New NPR news VP looks to bolster investigative journalism, embrace working with stations

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WASHINGTON — NPR News chief Nancy Barnes said Friday that she will build on the collaborative news projects under development among NPR and its member stations.

Barnes speaks Friday at the Public Radio News Directors Inc. conference in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Tyler Falk)

“I want to state emphatically that I fully embrace the collaborative journalism project that NPR has embarked on for some time,” she said during the annual conference of the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (as of Saturday, the Public Media Journalists Association). “If it blossoms as envisioned over time, we can grow into the strongest reporting network in the country and fill the newsgathering gaps that widen every day.”

Barnes, who said she consulted with stakeholders for several months about her plans as NPR’s senior news executive, also laid out her priorities for the newsroom, including strengthening investigative reporting.

NPR has been laying the groundwork for more newsroom collaborations with stations by establishing regional journalism hubs, creating specialized beat and topic teams of station reporters and providing public radio journalism training. The first journalism hub is now underway in Texas, she said.

The collaborative journalism effort “will require a sustained commitment” over several years, Barnes said. “And while I’m told that executives haven’t always lasted at NPR, I am committed to staying and seeing this through.”

Barnes was hired in the fall to replace Michael Oreskes, the NPR News chief who resigned in 2017 following sexual harassment claims against him. Oreskes developed the plan to build regional hubs, and in 2017 he assigned NPR Executive Editor Edith Chapin to lead rollout.

Since joining NPR, Barnes said she had been “constantly asked” by NPR staffers and people in the public media system about her priorities as NPR’s senior news VP. She said she thought it would be “presumptuous to come in with a set of priorities before I really listened and heard what others in the system had to say.”

But having now talked with people throughout the system, she is ready to share her agenda. One of her top goals, she said, is to “expand the investigative-reporting firepower of NPR” and produce more exclusive stories. Barnes and her team are looking into topic areas that NPR can “own nationally,” she said, and NPR will “realign resources accordingly with the goal of increasing the number of stories brought to you only by NPR or by NPR first.”

Potential topics include the pharmaceutical industry, domestic terrorism, gene editing, election security and the Census, she said.

As part of the effort to bolster investigative journalism, Barnes said she wants to develop a system for working with stations on developing and reporting stories.

Another priority for Barnes is to find ways to assist stations in communities where there is a shortage of local news coverage. She looks to help “fund reporters and editors at public radio stations where the need is greatest, providing a runway to sustainability over time.”

Barnes added that NPR’s newsroom plans to ”lean in at every level to our dominance and expertise in audio storytelling and delivery.”

“Like many in this business, I once believed there was going to be a video revolution,” she said, and “came late to the realization that it was going to be an audio revolution, in terms of new formats, new audiences, new deliveries with the advent of smart speakers and homes and cars.”

Additionally, NPR continues to work on “our internal culture to build an environment of trust and respect with a focus on serving the needs of the audience first including serving an increasingly diverse audience,” she said.

When asked how she planned to try to diversify the audience she replied: “Part of it is through hiring — individuals who understand other communities, other ethnic groups, other economic groups.”

NPR and public media “need to get out into the community and let people learn who we are,” she said. Barnes has suggested hosting events on college campuses, she said, because they are “increasingly diverse and could bring a broader network of listeners into the public media space.”

Barnes also called for more journalism training throughout the system.

“It will take time, persistence and commitment for all of this to come together,” she said. “But I imagine a day when we will truly be a connected collaborative network that serves the country sharing content and expertise in a way that allows us to be much greater than the sum of our parts.”

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