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Current Q&A Bill Marimow

Bill Marimow  interviewed Spend resources on daily reporting or enterprise stories? Marimow says NPR is adding muscle so it can do both. (Photo: Current.)

NPR working with stations ‘can be much, much stronger’

Originally published in Current, July 17, 2006

No wonder NPR is devoting so much time to forums, facilitators and liaison efforts in recent months. Its news division, for one, is moving to optimize its relationships with stations as well as the network’s growing digital media unit.

Chief among the NPR execs trying to reconcile these ambitions and “new realities” with the stubborn daily demands and traditions of journalism is Bill Marimow, v.p. for news.
The former editor of the Baltimore Sun, a longtime investigative reporter, joined NPR two years ago as co-managing editor and stepped up to v.p. for news in February, succeeding Bruce Drake.

Current editors Mike Janssen and Steve Behrens interviewed Marimow earlier this month. This is an edited transcript.

When we talked after you were promoted to v.p. for news in February, you said a priority was to move NPR News further into the digital age of multimedia. How is NPR changing to better fit the demands of delivering news in nonbroadcast media platforms?

If you come to the main morning news meeting nowadays you can actually see and feel the change. What’s happened now is that every desk and every show is inextricably tied to online. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

Two months ago, Leroy Sievers, who is a commentator, had a commentary about grappling with cancer. And Jay Kernis, the senior v.p. for programming, heard it and said, “Bill, you know, this could be awesome. We could have him do a blog. We could have him do podcasts. We could have him do online features as well as his Morning Edition commentary.” And I ran into Leroy that night at dinner and talked with him.
The very next day Morning Edition, in collaboration with the website, had signed up Leroy for a blog, for a commentary and for a podcast. It’s just one example.

Today at the futures meeting, where all the desks and all the shows get together, both Jeffrey Katz and Joe Matazzoni from NPR Digital Media were there. And for almost every project they heard about, Jeffrey would opine in a humorous way, “Well, it’s a good thing to know about. I’m already well aware of this, and we’re on the case.”

We still have a huge way to go, but there’s now a real collaboration between every nook and cranny of the digital division and of the news division. The goal in the long term is to make sure that everything we produce for broadcast has an online, podcast, cellular phone component to it. That’s a long ways away, but we’re moving in that direction.

Do you have a sense of how much more NPR wants to expand the Digital Media division?

I can’t tell you quantitatively, but next year’s proposed budget, which is now in rough draft, would create, if it’s approved, significantly more new jobs in the digital division than it adds in the news division.

That’s a recognition that we need to move forward in this area. To me it seems not only prudent but absolutely necessary. For all of us to thrive in the future, we’ve got to be able to provide our content in whatever medium the audience wants it, when they want it and how they want it.

At the end of June, the New York Times put the same executive over its online news desk and the continuous news desk on its print side. Is NPR considering similar changes in the way its online and newscast units operate?

One of the possibilities for the new budget is to add some staffers to the newscast unit who will in effect be the foundation of a continuous news desk. It’s premature to say that will definitely happen, but we’re seriously discussing the concept.

Here would be a good example, theoretically: Let’s say that a car bomb destroyed a historic mosque in Najaf, Iraq, and [reporter] Annie Garrels is on the scene. She might call in to the newscast unit and in five minutes give a very vivid eyewitness account, then return to reporting the story. The person in newscast who took the account might combine it with material from the Associated Press and, as fast as humanly possible, provide something for NPR’s website that would have NPR-quality reporting plus what could be gleaned from AP and Reuters. And that first report might be only four or five paragraphs.

An hour later, that person in newscast might add to the story significantly, based on additional reporting, by our staff, by AP and perhaps by himself or herself. We’re not going to do that with every story, but for three or four or five major stories, the website will have NPR-quality stories as fast as any news source in the country.

Again I want to stress that that’s conceptual at this point. But that’s the way we’re envisioning it.

It must be challenging these days with so many options online to know what web visitors most want from a news site. How do you figure that out? What do people most want from NPR.org?

Maria Thomas [v.p. for Digital Media] is the expert on that, and not to pre-empt her, but I can say we have research tools to gauge who is clicking on what. Feedback from the audience, both statistical and anecdotal, gives us a strong sense of what people like.

I’ll give you an example that was a real lesson to me. Chris Arnold did a fascinating story on a device called SawStop. It’s a safety device on a table saw that stops the saw the moment it hits flesh. So instead of losing a finger, you don’t even have a nick. Chris didn’t believe it at first, but saw it demonstrated and got a film, which uses a hot dog filled with a blood-like substance. The minute the SawStop touched the hot dog, it stopped. We put his video on the Web and promoted it in the radio piece, and it became one of our most-e-mailed stories.

One other example: Frank Langfitt did a story on “Crackberries”— people who are addicted to their Blackberries. It was a tongue-in-cheek story, but it had real people—an investment banker, a stock broker, a consultant. Joe Matazzoni, the e.p. in online, called me up that morning and said, “You can’t believe how many people clicked on Frank’s story.”

Your website has increasing amounts of video and text as well as audio, and newspaper sites are going in the same direction. Is NPR going to find itself in a more competitive relationship with newspapers, so that, for example, they might not let their correspondents be interviewed as readily as in the past?

I’ve never been a great predictor, but I would say that NPR has as much to offer the newspapers in terms of foreign reporting, national reporting, science and medicine reporting.    Knowing how some of the big newspaper companies are reducing their foreign coverage, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that newspapers will be interviewing Anne Garrels or Deb Amos.

Whenever an NPR person writes a book, such as Garrels’ Naked in Baghdad or Pretty Birds by Scott Simon, the newspapers clamor to interview them.

But then another possible tradeoff arises if your reporters in the field are busy being interviewed. Say your correspondents have three more feeds to do—one for a newspaper and two for different shows on NPR. That could keep them very close to their telephones. BBC reporters are reportedly shackled to their schedules, doing reports for every time zone in the world, and AP reporters likewise. Is there a chance that your reporters would lose the time to do enterprise reporting?

In all of our discussions about the future, we’ve emphasized excellence in journalism. It’s critically important that as we move forward, we not dilute in any way our reporters’ ability to report stories. When I thought about joining NPR and talked to my colleagues from print, they talked about many of their reporters having great ability but being stretched.

So we’ve added a third reporter to cover Congress. There’s now Brian Naylor, David Welna and Andrea Seabrook. As the demands get greater, we have more people to do the quotidian and do the enterprise. The White House used to be just Don Gonyea. Now it’s Don Gonyea and David Greene. In the Pentagon we now have John Hendren and Tom Bowman instead of one reporter, Eric Westervelt. So we are trying to add muscle to address those concerns.

How do you divide up reporting duties within these beats?

I’ll give you an example. John Hendren, who is one of our Pentagon reporters, is currently in Baghdad, Tom Bowman at the Pentagon. The idea is that John Hendren is getting exposure to the troops in the field, and Tom Bowman is covering the breaking news and what’s happening domestically. That’s a huge benefit.

When John Hendren comes back, he’ll be armed with information and perspective he couldn’t have had if he’d been at the Pentagon the whole time. Then Tom will be free to do more enterprise work rather than breaking news.
We can’t do that on every beat, but I think it’s worked well in the White House, in Congress and in the Pentagon.

No matter how many reporters you have, how do you balance the demands of covering breaking news and doing exclusives and investigative reports?

I think the ideal way to do that is when the breaking news is important and very interesting, you drop what you’re doing and you cover that. And you cover it well. If you have a great enterprise story, you can tilt toward it.

One of the mandates for excellent journalism is public service — to shine a light on something that really requires attention. And to do that, you need to take time. There aren’t any shortcuts to doing great investigative reporting. So if the mundane, discretionary stories aren’t important, you can focus on your investigations.

As a reporter at a newspaper, I probably never went home feeling anything other than guilty because I had concentrated too much on the daily reporting and neglected the enterprise reporting, or done the enterprise and neglected the daily. I think that’s a dilemma for every reporter.

What have you taken away from NPR’s New Realities process [separate story] that to you are the most striking ideas, opinions and suggestions as to how things should progress?

Two things. One we talked about: To move forward, we have to make sure that our content is available to our audience on radio, iPods, computers, cell phones—any device that is devised or invented in our lifetime.

And I think that our fortunes and the fortunes of the member stations are inextricably tied together. We can’t be successful unless the member stations are successful. To me, this was one of the great revelations of New Realities — that our fortunes are tied together, and that as we move forward, we need to work together.

What is the tie? Is it as simple as the money that the stations provide, which is still a big chunk of NPR’s budget? Or are there other things that you get from them and that they get from you?

I think that when we work together, we can be much, much stronger. There are a couple of projects under way to strengthen member stations and NPR. One is called Morning Edition Graduate School, and it’s under the Local News Initiative. Thirty to 40 member stations have already expressed interest. The idea is to help member stations figure out the best ways to derive benefits from Morning Edition. It could be via promotion, music, anything.

Marcia Alvar [longtime president of Public Radio Program Directors Association] has signed up to lead the Local News Initiative, and Marcia has great ability, great experience and she will be a terrific liaison to member stations.

What are some ways stations could make more of Morning Edition?

There ought to be a way for a station to tie its local news to what’s on Morning Edition. Let’s say we know that Morning Edition has a series coming up on education in the city and the suburbs. The Milwaukee station knows about it in advance, and it has a top-notch ed reporter. It would be logical for that station to follow our education series with its own segment on education in Milwaukee. I’m not a programmer, but that’s something that occurs to me.

There’s a joint project we’re actually working on with WNPR in Hartford, Conn. [National Desk Editor] Ellen Weiss has been a terrific force for working with member stations. One of my first trips with Ellen was to go up to WNPR and do a workshop and a seminar with her and [news training chief] Jonathan Kern.

Ellen just gave me an outline of a project they’ve been working on about Bridgeport, Conn. [for broadcast late this summer]. It’s in the wealthiest state in the country, with rich and poor living in towns that are side by side. The stories are about Bridgeport schools, past and present; tax changes, taxes on the rich and poor; desperate choices; and the future of Bridgeport. Margot Adler and Chris Arnold from NPR are working on it, along with Diane Orson and John Dankowski from WNPR, and Andrea de Leon and Kathy Shaw, who are editing the series.

That’s the kind of series that makes ideal use of our skills here and our member stations’ reporters and knowledge.
Here’s another example: Ellen sat down with the top editors at WNYC in New York and worked on formulating a unified approach to covering the fifth anniversary of 9/11. You get greater strength when you’re working together than when you’re simply doing things and announcing them as fait accompli.

When you addressed the Investigative Reporters and Editors convention in Fort Worth last month, you mentioned the idea of putting resources into 10 or 15 local newsrooms and developing solid education beats. What kind of a reaction is that idea getting?

[Chuckling.] I think we need a huge grant. It’s a huge idea, and again, I have no idea whether it’s feasible. But I love the idea of our member stations picking a subject area or two or three and really making a commitment to dynamite reporting in those areas.

I really like the topic of education — my wife is a teacher. And I think it would be terrific to have 15 or 20 stations establishing an A-plus education beat, so that when people turn to member stations in their cities or towns, they’d know they will get the broadest, deepest education coverage anywhere—better than the local paper, better than TV, better than anywhere else.

You were working at newspapers when editors took over the layout work that printers had always done. Now at NPR, journalists are doing work that previously had been reserved for audio technicians. Why did NPR management see it as important that its journalists be able to do these duties?

It’s our belief that in broadcasting around the country many people are doing these things for themselves now, without a process as complicated, time-consuming and expensive as we had in our contract. And indeed, many of our hosts used to do this work by themselves before our audio technicians unionized.

Do you think there might be any potential drawbacks about reporters and producers adopting this work? Are you concerned, for example, about overstretching them?

In the most candid conversations I’ve had, I hear about how broadcast journalists are doing this in other cities. And my feeling based on these conversations is that in many cases it offers advantages as opposed to disadvantages.

People talk about the fact that the increased intimacy of doing an interview one on one rather than having engineers present is more valuable than the minuscule improvement in quality of sound. I don’t know if that’s true or not. This is not my area of expertise. But I’ve heard that in many cases it makes for more natural and candid conversations.

A consultant’s report on NPR’s internal New Realities process, released this month, reflected a strong appetite within NPR for a wider range of voices and perspectives on NPR programs—range in age, race, and point of view [NPR Un-plugged]. How close are NPR news programs to what you would like to hear in terms of that kind of diversity?

We’re moving in the direction I would like to go, but the distance we have to go is greater than the distance we’ve come. Particularly for commentaries, we ought to be recruiting people of every age, every race, of diverse economic backgrounds. I’ve personally been working on that. Tanya Barrientos from the Philadelphia Inquirer got in touch with me and I put her in touch with Ellen Silva. Also, Steve Lopez from the Los Angeles Times. I encouraged Ellis Cose, who is African-American, to contribute.

Are you interested in dimensions of diversity besides ethnicity?

My feeling is that we should be younger, older, ethnic, and, in politics, liberal and conservative. I would like to hear as many voices as we can get on the air. One of the toughest equations to solve, for NPR and for the media industry at large, is how to get a younger audience interested and how to make them loyal NPR fans.

At the IRE conference last month, you talked about investigative reporting as good business for news media. What have been two or three of the more recent investigative projects on NPR programs that you think turned out well?

I think that Snighda Prakash’s stories on Vioxx have been very revelatory. I think when Snighda reviewed hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from Merck to medical school deans and others raising questions about the researchers’ questions about Vioxx, that was excellent journalism. When she established a panel of experts to examine Merck’s assertions that Vioxx is safe, and the panel of experts raised serious questions about that, that was revelatory journalism.

Several months ago, John McChesney looked at the death of Manadel al-Jamadi, who was a key member of a terrorist cell who died in military custody at Abu Ghraib and was packed in ice. What John concluded was this man had been arrested at 2 in the morning, and he was dead at 7 in the morning — five hours in the custody of the American military. So this story raised questions about what happened to al-Jamadi. John McChesney spent days and many dollars of travel time trying to track down the Navy SEALs, the CIA agents and the military police who had him in custody.

One other that I thought was very well done — John McChesney and Jacki Lyden several weeks ago did a story on the death of Yasser Salihee, who was a translator for NPR and other organizations. He was driving in his neighborhood in Baghdad. In the fog of war, a man driving home doesn’t realize there are soldiers on the street. He came to a roadblock but didn’t see it. The patrol tried to slow him down, and he kept driving. The soldiers see a car that won’t stop and they shoot him. He ended up dead in his front seat with a cell phone and a laptop. The story was told from several points of view — Iraqi eyewitnesses, Salihee’s family and the sniper himself, Joe Romero.

For every investigative story that becomes one of these examples, how many threads do reporters follow that don’t pan out?

Many don’t pan out. Speaking from my own experience, I would say that if a third of the leads that I pursued became stories, that was a high percentage. Maybe it’s like baseball: A batting average of .333 could get you into the Hall of Fame.

Web page posted July 17, 2006
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Copyright 2006

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“We still have a huge way to go, but there’s now a real collaboration between every nook and cranny of the digital division and of the news division.”

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