NPR’s Michael Oreskes: “There probably hasn’t been enough change inside NPR”

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Since joining NPR in April, NPR Senior Vice President of News Michael Oreskes has been quick to call for increased collaboration on journalism among NPR and its member stations, with the aim of creating a true news network for public radio. In his appearance on our weekly podcastThe Pub, Oreskes discussed those plans with host Adam Ragusea, as well as the future of the network’s afternoon newsmagazine, how NPR pays station reporters, and achieving diversity in the newsroom and on the air. He began with comparing his experience at NPR with his time at The Associated Press, where he was v.p. and senior managing editor before joining NPR. This is an edited transcript.

It’s actually been a fascinating and wonderful experience, because these are two of the great journalistic institutions in the world. But their greatness rests to some extent on different bedrock. So the AP obviously was invented as a engine of spot news, of breaking news, and has been working very hard in the last few years to become more thoughtful, more analytic, more behind the scenes, more investigative. NPR, on the other hand, has from its beginnings and in its roots been more explanatory, more thoughtful, and frankly, needs to be a little more on top of things some of the time. So in an odd way, I’m feeling like I need to bring the two cultures together a little bit to create the one true perfect place we need. But I’m thrilled by the people here. I just think they’re so talented, and we’re going to do everything we need to do.

Current: And I imagine that part of the reason you’re so hot on station collaboration is to achieve just that goal — to have more people who are on the ground who can allow facts to bubble up. And NPR can just break more news.

Oreskes: Absolutely, and by the way, not only spot news, but all kinds of news. In fact, one of my favorite collaborations with stations recently was the project we did on high-school graduation rates, which began as a conversation among a group of station reporters and [NPR head of education reporting] Steve Drummond and some other editors here at NPR, in which we asked the question: The president says that high-school graduation rates are improving. What do we think?

And several of the station reporters said, “Whoa, that doesn’t feel quite right to us.” And it turned out that in a number of cities, they were cooking the books. And most impressively, the Chicago station blew the lid off what I think was a pretty big scandal. And it was nice to see public media driving the agenda that day and capturing the fact that in Chicago they were basically bumping kids out of high school into other programs and taking them off the books and pretending that they didn’t exist as a way of keeping their graduation rates up. Good for those guys out in Chicago, and good for the whole public radio system for being on top of that.

Current: So in trying to unite station-based journalists and the network into a true national news network, you’re no doubt already learning that they are going to be some hiccups.

Oreskes: [Laughs]

Current: You spoke at a CPB board meeting in June, and you said something that intrigued me. You said, “As I look around the system, of the number of people who seem to have some resistance or some grudge or some anger at somebody else in the system and therefore uses it as a reason not to get something done is truly staggering.” Care to be more specific?

Oreskes: That was an accurate quote. The question one of the CPB board members asked me, “So what do you think the biggest obstacles are to more collaboration?” Sarah Just, [e.p.] of the NewsHour, and I were there together giving a presentation to the CPB board on the real advantages of collaboration. We’re working very closely right at the moment with the NewsHour on trying to build some collaborative journalism. And one of the board members said, “Well, what’s the biggest obstacle?” And I gave from my heart the honest answer, which is, “The biggest obstacle is us.” Which also is what I told the news directors at the talk the other day.

We have so many assets in public media right now — so many journalists, such a big audience, so many loyal people in the audience. I don’t think there’s anybody else in media who has a better hand to play right now in all the turmoil in media. But the biggest obstacle is all of the reasons people find not to work together.

Current: Name a reason. I know you don’t want to call anyone out, but I think you could describe a scenario generally.

Oreskes: I don’t want to mention individuals, but I tried to get at this a little bit the other day when I, in my way, apologized for a lot of the things that have caused member stations to have grudges against NPR. And some of it’s exaggerated, but some of it’s really true.

I think there were a lot of people here at NPR who looked down their nose a bit at member stations or didn’t think they were ready for prime-time journalism or didn’t think they were quite good enough, and no doubt there were elements of truth in all of that. But at the same time, it was also true that NPR needed to do more of an effort to bring people up to the level that we need for a network of great journalism. And the problem with all of these reasons for saying no is you can never make it better if you always have a reason not to do it.

And we’re really embarked here on the idea that the future of NPR and the future of public radio and the future of public media, for that matter, are all one future, and that the only way to do this is collaboratively. It’s the only way to do the journalism to the effective way we can do it. And by the way, it’s the only way to really be effective on the business side, on the revenue side. That’s the future — really working together. And that’s what we’re really focused on doing.

Current: But many have tried before you, and many have to varying degrees debatably failed. How are you going to do it this time?

Oreskes: One important point is this marriage of the funding and the journalism. We’re not going out to people and saying, just do more stuff, just make more journalism. We’re also going out to them separately but aligned to say, what can we at NPR do to help you to raise the money that’s needed to support the ambitions that we have. So I hope that’s one thing — it won’t any longer be a competition for who has the right to raise money or who has the access to the audience — those are all valid issues. And if we can set those aside and just work on the complicated problem of how to make systems so all these journalists can in fact work together — it’s a complicated problem, just at a logistical and organizational level. And that’s what I’d like to be focused on, not on the issue of whether it’s even in everyone’s interest to work together.

The things that create divergent interests in working together tend to be the financing and audience access questions. So I hope that we can set those aside, and that NPR’s effort to work together with stations will allow the journalists, the news directors at the stations, and the people here at NPR, and Sarah Just at the NewsHour, and all of the people, the many, many people on board — probably more than two thousand if you added up public television and all of public media — that we can all start working together a lot more closely on just doing the best journalism we can possibly do.

Current: Historically, when member station reporters have contributed stories to NPR, they have been compensated as though they were freelancers. I wonder if you think that that model is going to be sustainable if those reporters are to be brought into the network a little more intimately and seamlessly.

Oreskes: We’re taking a really hard look at this question, and it’s not a simple question —

Current: It sure isn’t!

Oreskes: — about how this should work, and to be honest I don’t know the answer yet about what the best model is or even if it even is one model. In fact, right now the truth is that while many station journalists are compensated as freelancers, there are other situations in which the station has chosen to take the money at the station. And in fact officially our rule is — and I only learned this when I started delving into it — officially, our rule is that it’s up to the station to decide which way to structure this. And so we have actually a mixed model.

We are in a series of conversations both with station heads and with people here and probably with CPB at some point on what’s the best way financially to build the compensation here. Should every station in some way benefit from this collaboration financially so that they then deal with the compensation of individuals? Or should we be thinking of a different model of payment from here? We clearly have to fix that. It’s clearly an issue that creates irritants to some people and confusion to other people, and we need to get at it. And frankly it’s so tangled or complicated that it isn’t one of the first things we were able to fix. We have a group of NPR people and station people who’ve been working together on these collaborative journalism issues, and this is one of the issues on their plate. And frankly —

Current: They punted.

Oreskes:  They haven’t punted yet — they’re still working on it. It wasn’t one of the things we fixed in the first rounds of things we’re doing. It’s very much on the agenda to figure out what’s going to work best, and I actually want to hear more from the stations about what will work best for them, because that’s obviously a key part of it, and from individual journalists about how do we make sure that they’re well and fairly compensated for the good work they’re doing. And raising the level of journalism across the system is our goal, which means also making sure people are paid well enough for it so they can feed their families.

Current: I want to ask you about Melissa Block’s recently announced reassignment out of the hosting role at All Things Considered that she’s been in for over a decade and into a special correspondent role. Can you tell me if that was her decision, or did management initiate that change?

Oreskes: We’ve been talking with Melissa for a while, and it became apparent that —we all agreed, in fact — that Melissa’s greatest strength is her journalism. She is an incredible reporter, one of the great reporters not just in public media, but frankly, she’s one of the great reporters in the business, period. And there is nothing more powerful than Melissa Block out in the field on a big story. There’s nothing more powerful than Melissa Block going at an interview and really delving into people.

So it was a mutual choice. It was not something that either side forced down anyone’s throat. It was a decision that this was going to be best for Melissa and best for the audiences and NPR to get the most of Melissa.

We’re very keen to figure out who should be doing what. We have only so many people to go around. One of our biggest shortcomings right now is the lack of really great reporting out in the field. You know it when you hear it — there’s lots of good reporters. But we need more of it, and that’s really a very, very high priority. So getting Melissa out into the field, she’s going to do both special portraiture kind of journalism, and I think you can also expect to hear from her at and around big news events. I still shiver and admire the work Melissa did in the earthquake in China years ago. That was just extraordinary work — in any medium, there was just nothing better.

Frankly, it’s a kind of exciting prospect. Change is good. There probably hasn’t been enough change inside NPR.

Current: I’m sure, and this is not an industry gossip show. I’m asking because it’s no secret that All Things Considered has struggled with its ratings. And I want to try to understand to what extent is Melissa’s reassignment an indication of a broader strategy to change things at All Things Considered to reverse those trend lines.

Oreskes: Sure. Fair question, and there is a broader strategy, and we’ll roll that out when we have all the parts together. There was the benefit here that we could make some changes because of Melissa’s decision to go back out in the field, which is a great decision in its own right. But I think for our next conversation I’ll be happy to, after we’ve made our announcements —

Current: Come on, preview. Give me a taster.

Oreskes: Well, I will say that you will see pretty clearly that there is a strategy to really drive ATC. It’s 44 years old, but it’s reinvented itself every few years in new and exciting ways, and I think you’ll see that again. But I can’t pull the curtain back on exactly what we’re going to do because we’re still putting the last touches to it, but we’ll have it soon enough.

Current: But I’m skeptical of the notion that there’s something you could do to change the show that would change its ratings. Because I’m pretty sure that that’s a manifestation of market-force changes that have nothing to do with the content. I still think it’s the best NPR show. And I think it has more to do with changes in listening habits that are technologically driven, and I wonder what, if anything, you can do to the content of the show to address that. Or maybe your strategy has nothing to do with the show content.

Oreskes: Well, let’s talk about that, because it’s very important. Clearly there are major shifts going on in how people consume news information and related public affairs, and we see all of them affecting all of NPR programming. There’s no question that’s going on. I’ll just give you an example — it’s clear that there are people that now consume a lot of information on Facebook who love NPR and say they love NPR but actually turn to their Facebook feed. So that’s a big challenge for us, and we’re working on the question of what does that mean for us, for our relationship to Facebook, for our relationship to stations. If we’re going to do things on Facebook, how do we work through all of that.

Because if there are loyal and devoted NPR listeners who find in their day that they need to spend more of their time with their Facebook feed and it’s cutting into their NPR listening time, well, we can’t scold them for that. We have to adapt to that. There’s no question that for all of our programming including ATC — we see it at other programs, too — that’s one of the many shifts that are taking place because of the digital change. And we’re really aware of that.

Now you have to begin to go and intercept your audiences out where they are, wherever that might be. And I cite Facebook only because it’s clearly a big example and a major piece of the puzzle just at the moment. We know that, and we know that we must be working on that, and we got a lot of conversations going on about that. And it is part of everything we’re doing now, is to think about what does that mean for how these programs should work.

But at the same time, there’s still a life a lot of life left in radio. Both in radio in its most traditional terrestrial radio form and also in the audio use of radio programs for other purposes or for other distribution like NPR One, which is our terrific, interesting on-demand app, which you’ve spoken about and written about quite acutely. NPR One is heavily driven by things that Morning Edition and Here and Now and ATC and other programming around the system do. So part of what we need to be doing now also is — so what is ATC in a world where some of its listeners are hearing it right away on terrestrial radio and other listeners are hearing its elements on NPR One and still other listeners are listening to it on some digital stream and so on. I can keep going down that road.

So we have to adapt to all of that. And part of that means, first of all, never settling for the idea that the program is as good as it can be. And I think what you’ll see in our strategy is a multilayered strategy. We’re going to make this program as good as it can be as a radio program, and we’re going to make it as interesting as we can make it for the different elements of audiences that are coming to it in different ways in different places, in their phone, in the wireless in their car, in a stream on wherever. Maybe there’s some Facebook element to this. From now on, to be the e.p. of one of these shows means to be aware of all of that and to be thinking about all of that, and I think you’ll see that in the in the elements as we roll them out.

Current: Do you think that NPR News has a liberal bias?

Oreskes: No, I don’t. We have to be constantly vigilant — and this is not only a case of NPR — I think there are things we have to be really aware of and really working on all the time to make sure nobody feels that we have a liberal bias. But you know one of those is our geographic footprint. We have to be aggressively out in the South and in the center of the country and making sure that we’re listening to those voices just as much as we’re listening to the coastal voices. That can be an issue in terms of people thinking that we sound too liberal.

I think we also have to be aware that diversity has lots of meanings. It obviously relates to ethnicity and race, and we’re very acutely aware of that, and it’s very important to us. But it also means education levels. It means where you’re brought up. Are you a gun owner? There are a lot of ways to think about diversity in a newsroom, and we have to be thinking about all of them.

And if we do that properly, I think everybody will understand that even when they disagree with our coverage, it wasn’t because we had a liberal bias. It was simply because we came to some thoughts and journalistic judgments about a story. But we came to them honestly and fairly, and that’s on us. It doesn’t really matter whether I say, no, we don’t have a liberal bias. I have to demonstrate, and NPR has to demonstrate every day, that we are trying as hard as we can to cover all 300 million people in this country, which is a lot of people and a lot of points of view and a lot of differences. Part of what makes this all so hard these days is these debates about whether you’re liberal or conservative tend to take on an either/or quality, which is false. You know, the world is complicated, and there are generally speaking not two sides to a story. There are, generally speaking, seven or eight.

Current: Indeed. That said, it seems to me that NPR is under a lot of pressure to be more diverse, both in its internal staff makeup but also in its appeal — and those two things are highly interrelated, obviously — to be more diverse racially and ethnically, and it’s also under pressure to address the perennial criticism that NPR leans left of center. Whether that’s true or not, the perception is there. And it seems to me that to address those two problems, the steps that you would take substantively are actually steps that would counteract each other. Because frankly, the more black and brown that you make this organization, that’s not going to bring much political conservatism into the building.

Oreskes: I take your point, but I think I don’t really share your premise. In other words, I don’t think it’s our job to give our audiences the politics they want. That’s not what NPR is about. NPR is about giving you the information and the news you need to know to understand your world. So whether our audience is black or white or brown or Protestant or Catholic or Jewish or Muslim, it’s not our job to tell you the world you want to hear about or the world that you believe in.

Current: Of course no one would say that it is. But our life experiences and our own personal political leanings inform how we do our work as journalists in various ways.

Oreskes: Very much so.

Current: And are there lots of cars down in the NPR parking lot with Confederate flag bumper stickers? I didn’t see any.

Oreskes: No, I think you’re right, and part of a journalist’s job is to rise above their own personal background to be professional about their work. And actually, I think if you listen to NPR’s coverage the last couple of days of the Confederate flag debate in South Carolina, I think it’s been pretty robust and interesting. And there have been a lot of voices of, whatever the word is we now use for the folks who defend the Confederate flag. I think you’ve heard them pretty clearly on NPR. And if that bothers or offends more liberal-minded parts of our audience who think that the flag should just be forgotten and buried without our coverage of it, I’m sorry for them, because they’re not going to get that from us. What they’re going to get from us is a rounded picture of the whole world.

If people interpret being African-American or being Hispanic as also being liberal, if they simply hear that, that’s a different sort of bias that actually is kind of a cultural problem in the country. And you raise an interesting point that we’ll have to be thinking about, but it’s not inherent.

Current: It’s not inherent, but it’s a strong tendency that’s empirically provable in voting data.

Oreskes: Yes and no. It’s true that African-Americans are loyal — this is, of course, one of my previous lines of work as a recidivist political reporter. It’s true that African-Americans vote heavily Democratic. It’s not true that African-Americans are heavily liberal. They are in fact relatively conservative by the tendencies of Democratic Party politics. They’re obviously not as conservative as, say, the Christian right. So even the idea of typecasting ethnic or racial groups by politics is fraught with trouble.

And similarly with Latino audiences. First of all, to say there is even such a thing as [the Latino audience] is a problem because there isn’t. I grew up in the city of New York where Hispanic in my age essentially meant Puerto Rican. There wasn’t much else. My best friend Ronnie Gomez, his dad was from San Juan, and that’s what we knew. We didn’t know from Dominican or Colombian or let alone South America, that was some way far place.

But now, of course, the whole definition of what it means to be Spanish-speaking in this country is a rainbow of that. And in that is a range of political points of view, really across the entire spectrum, and also by the way a very important range of cultural views about society, which are not quite the same as politics — family values and religious values which really are wonderful and fascinating, and the tapestry of those things really is the challenge that we want to be reflecting.

But I do agree with your point that there is a tendency in newsrooms — and I don’t think the NPR newsroom is different in any way from this, I don’t think it’s more so or less so — but there is a tendency in newsrooms in this country to be higher-educated than the norm, more affluent than the norm. The median income is higher in a newsroom — even as badly as news people may think they get paid, we’re actually doing OK by the standards. And to have a certain coastal viewpoint of things, however that plays out. And I actually think public radio is in a better position than most to combat that, because we do have so many stations in places where there are people who understand the different points of view.

I was at the news directors’ meeting, and I was talking with people from Alabama, from Mississippi, from Kansas and Oklahoma — places where the point of view about the world really is pretty different from here in Washington, D.C. Actually almost any place on Earth has a different point of view from Washington, D.C. But I think one of our goals in the next few years is to just increasingly let the perspectives of all the different stations in the system become part of the NPR news thinking, and I think that will take us a long way to addressing this issue.

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  • TVNewser80

    Thank you, Mr. Oreskes, for so deftly disabusing the interviewer of his own ill-begotten biases about race/ethnicity and politics. And thanks for having the courage to make substantive changes to the flagship (read: seemingly untouchable) shows.

    • Adam Ragusea

      My own ill-begotten biases? More like my knowledge of empirical evidence: http://www.gallup.com/poll/125579/Asian-Americans-Lean-Left-Politically.aspx

      • TVNewser80

        “… even the idea of typecasting ethnic or racial groups by politics is fraught with trouble.”

        • Adam Ragusea

          I’m not typecasting, I’m talking about simple probabilities. Ample data show that people of color in the U.S. are much more likely than the general population to lean left, and very, very few identify with the Republican Party. Overlay the fact that we’re talking about journalists, who as a group also tend to lean left (http://www.journalism.org/2006/10/06/the-american-journalist/ ), and NPR’s efforts to bring in more journalists of color are, statistically, very unlikely to also bring more conservative and/or Republican journalists to the organization, which is all I said to Oreskes. You can call it typecasting, I’ll call it math.

          All that said, I still think it’s vitally important for NPR and other public media orgs to foster and recruit far more journalists of color. I rail about it on my show almost every week, and much of the reason I got into higher ed (I teach journalism at Mercer University) was to help fix this problem. We’ve placed an enormous emphasis on minority recruitment and scholarships at our program, and our model is designed to make our graduates hirable straight out of school instead of having to endure a year or more of unpaid internships (a de facto requirement of the industry that effectively excludes anyone who isn’t privileged enough to be able to work for free).

          However, I also think it’s equally important for the people in public media orgs to more closely reflect the political orientation of the county (here’s 6,000 words I wrote about why: http://current.org/2015/06/why-public-media-journalists-should-drop-the-fig-leaf-of-impartiality/ ). And while public media has taken lots of steps to rectify its lack of ethnic diversity, it has done almost nothing to rectify its lack of political diversity. And I think it’s important for us to recognize that our efforts on the former are not likely to help is with the latter. Only then will we start to take substantive steps to deal with the problem of ideological homogeneity on its own terms.

  • Aaron Read

    I’m glad Oreskes acknowledges the very, very real “trust gap” between member stations and NPR central. He’s in an unfortunate position, though…required to deal with that trust gap full-frontal yet having limited ability to really fix it since it’s primarily a CEO leadership problem that…IMHO…Jarl Mohn has at least not made any worse (more than can be said for most of Mohn’s predecessors) but he hasn’t really done much to make it better, either.

    That said, there are three things that, again, IMHO, Oreskes could do that would help a great deal with the trust gap:

    1. First and foremost: require NPR.org to eat its own dog food. Instead of a separate web platform, NPR has to use the same system that all member stations get through NPR Digital Services. (note: every member station, whether they use the badly under-resourced and heavily-flawed NPR:DS product or not, still has to pay NPR for the privilege…this particular atrocity needs to end, too.)

    2. Start ATC at 3pm ET, not 4pm. The world has changed, and many, many more people work “flex time” of 7am to 3pm these days. ATC is missing out on a major hunk of afternoon drive by not starting at 3pm.

    3. Push NPR to add to its mission statement that its mission to act for the betterment of its member stations. That there is no formal codification that NPR benefits when its member stations do better is a glaring oversight, and it’s allowed many, many ill-advised “digital first” strategies to be pursued at the expense of member stations that ultimately hurt NPR badly, too. Obvious Oreskes cannot change the mission statement alone, but his would be a powerful voice in that chorus.