2010 James L. Loper Lecture in Public Broadcasting
USC Annenberg School of Communications & Journalism, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Nov. 18, 2010
President, National Public Radio
Allow me to begin with a brief story — a news story.
At about four in the afternoon on the 25th of January this year, two men walked up to a checkpoint on a road leading to the Hamra Hotel in Baghdad. One was wearing a brown suit, witnesses said. The men shot the four guards at the checkpoint with pistols and one of the assailants lifted the heavy security gate, allowing a white Kia minivan to drive through. As the minivan weaved through the concrete barriers, its driver was shot and the van stopped in front a large house on the corner, about 40 yards inside the compound, but 40 yards shy of the Hamra Hotel. Detonated by remote control, apparently, the explosive-packed van blew up. It left a crater 10 feet deep and 30 feet wide. And 15 people dead.
If the van had gone 5 yards farther and reached the three-way intersection by the Hamra, the death toll would have been much higher. The house behind the one on the corner that took the brunt of the blast would have been destroyed. That building housed the NPR Bureau. At the time there were two NPR reporters and an NPR producer and several other American reporters in the house. Three people endured minor injuries. We were lucky.
I tell this story to remind us — and to remind myself — of what it’s all about: what journalism is all about, what public radio journalism is all about, and what it is at risk in America today.
The idealism of journalism is something people risk their lives for, even in these days of Twitter feeds and infotainment. Our team in Baghdad has endured hard circumstances and high risks for years and yet has brought public radio audiences an amazing and important array of war stories, investigations, deeply informed analysis, beautiful and tragic features — the very best foreign reporting anywhere.
For well over a decade, at gatherings like this, news people have obsessed about transformational technologies, vanishing business models and new paradigms of mass communication. Since the Great Recession began in 2008, these conversations have become more urgent and more desperate — as well they should. I have lived and breathed these issues too. They are vital. They are about the survival of something democracies need to cherish.
But the abstractions can blur the concrete — what journalism is really all about.
I don’t know that I could fully appreciate that until I came to NPR and came to be responsible for our journalists. While we have bureaus in 17 countries and 15 states, on any given day our journalists could be anywhere in the world.
Another story — On October 23, Joao Silva, a photographer with my old company, The New York Times, stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan. He has lost both his legs and suffered other devastating injuries. His friend, David Gilkey, NPR’s ace photojournalist, was in Afghanistan and could have gone with him that day. And without people like this, we would have no clue what is going on in Afghanistan.
And another -- In Russia, a reporter named Oleg Kashin is in a coma, his jaw broken, pinky cut off, and his hands — his writing hands — mangled. That’s how some reporters are silenced. So we bemoan that state of the news business here, yet still take too much for granted.
Now, I truly had no intention of starting this speech with such melodrama. That really isn’t my style at all.
But I worry that it is way too easy to forget the dangers and sacrifices real journalists make at a time when we all refer to news stories as “content,” when the work of field reporters is sliced and diced into a zillion cyber pieces, when news is something we aggregate, Tweet and blog upon.
For the journalists whom we need the very most are the news gatherers — the reporters on the ground. Foreign. Domestic. Local. And they are becoming too scarce.
Much of commercial media is fleeing the reporting business. Foreign reporting, investigative reporting, arts reporting and expert local reporting are perhaps most in danger. We know this, it isn’t new. But in the end, it is what all the debates about economic models are all about.
We at NPR are doing everything in our power to increase our newsgathering capacity and to help our Member stations do the same. In some ways, that is our most important job right now.
In speeches and panels, I am usually asked about how NPR is going to turn from a radio company to a media company, how we will turn great radio stories into great digital “content,” and how we will avoid the fate of many newspapers and TV networks.
Sorry — you are not going to be totally spared from that today either.
But we are among the very few that are continuing to invest in the hard work of boots-on-the-ground reporting while at the same time driving innovation and opening ourselves to new audiences.
But I do not want to short change the “why” at the expense of the “how” — let us not make assumptions about “why” it is vital for public radio to flourish even while explaining “how” we plan to do it.
Because it is clear that public broadcasting is going to be mightily challenged to make its case for funding in the current political atmosphere.
Now, NPR makes its case every day on the air and online, and that is the most important courtroom. Each month, some 27 million people listen to NPR programs. Roughly 12 million people a month go to our web sites and millions more get our programming on mobile and through podcasts. And the numbers are growing. This is one of the largest news audiences in the country — loyal, informed and engaged.
I guess that means NPR has as many as 40 million followers — and 40 million potential advocates!
Because of that loyal community, NPR and public radio have been able to grow without a real increase in federal funding. Contrary to what many think, NPR receives less than two percent annually, on average, from government grants — and none from direct appropriations. But our stations DO rely on government funds — for 10 percent of their budgets on average. And that figure is higher in some rural areas.
hose funds allow them to keep their lights on, to operate, and to provide important infrastructure improvements to ensure that there is universal access to information, cultural, and educational content. And stations have other expenses — such as hiring local reporters and hosts, producing local shows, and licensing programming of their choosing — from NPR, as well as PRI, APM and the other fine producers and distributors of public radio content.
Public radio is lucky, though it is hard earned luck. Almost unique in the American media landscape, the audience for our traditional service — radio — has grown over the past decade. With few exceptions, broadcast, cable and print news audience numbers have shrunk.
Why are we the happy exception? It certainly isn’t our vast marketing and advertising budget. We don’t have one. It isn’t new technology — though we’ve been credited with being on the forefront of technological innovation.
The answer is really quite simple, at least as we understand it from our audience research. Listeners appreciate the dignity, craftsmanship, balance and impartiality of fact and reporter-based news coverage at a time when many other news organizations are going in a very different direction.
hey value hearing a range of opinions, but in the context of civil dialogue, and they appreciate our respectful approach to news — challenging common assumptions while always striving to treat newsmakers and sources fairly. Most encouragingly, our digital community appreciates these very same values.
An article about NPR in this month’s Vanity Fair by one of the most acerbic and eloquent critics around, James Wolcott, was titled, “The Sound of Sanity.” I love that.
And it is why it is absolutely core to our mission AND our strategy that we work to increase our original reporting. For example, Last year we launched NPR’s first dedicated investigative unit and it now has four correspondents, two digital journalists and two editors.
It is why we are one of the last remaining American news organizations with a fulltime broadcast correspondent in Iraq, where our country still has 50,000 troops.
It is why we opened bureaus in Istanbul and Jakarta, while still retaining full-time bureaus in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jerusalem, Cairo, three in Africa, and two in China.
It is why we are expanding our books coverage as most metro newspapers are killing their book sections and curtailing their book reviewing.
It is why we have added correspondents to cover race and demographics, food safety, religion and science.
It is why we are piloting a project — called the “Impact of Government” — that we hope will put at least two reporters into every state who will build on the best of local and state reporting — and take a deeper and more comprehensive look at the role of state government from a local, regional and national perspective.
Again, these are all examples of NPR at once meeting its civic responsibilities and seizing on strategic opportunities.
Let me stop at this point to make one thing clear: NPR would not be in this position if its business model, like commercial media, was dependent on advertising. NPR’s revenue comes from three main sources: fees for our programming from member stations; sponsorship — that’s support from corporations and organizations; and philanthropy from foundations and individuals. And, as I mentioned before, a small but critical amount of direct and also some indirect funding from the government.
I would argue, vehemently, that the continued success of this public media model is going to be essential to giving Americans meaningful choices among providers of serious, ambitious journalism in a period of radical and rapid change.
The 1967 Public Broadcasting Act — which established the Corporation for public broadcasting — was premised on the belief that there was a “market failure” that required subsidy to ensure that Americans had universal access to quality news and cultural programming. That was 1967, when the broadcast networks still had extensive foreign bureaus and deep reporting staff and produced documentaries. That market failure is even more evident today. And all the more reason for government to provide the essential seed capital that will encourage others to contribute.
I hope my remarks thus far are not leaving the impression that NPR and I are hopelessly old-fashioned. Nothing could be further from the truth. And nothing has dominated my time at NPR as much as helping the organization and the public radio community embrace new technology, new platforms and new partnerships.
Changing finances, technology and culture have transformed the news business since the 1990’s. That you all know. The Internet has wrought so much havoc — some of it wonderful havoc — we tend to forget that cable was once a pretty disruptive force too — especially if your name was ABC, NBC or CBS!
The bottom line is news standards, mandates and practices are in unprecedented flux.
In the time I have remaining with you, I thought I would talk about four strong trends in our business that I think NPR has avoided and should avoid in the future. And then four trends we should embrace and have embraced.
Here are the bad ones:
Shrink the newsgathering: The dominant change in traditional newsrooms has been simple — shrinkage, often radically. Some $1.6 billion worth of reporting and editing capacity has been lost in the last 10 years. Few organizations have tried to add field staff while the competition has cut — to zig while others have zagged. But adding has been NPR’s strategy and it is working pretty well. We have made some tough cuts during the recession, but we not only protected newsgathering - we even grew our reporting efforts around critical beats. I would point to The New York Times, Bloomberg, CNN and The Wall Street Journal as other examples.
But the fact is sustained newsgathering cuts usually signal the start of a death spiral. It is relevant and unique content that customers — and advertisers — want.
Increase opinion and talk: This trend is most apparent on some cable news channels, which is increasingly dominated by people talking about the news, not reporting it first hand. And much of this talk is highly opinionated; some of it pure advocacy. Certainly there is a place for opinion journalism — it’s an important component to the news and information landscape. But fact-based journalism is vital to ensuring an informed electorate — which is in turn vital to democracy.
Aggregation: Believing in Free Lunch: The great and cheap dream of Web 2.0 is to make oodles of — or should I say Googles of — money linking to and pointing to other people’s expensively gathered news. News aggregation is still a popular and useful service — we do it ourselves! But it cannot exist without source material to draw on…and once again we come back to the vital role of professional journalism and editors.
Go tabloid: If you take a careful look at some of the fastest growing “news” sites you’ll notice most of their top stories are celebrity news, saucy stories, naughty photo galleries or news of the weird. And then you’ll notice just how many of these kinds of features these “news” sites are producing. Similarly, if you pay close attention to some of the big network news sites — and some big paper sites — you’ll find them doing a great job of prominently featuring stories that happen to show up as ”most searched” on Google trends.
These techniques will deliver pageviews. And I’m not against a little fun (Car Talk anyone?). But I don’t believe they will deliver the deep and loyal engagement that public radio enjoys. Engagement — which grows out of quality reporting and story telling and respect for the audience — is the long game. Mere pageviews is just a short-term play for maximum cash flow.
There are, however, other trends that NPR has embraced that have the potential to provide a richer relationship with the NPR listener or reader or user than ever before.
Interact: The interactivity made possible by the web is obviously important to growing our audience, but it has also made us better journalists at NPR in important ways. On one level, it allows us to relate to the community, formerly called the audience, as a community of potential leads, sources and testers. On a deeper level, interactivity has made us more customer-centric, more respectful of how the news consumer responds to the news and consumes the news. When news was one-way, when you could not talk back to the TV tube or printed page, this was not necessary — or even respected. Editors were the guardians of sacred news judgment and listening to civilians was pandering. But through the power and magic of interactivity and social media, we can now engage in a much more meaningful way to our listeners — the “public” in public radio.
Be On Demand: No paradigm shift caused more pain for journalists than the demise of our capacity to control and serve up stories in the order and context we wished — at the time of day we wished. Everyday, highly paid producers at the three over-the-air networks still agonizingly decide in what order to play the evenings six or seven stories, which will range in length from 90 to 240 seconds. But now fewer and fewer viewers will see those stories in that order at the time they are first broadcast. Same for the carefully laid out front pages of our newspapers; and it’s even true of the gems of NPR, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. It is hard to say goodbye to this pretty paradigm.
But for NPR and public radio, this has also been a great opportunity. Our hallmark shows are enjoying their highest ratings ever. Meanwhile, more and more people are able to get our shows — and the stories within them — on demand, wherever and whenever they wish, and in the order they wish... And the NPR community is better off for it.
Leave the Garden: Media pundits refer to content living in the old world of printed pages and orderly programs as living in a walled garden. I’ll be candid. Perhaps no organization feared leaving that lovely garden more than NPR. NPR’s history is all about being a real alternative to commercial news. Howcould we survive in competition with the Drudge, Yahoo, AOL, The Daily Kos or a million other blogs without being tarnished, without losing our dignity, class and smarts?
Well, we’ve done just fine outside the garden, thank you. News consumers still appreciate our distinctiveness, even when they discover us on Facebook or Digg. In fact, we now reach an entirely new audience that never would have wandered in past the garden gate. We are the better for it. We trusted our content and that has worked.
Be transparent: No one — and I mean no one — likes talking to a reporter less than a reporter. This is a universal truth.
But transparency is a core value of journalism and one we wholeheartedly subscribe to. We have tried to use new technology to be aggressively transparent and that has made us better journalists and better businesspeople. We have a very aggressive and fast corrections protocol. We have a dogged Ombudsman. Many of our correspondents engage with the NPR community as they comment on their stories. And many of our journalists have become active on social media, talking about the hows and whys of their coverage. Only good can come from this.
I began by talking about the danger our reporters sometimes face to remind us — to remind myself — what it means to be media in the public interest. What it means to be devoted to mission over margin. And that our obligation to strive for the very best kind of journalism that cannot and will not be compromised.
NPR will continue to rely on and prize original reporting; embrace the most important elements of new media; reach a more diverse audience and always put that audience first.
I hope that other news organizations on the commercial side of the street feel the same way and I want them to remain healthy so they can compete with us and give citizens a broad and meaningful choice of news sources. I want new public media and for-profit startups to flourish. We need more reporting, not less.
But I know — I know — that right now there is only one organization with a vast newsgathering capacity across the country and the globe, a vast audience and whose SOLE mission is to serve that audience and not serve stockholders. That organization is NPR and NPR member stations across the country.
I believe and I hope all of us here believe that NPR and its mission are more important than ever precisely because of the unpredictable revolution in American journalism.
Just how NPR will adapt to all this change and transform itself will be a fascinating and challenging journey.
But what cannot change — what WILL not change — is NPR’s commitment to original independent reporting— with high standards, fine craftsmanship and integrity. And I thank you all for allowing me to talk about that with you today.
Web page posted Nov. 30, 2010
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