NPR, stations see progress in collaborative news coverage

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A KPBS video and Morning Edition story focused on incarcerated veterans as part of the collaborative Back at Base series.

A KPBS video and Morning Edition story focused on incarcerated veterans as part of the collaborative Back at Base series.

At last year’s conference for public radio news directors, NPR’s Michael Oreskes apologized to stations for how the network has — or hasn’t — worked with stations in the past.

“For every time that an NPR producer or editor has sent an NPR staffer into your territory without so much as a text message, I apologize,” said Oreskes, NPR’s senior v.p. of news and editorial director.

A year later, NPR and station leaders say they are making progress in working together more closely on news coverage, despite ongoing staff and budget challenges.

A new report by NPR and station leaders summarizes the highs and lows of a two-year effort to increase collaboration. The report confirms that as a result of the effort, more station-based reporters are appearing on NPR newsmagazines. Ten percent of newsmagazine content in 2015 came from stations, nearly double the 5.4 percent share in 2010.

Auster (Photo: NPR/Doby Photography)

Auster (Photo: NPR/Doby Photography)

“Essentially, we’re trying to behave like a network,” said Bruce Auster, who joined NPR as collaborative coverage senior editor in March 2015. “So that we know each other. So we’re not all out there, newsrooms all over the country, doing our own thing without understanding how what we’re doing is connected to what other people in the network are doing.”

Teaming up to report on specific beats and topics is a “centerpiece” of the collaborative work, said Auster, because it gets station reporters from different parts of the country working together. NPR added collaborative politics and energy/environment beats in the last year to its joint coverage of health, education and the military.

“Member station reporters have told us that before the teams, they felt alone,” the report said. “Now they know there are other reporters throughout the system like them, colleagues they can learn from and rely on.”

Refining breaking news collaboration

Five station leaders have been working with five NPR staffers since 2014 to identify how the network and stations can work together more effectively. The group also put together the report.

The report surveyed about 100 station journalists working on the collaborative beats. Four out of five said they believed overall reporting and story framing and identification had improved as a result of collaborating.

More than 50 member stations are participating. NPR plans to expand collaborative beat coverage and is “looking at where to find resources to do that,” the report said. One beat might focus on state government reporting.

Collaborative coverage has worked well when stations and NPR are able to coordinate in advance, such as for covering a trial or a papal visit. But challenges arise when news breaks and NPR and multiple stations jump on the story.

“The San Bernardino mass shooting was an example: There were many public radio resources in the region, but coordination was a challenge,” the report said. “More work is needed to establish clear guidelines in advance about how we’ll work together in the most stressful news situations.”

The report added: “Some stations haven’t embraced the idea of paying it forward — that in order for your local audience to get timely reporting when news breaks somewhere else in the country, your station must commit to helping NPR when news breaks in your community.”

To aid communication between NPR and stations, NPR reporters now complete forms when they go on reporting trips, and the information is conveyed to local stations. “There was a huge problem where NPR people would show up in your town and nobody knew they were coming,” Auster said. “That problem has all but gone away.”

Some teams are using the messaging app Slack, and over the next year NPR will “explore whether this model can scale to serve communication needs across the system — and whether we can use it as the core of a searchable online public radio station directory,” the report said.

‘A good thing both ways’

Working with NPR and six other stations on Back at Base, a project covering veterans, has been good for WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C., news director Brent Wolfe told Current. It has sharpened the skills of the reporter working on the collaboration, Jay Price, who was a longtime print reporter covering the military before joining WUNC.

Wolfe. (Photo: WUNC/Diane Douglass Photography)

Wolfe (Photo: WUNC/Diane Douglass Photography)

“[Price] was new to radio, and I know that through the collaboration he had some coaching from some producers at [All Things Considered] as he was voicing his tracks for an ATC piece, and that was really helpful,” Wolfe said. “ … I think it’s been a good thing both ways.”

Wolfe has worked in public media since 1991 and at WUNC since 2000. In recent years, “I sense much more interest on the part of NPR in working with stations,” he said. “… [E]specially with Oreskes, there’s an openness and willingness to collaborate, and that’s been really good to see.” Auster has also helped shepherd reporters and their pieces through the system, Wolfe said.

Wolfe said he would like to see collaborations continue to grow, as there are currently not enough spots for stations interested in participating. “I understand that you want to have the collaborations be somewhat limited at first, but it’s too bad that more people who want to participate in them aren’t able to,” he said. “… That’s a measure that they’re working well, that people want to get into them.”

Wolfe added that he would like NPR to establish more bureau chiefs, on top of the four now connecting stations in different regions to NPR. Auster helps with editing for collaborations but is also working on the larger strategy for joint reporting between NPR and stations.

‘There’s a general lack of editing talent around the whole system at stations and at NPR,” Wolfe said.

Auster also cited a lack of editors as an ongoing challenge. “If we can build up editing capacity in the system, we’re going to solve a lot of problems,” Auster said. “We’re not a big enough organization that we can afford weak editors.”

The report also underscored the challenge of raising funds to sustain the projects. Some have been supported by grants, but most are drawing on general operating funds.

“The current NPR-station compact discussions to reassess the public radio business model could affect the resources available for collaborative journalism,” the report said. “A lack of major new resources directed to collaborative projects has slowed our progress at times. We remain optimistic that other foundations and individuals will see value in funding this transformative work.”

Despite the challenges, Auster said the collaborations demonstrate a “big cultural change” in the NPR-station relationship.

“For a long time there was a sense that NPR and the stations were not on the same page,” he said. “And I think those days are gone. We are past the point where the question is, do we work together? The question now is, how do we do it better?”