In the first hour of MPR’s Midmorning, we’re going to talk about how to handle tough times in a particular business — ours. With the worsening economy, news organizations are cutting staffs. How is a commitment to a viewer, listener, or reader to be maintained? What ethical challenges do these times pose? Do you care?
I’ll be live-blogging in the studio with Kerri Miller and we’ll be joined on the program by Alicia Shepard, the ombudsman for National Public Radio and Clark Hoyt, Public editor for the New York Times.
I’ll be reading your comments and insight during the broadcast.
You might also be interested in reading former NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin’s latest blog post comparing public radio in Canada and the U.S.
9:02 a.m. – We’re starting with Alicia in the first half hour. Kerri says she’s been taking a lot of heat over the budget cuts at NPR. Apparently people have been suggesting NPR used the economy to get rid of shows and people it wanted to get rid of. Some have suggested a racial motive, which as least gets to the concern that a decades-old attempt to make newsrooms more diverse will be wiped out in this economy.
9:07 a.m. – Recommended reading: The future of journalism.
9:08 a.m. – Why didn’t NPR use buyouts instead of layoffs. Because NPR was afraid they’d lose people they didn’t want to lose, says Shepard. She says buyouts are a more humane way of eliminating people. “But I’m out of my pay grade in talking about those specifics.”
9:10 a.m. – Where did the Joan Kroc money go? The St. Paul native gave millions of dollars to NPR (none to her hometown public radio operation, for the record). “The perception was that NPR is rolling in money and that’s not true,” she says. The Kroc money went into an endowment that was to generate $10 million a year. Here’s Shepard’s column on the cutbacks.
9:16 a,m. Shepard is defending NPR’s acceptance of Homeland Security underwriting. She gives props to listeners for responding quickly when they hear something they don’t like. She mentioned WalMart underwriting announcements.
9:20 a.m. – We’re going to get to Gaza coverage in a minute. In the past, this has been a huge debate at NPR.
9:22 a.m. – Caller on “underwriting issue.” Sounds like local underwriting on MPR… spots promoted clean coal. When membership renewal time came up, she was aggravated. “It was boosterism for clean coal, which I think is an oxymoron.” She e-mailed in her complaint asking what the guidelines are. Got a response back she said was unsatisfactory; that corporate sponsorships were important to the budget. She has not renewed her membership and acknowledges she listens to the programming.
The underwriting messages, however, came from NPR, Kerri says. So what do listeners to about that. The impact of the caller not renewing is taken out on Minnesota, while the responsibility for the problem is with NPR. What’s a listener to do?
9:26 a.m. – — Kind of wondering where the future of journalism discussion went.
9:28 a.m. – I’ve been waiting to relay a reader comment on diversity, but they’ve gone back to the phones. Would like to get it on before Alicia is cut loose.
9:29 a.m. – Shepard says an ombudsman would never do any lobbying. Then the connection to NPR went down. Budget cuts.
9:30 a.m. – Clark Hoyt joins us regarding coverage in the Times of the Israeli bombing of Gaza. Gotta give Kerri credit here. Hoyt is answering her question, Kerri is talking off mic to the producer about what happened to Shepard, Hoyt completes his answer and Kerri smoothly goes to her followup question. She obviously was listening to Hoyt’s answer while talking.
9:33 a.m. – Hoyt says “there’s a great awareness” in the newsroom that people are skeptical of news organizations. “They (editors) are very concerned about presenting a true picture of what is happening.”
9:34 a.m. – Shepard rejoins the discussion. I have assumed the role of potted plant.
9:35 a.m. – Shepard says NPR has created a Middle East page on its Web site in order to say to listeners, “look at the totality of our coverage” whenever there’s an accusation of bias in an individual story from the Middle East. She says it’s difficult in a 4-minute piece to provide all of the elements and context of a story.
9:37 a.m. – Should people who report the news also give their opinion? Hoyt says this came up in coverage of the meltdown. He was troubled by having reporters covering aspects of the bailout, and writing columns on the same pages about what should happen. “To me that poses an insoluble conflict.”
This has been an issue for me, too. But in a different way. The columns do nothing more than make public an opinion that may be held by a reporter. Not publishing it doesn’t eliminate the opnion, it just eliminates your knowledge of it. That’s not saying the opinion influences the reporting, however. Quite often, just the opposite is true.
9:40 a.m. – Shepard says allegations of bias occupy most of her time. “There may be bias,” Hoyt says, “but the only way you can judge that is only over a period of time.” He notes a recent front-page article in the NYT on Bush’s role in the housing problem. “I got lots of messages saying ‘this is outrageous. There goes the Times… Bush bashing.”
Here is the article. Hoyt says nobody apparently considered that “this was Part 16” of a series.
9:43 a.m. – The problem of live-blogging. My question on diversity now won’t fit where the conversation is. Bummer.
9:44 a.m. – Reading comments and thinking that a valuable discussion would have is if people don’t renew memberships to public radio stations, how that does anything but increase the likelihood the person — who usually still listens to public radio — will grow more dissatisfied because resources are further removed from news or programming because of declining budgets?
Methinks public radio should do more to give the public more options on how to influence programming without destroying it.
9:47 a.m. – Hoyt is talking about the story in the New York Times that — to my analysis — clearly led people to assume McCain was having an affair. Apparently there’s a lawsuit filed over this so Hoyt can’t talk about it. I’ve talked about it quite a bit.
9:53 a.m. – I popped in on the show to ask how people can influence a newsroom short of destroying the journalism therein. There must be a way short of “the nuclear option,” as Kerri says. “People go immediately to maximum power,” says Hoyt. “People go to angriest option right away.” He blames the Internet. “It’s not a proportionate kind of response, usually,” he says.
Shepard says there’s a powerlessness among listeners and readers. “At the end of the conversation, someone will say, ‘thank you for listening.’ People want to be heard,” she says.
Let me point out here that I think this blog just served a valuable role in an otherwise broader conversation, and it came as a result of what you wrote. Newsroom blogs, it seems to me, are the avenue for a better relationship with the news consumer.
“Reporters can be very thin skinned and resistant to criticism. We need to thicken up the skin and engage with readers more directly,” says Hoyt.
“Journalism is done with the greatest sense of integrity,” says Shepard. “But mistakes will be made.”
This concludes the program. I don’t think we really ever got to the journalism aspect of things. — the business of journalism, perhaps.