Public eye on NPR spurred editorial additions, says Chapin

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Stephen Voss/NPR


NPR Editor in Chief Edith Chapin sees the network’s plan to add 11 new positions, including a team to review its journalism, as a positive outcome of the recent public attention the network has faced. 

Bias at NPR was the subject of a U.S. House hearing May 8, after an April essay by now-former network editor Uri Berliner alleged a lack of ideological diversity among the network’s staff.

With NPR in the news, questions circulated about what the network wanted to do and what would be helpful, Chapin said in an interview with Current. 

NPR was able to line up a verbal pledge from an external funder to support the changes it revealed last week.  

“You’ve got to strike when the iron is hot,” said Chapin, who is also an SVP and acting CCO at NPR.

NPR plans to add 11 positions, including two more standards editors, two content strategy analysts, a training position, and six editors who will make up the new “Backstop” team, providing a final review of NPR’s journalism. 

The amount of funding and who is providing it have not been revealed, but Chapin said the donor’s identity would not be surprising. 

“I’m happy that we’re able to take a moment that maybe wasn’t our favorite moment but turn it into something positive for journalism,” Chapin said. 

Berliner’s essay and the feedback it generated were “a factor” in the moves, which NPR had already been considering for a while, said Chapin.

For example, having just one standards and practices editor had been “gnawing” at Chapin “for a long, long time,” she said. 

Chapin said NPR has more than 240 member stations with opinions, and the network also has to be responsive to them. 

NPR’s content mix is what stations give the network feedback on more than anything else, Chapin said. The two content strategy analysts being added will help provide data on that mix. 

Chapin said the aim is to get a handle on the “aggregate” of what NPR produces and not just any one person’s impression of what they were able to consume, a change she called “long overdue.”

The ‘Backstop’

It’s too early to spell out all the rules for the new “Backstop” review process, Chapin said, as each department will need to be consulted.

In her note to staff, Chapin said the new team would not be involved with inception or development of work but would instead make sure coverage gets a final review.  

“We’re going to need to include a lot more people in the conversation,” Chapin said. “Otherwise, we are going to step on a rake.” 

Chapin also addressed concerns reported in the The New York Times that the “Backstop” could become a “bottleneck.”

“What I’ve said at the staff meetings is, if a year from now we view this as a bottleneck, it will be a failure,” Chapin told Current. 

The New York Times article also said adding the editors after NPR cut 10% of its staff last year was a “point of contention” for employees. 

Chapin said losing staff members last year was “terrible” but that adding jobs today is a good thing for journalism. 

“There was an opportunity now, and I took it, and I will continue to fight for all the other resources,” Chapin said. 

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