Ellen Weiss’ New Challenge  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2011

Ellen Weiss’ New Challenge   

The longtime NPR news executive takes over as the Center for Public Integrity’s executive editor. Fri., October 7, 2011

By Caitlin Johnston
Editorial assistant Caitlin Johnston (@cljohnst, cljohnst@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.      


Longtime NPR staffer Ellen Weiss walked into the first new office she's seen in the past 29 years when she started her job Monday at the Center for Public Integrity.

"On the one hand I feel such a kindred spirit, on the other I feel I have so much to learn," says Weiss, CPI's executive editor. "That's always exciting to me. It feels new, it feels different, and yet it feels like being in a mission-driven news organization."

She's not in unknown territory, though. During those 29 years at NPR, Weiss started the investigative unit. One of the team's goals was to develop healthy partnerships with other organizations, including CPI.

In her position at CPI, a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington, D.C., Weiss will oversee the center's domestic investigative reporting unit.

"The really nice thing is that CPI has a relationship with NPR that is independent of my arrival here," Weiss says.

In many ways, Weiss is dealing with the same factors any new hire must overcome. But her departure from NPR wasn't exactly standard. Nor was it without controversy.

Weiss resigned as NPR's senior vice president for news following the October firing of senior news analyst Juan Williams for his comments on Fox News that he was "nervous" when flying with people dressed in "Muslim garb." Weiss announced her resignation in January after an NPR review concluded there were "concerns regarding the speed and handling" of Williams' termination.

Weiss, a veteran editor and manager at NPR, says right now, she's focusing on listening. She's now in a new place, with new faces, concerns and objectives. Her focus is to take everything in and let others know that she is eager to get the lay of the land.

But Weiss says the ongoing partnership between CPI and NPR is actually helpful in that regard. If her new coworkers want to know anything about her, they have people to ask. And Weiss herself isn't against speaking up.

"I'm an open book," she says. "I'll do Q&A sessions with the staff. I think everyone is moving on, which is really wonderful."

Bill Buzenberg, executive director of CPI and a former colleague of Weiss' at NPR, says a number of his staff who work on projects with NPR are all coming back with the same message: "They all say 'Boy, they say their loss is our gain and we're really, really lucky,' " Buzenberg says. "My staff is getting a really good impression of the hire based on this."

Buzenberg says he invited Weiss to apply for the position, which became open when John Solomon left CPI in May to join the Daily Beast/Newsweek , because he was impressed by her track record. "The Juan Williams affair was a year ago in October," he says. "I think the statute of limitations has expired on that. Look, that was a difficult situation that shouldn't overshadow a career of great news management leadership. That's how I look at it."

Weiss used the time following her resignation to reflect on her career, what she cares about and what she wanted to do next. She reviewed everything from the kind of work she wanted to do to the different areas in her life she wanted to improve.

"I figured this was a really good opportunity for me to move forward and see what else is out there," she says. "In my heart, I knew I wanted to be dealing with high-quality, trusted information in the hands of the public."

That left everything from advocacy organizations to think tanks and NGOs. As she drafted her criteria, she also realized it was just as much about the people she'd work with and the atmosphere in the organization.

CPI hit all those points.

Weiss remains thankful for her time at NPR and says she had a wonderful time during the nearly 30 years she worked there. But she is ready to move on and carve out a new chapter of her life. As for the naysayers who still harp on the past, Weiss says she tends not to pay too much attention to people who don't know her.

"It was a choice for me to just hold on to my identity based on who I knew I was and great support from friends and family," she says. "Everybody has a different survival tactic. That was mine. Mine was to control the things I could be in control over."

Weiss says it was important for her to allow herself time to process what had happened. She also made room in her life for things she struggled previously to include as a working journalist, wife and mother. Weiss took advantage and invested in these areas of her life, whether it was spending more time with her children, volunteering or finally taking that yoga class she'd been considering for years.

"There was part of me that was really able to have a perspective and think about what I had either stopped doing or pushed to the side and bring it back into my life," she says. "That was great. I don't know if I would've necessarily had that perspective had this not happened."

One of the hardest parts for Weiss was no longer being a part of the companionship she had fostered at NPR. And while she misses that, she is thankful that many of those people are still in her life. And instead of colleagues, they're now friends.

While Weiss says her departure from NPR was both dramatic and traumatic, it was also just one event in decades of positive experiences. "I'm not a spring chicken anymore," Weiss says. "Frankly, I've had challenges that were far more emotionally difficult than this one. And this was hard. Of course it was hard. But it wasn't the definition of who I was as a person."

So now Weiss is focusing on the future. She's still in her first week and says she has a lot to learn. But she's looking forward to getting to know a new organization and realizing new goals and challenges. "I had a lot to learn at in my job at NPR," Weiss says. "I sort of try to hold myself out as a lifelong learner. We'll see if that's true. It's going well so far."

Friend and former NPR colleague Bill Marimow, who now is a professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and executive editor of News 21, says this new partnership will benefit everybody, from CPI to Weiss to the public as a whole. The ultimate litmus test will be the quality of the work.

"My feeling is that change can be incredibly inspiring," says Marimow, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Baltimore Sun. "I think this will be a great adventure for Ellen. She'll be a huge asset for the center."

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