NPR receives $1.5 million grant to support race and ethnicity reporting

By Mike Janssen

NPR has received a two-year, $1.5 million grant from CPB to support the creation of a six-person unit to report on issues of race, ethnicity and culture. The project is intended to diversify NPR’s audience by engaging underserved listeners.

The unit, so far unnamed, will serve as the go-to resource within the network for coverage of such issues, much in the way that Planet Money has established itself on economic matters, says Ellen McDonnell, NPR’s executive editor of news programming. McDonnell will serve as the executive overseeing the unit.

Ellen McDonnell

McDonnell

Also like Planet Money, the unit will establish its brand on multiple platforms, through reports for NPR’s radio shows, a blog and other facets. It will focus in particular on delivering content to mobile devices, because young people of color use mobile technology more frequently than those from other ethnic groups. “Putting news where they are instead of expecting them to come where we are will be a major factor,” said McDonnell in an interview with Current.

“I’ve been around for a lot of efforts” she said. “This is the real deal.”

McDonnell has been working on a Sulzberger Fellowship at Columbia University since January to study how NPR could widen its reach to audiences of color. She teamed up with Keith Woods, NPR’s v.p. for diversity in news and operations, when she learned that he was developing a proposal for CPB funds.

Both McDonnell and Joseph Tovares, senior v.p. for diversity and innovation at CPB, credit NPR President Gary Knell with making diversity a top goal for the network upon arriving. Knell has said he wants to expand NPR’s coverage to be not just more ethnically diverse, but also more encompassing of diversity among age groups, ideologies, and the places across the country where people are heard from.

The unit will be led by Matt Thompson, an editorial project manager who worked on the network’s Project Argo and co-created its new ethics guide. Rounding out the team will be Karen Grigsby Bates, a Los Angeles-based reporter for NPR; Luis Clemens, senior editor for diversity; and four positions yet to be filled: a radio reporter, a blogger, an apprentice reporter and a digital assistant.

NPR will be looking for a blogger who has already established a following and will be able to bring those readers along, McDonnell said. Some members of the team will be based outside of NPR’s Washington headquarters.

To sustain the unit, the network will look for support to add to the CPB funds. It hopes that stations will be able to follow its example in expanding their coverage as well.

NPR’s audience is whiter than the American public as a whole — 87 percent of its listeners are white, compared to 77 percent of adult Americans. But NPR research shows that nonwhites’ share of listening is more proportional when only college graduates are taken into account. NPR’s audience is overwhelmingly college-educated.

About 12 percent of whites with a college degree listen to NPR, compared to 9 percent of Asians with a college degree, nearly 7 percent of Hispanics and 6 percent of African-Americans.

These differences are “not major,” wrote NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos in a April 11 blog post, but the network should still work to attract more minority listeners.

The CPB grant was announced Aug. 2 at the Unity 2012 Convention, a quadrennial event staged by organizations representing  people of color and gays and lesbians in journalism.

Expanded from an article published in Current, Aug. 6.
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