1987 to 1990. He worries that the network is so caught up with the hard news cycle that it doesn't make time for long reports or subjects off the news. "I certainly saw that at CBS News," he says, where he was manager of network news in the late '70s. As CBS could do more same-day stories, as videotape replaced film, live and breaking news devoured the broadcast.

For NPR, it's a challenge of competing with the mainstream without becoming too mainstream or, that dirty word in public broadcasting, "commercial."

"I think that the things that NPR is aspiring to do, to be more of a national and international news source of first choice, is fine," says Torey Malatia, president and general manager of Chicago Public Radio. "In fact, it's probably the most meaningful evolutionary step they could take. What concerns me is I'm not particularly certain they have an understanding of what that might mean."

Malatia says he has heard some adjustments to the main newsmagazine programs that "have a kind of half-hearted or perhaps one might say non-characteristic attempt at hipness and cuteness"--the kind of lighter, pop culture bits that air as filler on the network evening news shows.

"I think that there's this sense that once one begins to enter the fray of competing for major national audiences as a primary news source would, one needs to offer those things that other primary news sources are offering... Things like, who's getting a divorce in Hollywood and what's the latest on some dead rock star's legacy and God knows what."

In the past, NPR hasn't been obsessed with beating out other press organizations, says Malatia. "If we do this, we will have to be much more concerned with competition, and I just hope it doesn't lead us away from our distinctiveness."

If some of this concern at an entity that's garnering both listeners and multimillion-dollar donations seems overwrought, it's only because so many people have a proprietary stake in NPR. "A lot of us love what we've helped to create and we want to protect it," says Shuster, who joined the network in 1980.

A number of staffers have been with NPR since the '70s, and even the newcomers share a language that can approach the evangelical. They talk of the power of radio, its intimacy, its emotion, the ability of sound to say so much more than pictures. It's the heartfelt, soul-filled stories that listeners remember, they say--such as the 12-minute radio diary of a 393-pound, 16-year-old from Brooklyn on his struggle with obesity, or the Lost and Found Sound series, launched in 1999 with the aim of exploring the role of sound in the 20th century. Segments have ranged from the historical (the story of Thomas Alva Edison, the father of recorded sound) to the quirky (an oral history of a man through his answering machine messages).

This is an organization that was founded with a mission statement that is as poetic as it is idealistic. "NPR will serve the individual... It will encourage a sense of active constructive participation rather than apathetic helplessness," Bill Siemering, a member of NPR's founding board of directors and the author of that 1970 statement, says, rattling off some of its key phrases. NPR wouldn't "substitute superficial blandness for genuine diversity in regions, values and cultural and ethnic minorities."

The listener would feel that "having listened has made a difference."

Siemering, now president of Developing Radio Partners, an organization that establishes and supports radio in new democracies, says the more "reflective journalism" that the mission statement espouses is being overshadowed by the news of the day. He does give NPR many kudos--"I think it really has become the most important electronic source of information," he says. But, he adds, "I think there may be less opportunity for some of the more experimental or the longer sound documentaries."

Of course, that very week, in late April, NPR's "All Things Considered" was airing a five-part series, made up of 12-minute and longer segments, on the life of Nelson Mandela. Comprised of historic news clips and interviews, the documentary by independent producers Joe Richman and Sue Johnson marked the 10-year anniversary of the first open elections in South Africa that made Mandela president. That, says Siemering, is "an example of the kind of thing that could be on more often but isn't."

Jay Allison, founder of Atlantic Public Media in Massachusetts and an independent producer who has worked with NPR numerous times, says the network still airs quirky and edgy material. He's not sure, though, if edgy can survive as NPR furthers its hard-news evolution. "The more they become a newspaper of the airwaves, the more that will stick out like a sore thumb."

As the rest of the media become packaged and glitzy, Allison says, "the simple sound of a human voice that sounds like he's actually talking to you..is really appealing." That's the good part of NPR, what's attracted more listeners these days. The bad part of that growth, he says, is that "they've homogenized their sound. They take fewer risks with content or style. They're bland to the point of being easily parodied, and they're increasingly less sort of public, and the public is wild and unruly and various and surprising, and..what I really like about public radio are the moments that it captures that."

Senior Vice President for Programming Kernis has heard this concern from people in public radio, and he shares it. The problem, he says, is "the system bears only so much innovation. Independents and others say, 'Be brave, be brave.' Well that doesn't mean anybody's going to carry it." Member stations, Kernis says, "can be more innovative than us, because they're in their own markets and they know the tolerances and expectations of their markets." There's still innovation on NPR programs, he says. "It's just a little slower."

Minnesota Public Radio's Buzenberg doesn't believe that the network has lost something as it has evolved. American RadioWorks, a documentary unit of MPR, has produced a number of pieces that NPR has aired. In April, "Weekend Edition" broadcast 12- to 18-minute segments from the unit's hour-long documentary about Rwandan genocide. "There is a higher bar, a higher standard you have to meet to get a longer piece on," Buzenberg says, "and I would say for the audience, nothing wrong with that."

Allison is the executive producer of Transom.org and co-creator of Public Radio Exchange (prx.org), two Web sites that aim to fill the void for experimental work and to bring new voices to public radio. Transom offers training and advice to those new to creating radio segments and posts their work on its site, while prx.org is a distribution system--producers post their work and public radio stations buy it. NPR, in fact, has purchased work from Transom (see Free Press, October 2001).

He's more likely to pitch something to NPR that fits with the current demands, Allison says. That's a mind-set NPR encouraged with an item an NPR editor wrote in the winter newsletter of the Association of Independents in Radio, telling producers that the network still wants their pitches, but it wants "newsier and shorter material than we have in years past."

Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva are the Kitchen Sisters, independent producers whose work for NPR includes Lost and Found Sound and an outgrowth of that series, the Sonic Memorial Project, about the life and history of the World Trade Center and its neighborhood. Post 9/11, Nelson says, stories that don't have a direct news angle have tended to be shorter. With "more eccentric voices," she says, "you do a somewhat less complicated version of it." She describes her 20-year relationship with NPR as "both rocky and joyous." Even if it's sometimes a struggle between the Kitchen Sisters' radio artist sensibilities and NPR's more rigid journalistic approach, both sides have persevered, she says, to create "really big, groundbreaking collaborations." Even if a segment is only eight minutes, she points out, that's much longer than what you'll find on commercial broadcasters.

The Kitchen Sisters' and NPR's go-between on the Lost and Found Sound series, the guy who translated one side's language into the other's, was Art Silverman, a senior producer of "All Things Considered." Silverman says there's still the same level of interest in doing quirky pieces or longer documentaries.

The type of work done by a Susan Stamberg or a Noah Adams, who use words and sound to create vivid radio pictures, is still "sprinkled all over this network," Silverman says. "But it sometimes by necessity gets steamrollered either out of the way or parsed out over a longer period of time."

Special correspondent Stamberg, a "founding mother" of NPR, adores the "thematic interview." Such off-the-news pieces have been more of a challenge to get on the air. In 2000, she took the theme of leadership and talked with a different kind of leader each week. Stamberg did the same with "power" in 2003. Those stories, I say to her, on a word or an idea, you don't hear that anywhere else. To which she replies: "You don't hear it here, either."

"Success" for any organization often means "safe," say a number of those interviewed for this story. Will NPR allow that to happen? Jim Russell, general manager of Minnesota Public Radio's Marketplace Productions, was one of the creators of "All Things Considered" back in 1971. "By and large, their signature programs are old, and they're in the process of trying to refresh them," he says of his former network. But "the vulnerability is when you become incredibly good at doing something, the chances are you will continue doing it" rather than invent new things. And even if you do create new things, "how far will you go off the main road?...

"They need to invent their future, and the question is, will their future be more of the same, which is very good, or will they find some things that are new?"


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