Amid diversity improvements at NPR, fear and challenges remain

As NPR struggles with declining revenue, the public radio organization will have to consider staff changes, but no programs have been targeted.

“The [Washington Post] article inaccurately singled out 'Tell Me More' as a possible target of future cuts,” NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher said Thursday afternoon. “No show, desk, or division has been targeted for cuts.”

To underscore the point, CEO Gary Knell sent an email to 900 NPR employees correcting the record, in response to Paul Farhi’s story.

Reports that NPR was considering dumping its only show targeted to a black audience sent concerned observers into a whirlwind of speculation about the company's dedication to minority communities.

Diversity in coverage and staffing has been a long-term struggle for NPR. Keith Woods, NPR’s Vice President for Diversity, was brought in two years ago to help fix things.

Woods, former dean of faculty for the Poynter Institute, declined to discuss the Washington Post report, but he did talk extensively about the progress NPR has made and the work that’s yet to be done.

“This organization, on the issue of racial and ethnic diversity, has weathered some incredibly difficult journalistic days,” Woods said in a telephone interview. “We’ve not just maintained, but in some places, grown in racial and ethnic diversity at a time when, because of economic circumstances hitting our industry, other organizations have fallen.”

Edward Schumacher-Matos, NPR’s ombudsman, wrote in an updated report last month that the organization’s newsroom staff and audience are both fairly diverse when education and income levels are taken into consideration.

Blacks, Latinos and Asians – people of color – make up 28 percent of the U.S. population, but 23 percent of NPR’s newsroom staff, meaning reporters, editors, producers and managers. While that’s better than the 13 percent represented at U.S. daily newspapers, Schumacher-Matos acknowledged NPR still falls short, until education levels are factored in. He compared people of color with college degrees to NPR journalists and managers, almost all of whom have college degrees.

People of color make up roughly 20 percent of Americans with college degrees as compared with the 23 percent of NPR journalists and managers. “Seen this way, NPR shines in its minority hiring,” Schumacher-Matos noted.

Woods said he would analyze NPR’s diversity in audience and staff differently than the organization’s ombudsman.

The U.S. Census Bureau released a report on Thursday that shows more black, Hispanic and other minority babies being born in the U.S. than white babies. “Our desire, organizationally, is to grow our audience among people of color in a country where the future news consumer will look like those census numbers we are looking at today,” Woods said. “At this moment NPR doesn’t do that, so our work remains ahead of us.”

Woods said NPR “has made great progress in making diversity a value up and down the organization.” His work involves ensuring NPR looks and sounds like America especially when it comes to race and ethnicity, ideology (diversity of thought), generations (younger workers) and geography.

That doesn’t represent the full scope of Woods' work, but they are areas of diversity that CEO Knell identified as needing the most work, most immediately, Woods said. He added that his work also addresses other areas that include ensuring diversity of faith, gender and sexual orientation.

When it comes to the corporate culture, Woods said NPR reflects America in that it represents “all of the best things that you can think about that are incorporated into that, and some of the worse."

“We’re a culture that is thoughtful, innovative, open, welcoming and changing,” he said. “And we’re a culture of fixed heels and dug into the dirt and people who like things the way that they are and the way that we’ve always done them. Those are co-existent."

But NPR is also an organization that proves, again and again, that it has the capacity to change, Woods added. “It would be wrong to either represent it as the Kumbaya culture that a lot of people would like to believe, just as it’s wrong to see it as a culture steeped in the way things have always been done.”

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    Tracie Powell

    Tracie Powell is a senior fellow for Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation established by eBay founder-philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that Americans come first in our democracy. Tracie is also founder of AllDigitocracy which focuses on media and its impact on diverse communities. 


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