A Lifelong Passion for Journalism  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   February/March 2013

A Lifelong Passion for Journalism   

After four years overseeing “Morning Edition,” Madhulika Sikka will soon be directing NPR’s news operations. Thu., November 8, 2012.

By Christina Mele
Christina Mele (tjune13@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.      

Madhulika Sikka had a classic journalist's upbringing. She grew up in England watching BBC News and fighting over the newspaper with her news-loving father. Now executive producer of NPR's "Morning Edition," she has worked all over the world, won Emmy Awards and will soon trade in her 5 a.m. wake-up calls for a major new job.

In January, Sikka will leave behind her job of the past four years to become executive editor of NPR News. In that position, she will oversee NPR's desks and reporters and help set the news agenda. "NPR serves a really important function," she says. "I'm looking forward to being part of a team that takes us to the next level."

Sikka, 50, was powerfully affected early on by her father's passion for news. Sikka says she was 16 years old when she knew she wanted to become a journalist. She attended college in England, earning a BA from the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies, and a master's in the economics and politics of development from Cambridge University.

"I had a lot of curiosity about the world," she says. "I thought [journalism] was a wonderful way to learn about the world and impart it to other people."

There was no journalist in particular whom she idolized. "The interesting thing about growing up in Britain was that the journalism was the star," she says. "It was the idea of journalism that appealed to me."

Madhulika Sikka

After finishing her master's, Sikka moved to the United States when she married an American, James Millward. She worked for World Monitor Television, CBS News and NBC News before joining ABC News as a researcher in 1992. Sikka rose through the ranks, becoming the senior producer of "Nightline," the prestigious nightly news show. She joined NPR in 2006.

"At 'Nightline,' I was responsible for a half-hour show with a single topic," she says. "It's different managing a two-hour newsmagazine show, but the news aesthetic is not that different. The medium is different; radio is a much more intimate medium than TV."

At NPR, Sikka initially served as senior producer of "Morning Edition" before moving up to executive producer four years ago. "There isn't a typical day, which is what is fun for a newsmagazine show," she says. "There are days when it might be very news heavy. It can get a little crazy when we're doing things live."

Sikka's duties as executive producer include helping to harness ideas, working with the rest of the news division and making sure all NPR's assets are being utilized — "apart from telling everybody what to do," she says, laughing.

Margaret Low Smith, NPR Senior Vice President for News, helped recruit Sikka to the public radio operation. "I knew she was first class," Smith says.

Smith describes Sikka as super smart with a great editorial mind. She says Sikka was quick to understand NPR's culture. "She has made a significant difference," Smith says. " 'Morning Edition' has become a super relevant, smart, vital show." She identified Sikka's main strengths as her imagination, ambition and "deep sophistication on a range of stories."

Over the course of her career, Sikka has received numerous awards, including four Emmys and two Peabodys. A breast cancer survivor, she is the author of the upcoming book "A Breast Cancer Alphabet."

During her career, Sikka has traveled to Pakistan, India, Rwanda and Honduras to cover a wide array of stories. She says the only anxiety she feels when traveling in risky locales is over the quality of the work. "The fear is about getting the story," she says. "It's the technical aspects. Are we equipped to tell the stories in a challenging physical environment?"

She says she does not worry about her own safety. "Every time you go overseas to a difficult place, you have to cope with physical and cultural challenges and focus on the story," Sikka says. "You must take a leap of faith into the unknown, steel yourself and go for it. I think journalists think that since they're reporters they have a cloak to protect them" from harm.

Smith, who promoted Sikka to her new role, says Sikka has a great track record and "enormous respect and trust." "It's important to engage people who will have a big impact," Smith says. "She has a vision for the kind of coverage" NPR does.

One of the stories Sikka is most proud of is the 2010 project she spearheaded titled "Along The Grand Trunk Road," in which NPR reporters followed the ancient thoroughfare through Pakistan and India interviewing young people. Sikka says it is one of the most memorable pieces because of the subject matter. "It was a collaboration across NPR," Sikka says. "I was proud from an editorial point of view and of what we were able to do."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, another favorite memory is producing a profile of Julia Child on her 90th birthday. "She was lovely, charming, down to earth, an inspiration," Sikka says, calling her "the most fun and interesting person I met."

The contrast between those two pieces of journalism is an important part of why she likes her current job so much. It "shows the range of things I get to do," she says.

Smith says a series this past summer, "Revolutionary Road Trip," reflects Sikka's leadership in the newsroom. "Morning Edition" hosts reported from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt on a variety of subjects. Sikka worked closely with the digital news team, the international desk and the science desk, Smith says, adding that the series exemplifies "the range and depth of the stories they covered."

"Revolutionary Road Trip" "took a look at the politics but also the food from that part of the world, the books," Smith says. "It is a beautiful reflection of her broad, deep editorial sense."

Sikka succeeds Dick Meyer, who left NPR a year ago to become executive producer of BBC News America. As much as she loves her current job, Sikka says she is excited about her new challenge. "It's about making the right choice for your next step," she says.

But she acknowledges it represents a big change for her. "I won't be consumed by every minute that's on the air," Sikka says. "I will have to influence and encourage our staff."

Sikka credits her father for her success, as well as her husband, a professor at Georgetown University, and her two daughters, Priya, 15, and Maya, 13. "It can be quite a bore to have a news mom," she says. "Everything is affected, holidays are affected. They're a great support network."

Sikka jokes that the highlight of her career is still being employed at her age.

"We get to do really valuable work that reaches a significant audience," she says. "People love what we do. They thank us for it. It's immensely rewarding and fun."