Courtesy of the Houston Chronicle
Nancy Barnes began as NPR’s senior vice chairman of stories and editorial director in late November, changing the yearlong interim newsroom leader Christopher Turpin (who replaced the ousted Michael Oreskes). Barnes has been quiet about her priorities for NPR since, citing a want to pay attention and study during her first three months.
That interval is up, and Barnes, who came to NPR from the Houston Chronicle, last week sat down with me to talk about her preliminary impressions and where she’s steering NPR. (For extra on her background and the transition in NPR’s newsroom, see NPR’s earlier reporting.) In our wide-ranging dialog, she addressed the altering mixture of stories on NPR’s newsmagazines and newsroom variety, and shared some initial thoughts about how NPR will cowl the already-upon-us presidential election season.
A delicate stability
In what I am sure shall be seen by some NPR listeners as good news, Barnes stated she is taking a look at what she referred to as the “delicate balance” between reside interviews and reported items and indicated she would really like it to swing away from quite so many reside interviews. “Even before I walked into the newsroom, I’ve been hearing the concern about this push for news [that] makes us sound or act more like CNN,” she stated.
In a memo sent to the newsroom March eight, Barnes’ first listed precedence was to “develop more distinct, diverse and essential news stories and content as a part of NPR’s core identity.” Her memo added that the workforce assigned to it will look at “the tension between the need for breaking news vs. enterprise” (reporting that’s unique and not based mostly on press releases or information of the day). I’ve written about that rigidity at NPR’s day by day newsmagazines a number of occasions (together with right here and right here), and in many ways it is at the core of a great variety of the considerations we hear from listeners who attain out to the Public Editor’s workplace.
Some background: For the last four years, NPR has been shifting steadily to a day by day format that emphasizes certainly one of radio’s strengths: its potential to succeed in individuals with news that is immediately up-to-date. Some of that change is a need to listen to immediately from newsmakers and a few has been out of sheer necessity: Reside interviews, with newsmakers and NPR’s personal reporters (or these from member stations), are typically the quickest, if not all the time one of the best, approach keep on prime of the every day barrage of main stories. It takes extra time for reporters to put together a report that weaves collectively multiple interviews and sound.
However listeners and lots of in the newsroom have raised considerations that the stability is off. Moreover, stay interviews deliver journalistic challenges. Reported items can work in a broader range of data and views than can an interview, and they can be fact-checked prematurely. Hosts doing reside interviews have to be very cautious to catch if a guest shares false info. Additionally they are at occasions put in the place of sounding like the “opposition” — if they’re interviewing a Republican, then they typically push back with Democratic arguments, and vice versa. Listeners typically hear this questioning (which is meant to tease out a number of perspectives) as bias on the a part of the host, notably because NPR doesn’t usually run studies from reverse points of view back-to-back.
Barnes informed me: “Sometimes you have no choice, right? So a story is breaking and you want to be immediate and relevant.” She stated she believes “we do need to be timely and relevant and newsy, particularly if we are a primary source of information. But what we want to dial back on is incremental news, and I think the push to be newsy sometimes does lead you down that path of too much — I call it ‘turn of the screw’ journalism. I don’t want to say we do a lot of that. I’m just trying to dial back on incremental updates so that we have more time and eventually more resources for exclusive journalism. Stories that only NPR can provide, that’s really what I’m looking for.”
That reporting may take a number of varieties, she stated, including extra investigative reporting. She stated she has also requested some newsroom editors to suggest 10 to 12 protection areas that NPR “could really own, so that we could realign resources behind that.” That listing continues to be within the works (and can doubtless embrace a few of the areas where NPR already shines).
Exclusive interviews may also be a part of that mix. She highlighted Morning Version’s just lately begun “Opening Arguments” with a few of the Democratic presidential candidates. Within the reported realm, she cited current collection on anger and civility and the yearlong arts and music collection on American anthems.
The catch-22 of reside interviews
Again to the tenor of the stay interviews: The Public Editor’s office hears listener considerations when interviews get testy; we also hear the other grievance that some interviews aren’t testy sufficient and that hosts have allowed false or questionable statements to go unchallenged.
Barnes stated the topic is “more complicated than anybody imagines. I won’t talk about this particular guest, but somebody raised questions about why we didn’t push back on guest x, and in this case it was a very strong effort to bring in a Republican point of view on a story. And I think it’s a catch-22. You invited this person in to tell his side of the story, and if you push back hard on what he’s saying, then you give the impression that you’re not fairly listening to an alternative point of view.” Additionally, typically visitors come on with speaking points and “arguing with them isn’t gonna do anybody any good.”
Conversely, she stated she does not need to “ever tell a journalist not to push back if they think somebody is not being straightforward and honest,” however added, “We have to make sure that it doesn’t sound like partisan pushback.”
“By and large,” she stated, “we do a much better job than many media organizations of not being partisan.” When information breaks, the newsmagazines “bend over backwards” to talk to a variety of friends and, “it’s usually very civil conversation,” she stated. A few of the viewers response might mirror the truth that, “We are in the most complicated, divisive times that we’ve seen in a generation and it’s hard to bring these issues on and talk about them in a way that doesn’t have somebody out there who disagrees, right?”
She added, “I have nothing but the utmost respect for the hosts who have to tackle an extraordinarily wide range of stories with depth and precision and bring humanity to the conversations. What they do on a day-to-day basis is really just, you know, a phenomenal range of journalism and it’s very challenging,” given the range of subjects on which they have to be educated.
More variety of all types
The subject of variety got here up a number of occasions in our conversation. Barnes stated she is committed to diversifying the newsroom in any respect levels, from entry degree as much as the highest leadership (where NPR falls brief, in some respects). She stated she is just not prepared to discuss the precise steps which are beneath discussion, but did say, “It’s not just about diverse hiring, but it’s also about making sure that we are reflecting diverse people and diverse stories” in the protection. (She cited NPR’s evaluation after Trump’s Oval Workplace speech on the border wall, when, as a employees member identified, there have been no nonwhite voices.) Particularly, she stated, “We are really committed to making sure that we have Latino representation in our 2020 election coverage,” which was largely absent in 2016.
“So, diversity of sources, diversity of hiring, diversity of storylines,” and in addition, variety of thought, she stated. Politically, “most newsrooms tend to lean a certain way,” she stated, referring to studies that present journalists are typically more liberal, adding, “We have to work really hard to counter those instincts.” She has seen comments from a couple of NPR journalists along the strains of, “We’re conservatives and we don’t feel comfortable speaking our minds in the newsroom,” so NPR must “be mindful of diversity of thought,” she stated.
Geographic variety can also be on her thoughts, she stated, citing, as only one instance of a story that needs masking: “Why is there so much misery in the middle of the rural heartland?”
That have to get outdoors the East Coast (and California) bubble is in fact a criticism that was leveled at national media retailers, including NPR, in the course of the run-up to the 2016 election. And it continues to be of concern to NPR listeners, who are nationwide.
Getting outdoors that bubble shouldn’t “be an exercise just during the elections,” Barnes stated. If nationwide news organizations had been masking broad swaths of the nation and regional communities prior to the 2016 election — if “you’re willing to go talk to people who are different than you and make a point of it” — they could have picked up on a number of the developments and tensions before they did or minimized them less, she stated.
Barnes stated she likes the thought of NPR having a devoted rural beat, as it did years in the past, however whether or not that happens specifically or not, “we need to find ways to get outside the Beltway more often.” She stated she has been speaking about shifting some assets to the West Coast, “but that also is an elite coast.” NPR’s network of stations across the nation might also help contribute a broader perspective.
Nevertheless the assets get deployed, she stated, “I will say I think sometimes we focus on Washington too much. If you get outside Washington,” she stated, “you realize that not everybody is talking about Trump and Mueller every second of the day. They’re really not. But if you’re in Washington, that’s all anybody’s talking about. An editor said to me, ‘Well I realize we talk a lot about Washington, but it is the story that’s driving the country and the world.’ And there’s something to that, as well. But we do need a little more balance in our report, so that it doesn’t feel like we’re topping every hour with three stories out of Washington.”
Washington coverage and 2020
As Barnes indicated, NPR’s election coverage has already begun, with the coverage of the Democratic candidate announcements that hold coming. Who will lead that protection is up in the air. Beth Donovan, NPR’s senior Washington editor, who started operating the election protection in 2000 and has overseen all political and Washington coverage since 2014, two months in the past stated she would step down in Might. NPR is just beginning an inner and external search to switch her. Barnes has set a tentative deadline of June to seek out Donovan’s alternative, but she stated she couldn’t assure that timeline.
Of the continued Washington coverage, she stated that, with out criticizing the group — “which is really stretched and working hard” — she would really like to have the ability to break more Washington information by giving them more time to do unique reporting, and maybe adding investigative reporters to that beat.
She advised me, “I don’t think we win, frankly, in trying to beat The New York Times on the Russian investigation,” however there are numerous other Washington coverage areas vast open. “As I’ve been telling people, it’s a lot easier to cover the same stories that anybody else is covering. It’s actually harder to go find the stories that nobody else is covering.” She stated she is hoping to seek out the assets for that work.
As for election protection, the age-old debate is “horse race politics” — who’s up, who’s down in polls and fundraising — versus spending time on voter considerations and the candidates’ coverage proposals. Barnes stated, “the conundrum here for journalists is, everybody hates horse race politics and yet it actually drives a lot of audience.” Over the past presidential election, she stated, “I was really appalled at how much people were treating polls as pure science. You know, polls are a good indicator, but all sorts of things — people can lie to pollsters, pollsters can put screens on how they predict turnout. So we need to pay attention to the horse race because you don’t want to be irrelevant, spending your time covering a candidate who’s never gonna get traction. But that has to be a component of the coverage.”
My workplace is already listening to complaints about how NPR is parceling out its political protection among the many Democratic candidates; media consideration is, in fact, a method that a candidate can achieve traction (but definitely not the one one). We’ll come back to that concern as NPR’s political plans take shape.
The worth of prescription drugs is likely one of the voter considerations that Barnes stated she might see NPR specializing in. “Identity politics” shall be a problem in the campaign, as properly, she stated, and election security might be a spotlight. On that challenge, she stated, “I think none of us were truly aware of exactly how much social media was compromised in 2016,” and new issues similar to news sites that are not actually news sites continue to pop up. “We just have to be really on our game,” she stated, on the subject of these points.
Rolling up her sleeves
I am going to give the last phrase to Barnes. “We talk about things that are on my agenda, but you know I want to say: It’s a great newsroom,” she stated, adding, “you might quibble with the strategy or we might quibble with some of the storylines, but people here are really, really dedicated to serving the NPR audience and broader journalism.” She referred to as it “a thrill to work with them.”
We’ll have far more on these subjects in coming months (though Barnes did say she’s “not interested in being a figurehead journalist. I’m interested in rolling up my sleeves and working in the newsroom on journalism.”)
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