NPR is reinventing itself. Here's how it could change for the better.
About six weeks ago, I asked two people to play fantasy NPR with me.
I asked them to envision what NPR would look like if it tripled its bureau chiefs from 4 to 12, moved headquarters out of D.C. in favor of a more central location, truly relied on its member station reporters for its national reporting and relied on its national and local networks to create a system that ultimately would support better local journalism.
What sounded like fantasy at the time may actually become a reality. Last Friday, NPR’s editorial director and senior vice president for news, Michael Oreskes, outlined a plan at the Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI) to “roll out a regional hub system” that would help connect stations with each other, make it easier for them to share their expertise with each other, “wipe out the lines between NPR and the member stations” — and get more local stories aired nationally.
Related Training: Podcasting for Everyone
It’s a far cry from what Jack Mitchell, NPR’s first employee, wrote in his history of public radio about decentralization, or the lack thereof, in the earliest years of NPR.
“As producer of ‘All Things Considered,’ I thought we had a better program if Susan Stamberg talked on the phone with the man in Montana who grew the world’s largest pumpkin than if our Montana station talked to him and sent us a tape,” he wrote.
That policy led to Lee Frischknecht, the second president of NPR, to write a 30-page document in 1976 accusing the network of “rejecting station contributions in favor of Washington-produced material,” among other failures.
There are questions I have about the current proposal: Who pays? How is it sustained? What happens to very small stations in rural locations — could this result in a caste system between stations with resources and stations without? Will stations — which have lots of seats on the NPR Board — agree to this plan? Will staffers at these regional hubs be paid NPR salaries or member station salaries, which are traditionally lower? How do these hubs complement or differ from existing public radio regional collaborations? What will happen to NPR’s national desk? Will reporters in the hubs still get freelance rates for having pieces aired nationally? And how might this help audiences navigate public radio stations online? Station sites vary tremendously in terms of accessibility, mobile-readiness and the ability to collect data or donations from their users.
An attendee at Friday’s conference who did not want to be named told me that there are also changes coming to station’s digital sites. Core Publisher, the content management system that many stations use, will go away in favor of stations building their own sites, relying on NPR templates or getting a subdomain on the NPR site. There was also talk of geolocating users to the closest station site depending on their location.
But geolocation on the NPR site is sometimes wonky — and doesn’t always throw people to their closest local station. (And there are reasons beyond geography that people navigate news content.)
When asked for comment on the coming digital changes Tuesday, NPR provided Poynter with the following statement:
NPR, in collaboration with its station partners, is committed to building a digital network. In its fullest vision, the network is an integrated suite of tools and services that can support NPR and stations together, enabling the creation of more coherent and scalable experiences for our audiences, reducing redundancies and supporting a more collaborative culture of innovation and growth. A major step toward this goal is now in progress: the closing of the Boston office of NPR digital services and the merging of that group with the Washington-based NPR digital media group.
This transition will be complex and time-consuming, but throughout the process we are making our best efforts to maintain the stability of the major parts of the current Digital Services suite. This includes Core Publisher.
Over the coming years, Core Publisher will be gradually sunset, to be replaced by publishing, presentation and distribution tools that leverage the scale of NPR platforms while also giving stations the ability to grow, know, engage and monetize their audiences. We are now working with a pilot group of stations to define the requirements of those tools.
As for how we intend to approach localization, we are committed to finding the ways that best leverage the shared value of national and local branding and content. Based on our three years of experience with the geotargeting features of NPR One, we are eager to find new methods of localization are efficient and feasible, that drive value and awareness to stations, and that engage and satisfy our audiences. Here, too, we are working with stations to help us address these critical challenges.
The idea of NPR putting its weight behind driving more people to station sites — and making them accessible, mobile-friendly, and able to take in donations — is smart. And shutting down Core Publisher, which is much harder to use than NPR’s own CMS and has driven many a station web producer crazy over the years — is also a welcome change.
The regional collaborations are also likely to help stations share what works — if something like Movers and Thinkers works in Nashville, why don’t other stations localize it for their own use? But is a human keeping track of all of these moving pieces going to know that? Are there other ways for stations to share and elevate their work? Does the audience know or care about any of this? Will this change the way people think of their stations? Will this help build members — or audiences? I don’t know.
What I do know is that six weeks ago, Adam and Nick and I had delightful, whimsical conversations imagining our own fantasy NPR. Perhaps these imaginary visions will help stations and the networks think even more broadly about ways to spread their mastheads across the country. You’ll find our lightly edited chats below.
Conversation with Adam Ragusea
Let’s envision a scenario where NPR HQ moves out of Washington, D.C. and moves somewhere else entirely. What happens next?
I think it'd be great to reach down with the hand of God, pluck NPR HQ out of Washington and plop it down in St. Louis. It's near the current mean center of U.S. population. It straddles North, South and West, both geographically and culturally.
It's cheap as hell, it's beautiful, there's enough trendy stuff downtown to be attractive to creative-class types. It's rich, it's poor, it's Black, it's White. Really the only way in which that town is not America embodied is the small Latinx population, but give it a few years.
In St. Louis, NPR's leadership would have such a better view of the country they're serving. And they'd save a ton of money on facilities and labor. I used to say Louisville would be the ideal home for NPR, but I'm sold, send the mothership to St. Louis.
Obviously not everything can move to St. Louis. Let’s talk for a second about what would still need to exist in D.C.
You'd still need to have a sizable bureau in Washington, of course. Dozens of people — political reporters and editors, studios for Washington guests and engineers to staff them. But I reckon you could move all the executives, most of the editorial leadership, most of the journalists, and almost all of the administrative staff to St. Louis, no problem.
I imagine there might be pushback — particularly from leadership who would say that they can’t attract top talent to places outside of the Amtrak corridor or Silicon Valley.
I'm sure there's some truth to that, but I'm a little skeptical. Sure, young people especially want to live in big, exciting places with lots of opportunities. They want to be someplace where they can meet other people like them.
But more and more, I just hear about people wanting to live some place where they can make rent. The big media capitals have gotten all but unlivable for young people in media who don't have trust funds. I think the geography thing is a bit of a deflection. Talented people will come work for you in lots of places if you give them opportunities to advance and to be creative, to help design the ship instead of just swabbing the deck.
And what happens if we quadruple the number of bureau chiefs who edit regional reporters — there are currently four — and instead of having a national desk, the network works exclusively with local station reporters who intimately know their areas inside and out?
When NPR has a staff reporter who they trust, whose time they own, in a distant city where news is happening, they have every incentive to work with their own reporter rather than go through the risk and hassle of working with a station reporter in the same town.
I remember when I was a station reporter in Boston. As I recall, NPR had three staff reporters there around that time: Tovia Smith, Chris Arnold and Anthony Brooks. In four years at WBUR, I never once got Andrea De Leon to accept a pitch from me.
That may have been because I was bad at pitching, which I was, but as soon as I moved to Macon, Georgia where there are no NPR reporters in sight, suddenly almost every pitch I sent up got accepted. It also helped that I didn't have competition from all of the amazing reporters at WBUR who got pitches accepted all the time, of course, but you get my point.
I've heard about reporters at WBEZ in Chicago feeling like they have trouble getting on the network because David Schaper and Cheryl Corley are there. And I imagine this happens in L.A. because of NPR West.
So, I think you have a couple better options. You could sprinkle NPR reporters only in places where there is not a strong member station (and there are many places like that), or you could redefine the role of NPR correspondent to be half journalist, half roving mentor.
Some of them probably already feel like that now, with all the fly-ins and conferences and other trainings they do. Maybe you take a guy like Greg Allen in Miami, where WLRN is a great station, and you rewrite his job description so half of his time is spent liaising with the station journalists in Miami and Orlando and places like that, developing talent, spotting great local reporting and helping to elevate it to the network, etc.
That's theoretically the job of the regional bureau chiefs right now. But what are there, four for the whole country? I've worked with three of them, they're wonderful, amazing editors, but they can't possibly do the whole job they're being asked to do.
Conversation with Nick Quah:
Let's say public media decides to go all in with a fully distributed localized system. In this fantasy world, do we need an HQ in D.C. or N.Y.?
So, to answer this question, I think it's important to establish the premise that setting up a HQ isn't the same as setting up a strong, dedicated bureau, right? One of the potential arguments is that it's important to have a presence in really important places of news, and from that perspective, having a D.C. presence is a non-argument, because it's the seat of power.
Right, but couldn't it be a D.C. bureau, with an HQ elsewhere? (That might be what you're saying.) I can't envision a news org without a D.C. or N.Y. bureau…
Exactly what I'm saying — but the more interesting question that comes from that is "What are the functions of a HQ, or how does that function exist in relation to its physical location?"
So I think the answer here is purely one that's related to business models and power. For most (profit-driven) news organizations, being in N.Y. is essential because you need to be in a space that facilitates conversations with big advertisers. And publishers, or wherever power is allocated at the C-Suite, would benefit from being in close proximity to other nodes of power in society, for communication and combat.
(I'm hypothesizing here, of course.)
So let's keep the C-level and the finance/strategy/fundraising folks in D.C. or N.Y. What about the national desk? Right now there's a huge national desk based in DC/NY for news organizations like the Times and NPR...there are regional reporters, and there are bureau chiefs, but NPR has four bureau chiefs for the entire country.
What happens if we ditch the national desk, triple the number of bureau chiefs (editors) across the country, and move every reporter outside of D.C./N.Y. except for the people writing/editing about those locations, and really truly rely on a national network of reporters? (I'm thinking here of member stations, but also networks like McClatchy and Gannett, which have similar distributed networks of reporters.)
Let's separate two things out here.
- Even with the ongoing conversation about phasing out that traditional firewall between editorial and business — not saying that the two things should mingle, but the two sides need to understand their context in relation to the other — there is every product-driven reason and incentive to spread out your team/production line/presence throughout the rest of the country. Like, you keep the business/financial engine growing and clustered in places like D.C./L.A./N.Y., but the whole point of doing that is to fund that spreading out. The only barriers here are management and process-related, I think.
- The member-station element, and the Gannett metaphor, is interesting, and it raises the question: to what extent is this the responsibility of NPR, and to what extent are these problems the result of a competition between NPR and the member station infrastructure? Like, is it possible for there to be a truly distributed NPR AND an increasingly strong network of member stations? Or is it maybe the move for NPR to concede power — whatever that means — to the states?
There certainly would have to be changes, but I already see them partnering a lot more with member station reporters — there are more of them on-air. I think it would likely also lead to more diverse stories and voices on-air. Not everyone can afford to live in a D.C./N.Y./S.F. (Or wants to.)
Let's talk for a second about the process and management-related barriers. I wonder how this might work from an operational perspective, and I wonder what the impact might be.
I think the move here should be guided by two principles: How do we make it easier to work remotely/as a distributed team? And how do we make it desirable for people to work in stations that aren't in N.Y./S.F./D.C. etc. etc.?
Yes. Continue with that thought.
Two immediate, off-the-cuff thoughts:
- Don't make getting on NPR the ideal outcome. I think that's a problem, and I think this is a cultural thing.
- Have NPR function as an investment body that funds development projects for specific stations.
On-air or online? I think there's probably a lot of room for having what appears on digital not replicate what appears on air.
The second one is a lark, but hell, I think as much as there requires building up member stations, it requires a building down of NPR.
I think both — the general idea is that, the career arc for young enterprising folk is to someday be in the NPR mothership, whatever that means. Like, fuck that — how do we kill that incentive?
I live in North Carolina, and most of the reporters I know want to live and work here in North Carolina. I've worked at several member stations, and most people just wanted to stay. But they also wanted their really good stories to be elevated nationally, and sometimes only having four bureau chiefs meant that was impossible.
Like, if NPR's national desk was simply the hundreds of member station reporters across the country...then they report locally, sure, but they're supported by editors and can get on-air nationally when it warrants. It’s an infrastructure thing.
I totally think it's an infrastructure thing. You're absolutely right about that. I'm just trying to think through what are the current incentives driving the way things work at the moment — what the driving force behind having four bureau chiefs? How did that decision get made? It seems to counterintuitive for the whole purpose behind NPR.
I agree. It seems like there should be a switch-up there. Like, let's make 20 editors across the country, each editing a smaller area. There's always a lot of grumpiness when an NPR reporter swoops into say, rural Alaska, covers something and flies back to D.C. Alaska has lots of reporters! Use them! They know their area really, really well.
So, for clarification: 20 NPR editors?
Yes, national editors.
I guess the question there is: How would those editors interact with the local station leaders?I’m trying to think of a parallel model... How does the FBI do things?
Or the Red Cross? The FBI is a really good parallel model.
So, let me this clear in my head. You're arguing for expanding the NPR editorial presence, stretching out the national desk to more people spread across a wider surface area of the country. And in that version of the future, NPR basically increases its power over local reporting. What happens to local stations in this arrangement?
Local stations still pump out what their local reporters are doing. Maybe they adopt a ProPublica model and put all of their energy into digital with new money from the spectrum sale windfall (as Adam Ragusea suggests), which I think is an excellent idea.
It's a very good idea, for sure!
I begin with the premise that it isn't actually in the ecosystem's best interest for NPR to become a stronger layer across the entire space. Broadly speaking, and I need to work out the details in my head, maybe the inverse arrangement is better: NPR should flow more money into the ecosystem, and pay for representatives of the staff to come into HQ periodically, so NPR functions as the HQ for the whole space.
Is that a federated model?
Yep. There are some similarities to, like, Alphabet as well.
Alphabet is a good example. Like, I love NPR's training unit. I want an NPR training unit in St. Louis. I want one in Phoenix. I want those training units to be staffed with people from those regions who are learning things, and sharing them, and that information then somehow trickles to other units and D.C. — but not in this everything flows through D.C. model.
One more element to think about: there's the ideal model, and then there's the question of how to get there. You have unlimited resources and money, and the political climate changes — how do you make this happen?
If we're being wildly fantastical, the goal should be to cede most of NPR's editorial power to local stations, convert NPR into an entity that chiefly deals in fundraising, training, strategy development, technology development, and HR management for the rest of the ecosystem.
Here are some paths to implementation:
- Phase out and recirculate reporting desks and resources to stations throughout the country. The political desk goes to WAMU, national desk gets diluted to regional desks, maybe challenge the whole notion of national desks?
- Kill "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."
- Restructure the relationship such that member stations aren't paying for content, they're paying for training, fundraising/marketing/branding support, tech layer, HR support and research.
- Change the brand: What if NPR literally meant WNYC, WBEZ, KCRW, OPB, WUNC, etc.?
Obviously, we have to work out the details.
There would be a lot of details, there. But that’s great food for thought.