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May 13, 2013, 11:15 a.m.
Audience & Social

Monday Q&A: NPR’s Matt Thompson on Code Switch, covering race and culture, and developing a mobile audience

“We knew from the outset that it was incredibly important to foster a really robust and vibrant conversation on these issues, and we knew, also, that it’s really easy for conversations about race, ethnicity, and culture to go off the rails.”

Matt Thompson, co-founder of Spark CampNPR is a media organization moving in a lot of directions all at once. Take Code Switch, the recently launched project on race, ethnicity, as an example. Code Switch is more than a new beat or coverage area for NPR — the project is designed to increase the organization’s coverage of race issues and reach out to new audiences. But beyond the boundaries of its coverage, Code Switch has a cross-media approach — on air, in social media, and on the web — that NPR hopes will appeal to a young and diverse audience outside the normal public radio fan. It’s a bet on the future, with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarding NPR a $1.5 million grant to fund the project and hire new staffers.

Matt Thompson, a name likely familiar to Nieman Lab readers or future-of-news watchers, is helming the effort. As manager of digital initiatives (“and mischief,” he adds), Thompson has been a part of a number of new endeavors at NPR, including Project Argo. What makes Code Switch unique, Thompson said, is that it promises not only to jump headlong into discussions about race and culture, but also find draw new voices into the mix. “We’re seeking to reach and bring into the conversation more and more people who are, by dint of demographics, somewhat younger than the population as a whole and are more likely to be using mobile technologies for more of their media consumption,” Thompson said.

When I spoke to Thompson, we talked about the development of the Code Switch team, it’s mission, bridging the worlds of audio and digital, and how NPR is moving into the world of mobile. Here’s a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: About the name. Were there any questions? Did you have to sell that to the bosses? Did they get it?
Matt Thompson: For some of the names we circulated, I did a sort of purposeful hype-backlash thing, a very canny campaign to make sure we had floated some of the most egregious possibilities for names before we finally floated Code Switch, just so folks were primed for the worst possible thing.

Code Switch came about exactly and as organically as I would have had hoped. We had come up with long lists of potential names, some of which we knew would just be salty, and others of which, like “Earth Tones,” were in the conversation merely to produce derision.

Ellis: Earth Tones?
Thompson: Yes.
Ellis: Wow.
Thompson: So we had these long list of names, and one of them was Code Switch. We knew we wanted something that was metaphorically resonant but also snappy, easy to say, fairly easy to just spell, and once you heard it on air you could get to it. We had several candidates — we had plays on words and the usual stuff. But when the team met for its first in-person retreat and all seven people met together for the first time, we talked about it, we set aside some time just to talk about the team’s name. I believe Keith Woods was the one in the room who had said, “Well, have you guys talked about Code Switch?” And just at that moment with everyone together in the room we looked at each other and were like, “You know what, that’s it isn’t it?”

It was like we had universally accepted it as a team name first, and then stepped back and realized it’s actually a really nice resonant idea — this notion of a dialogue that spans cultures and mixing modes. The fact that it was snappy and easy enough to say and spell was just icing on the cake.

Ellis: And social-media friendly as well.
Thompson: And totally social-media friendly. I thought we were going to have to do a lot more constant explaining of what this is and why we call it Code Switch. So we planned to do this week of stories in our blog launch on code-switching. I was like, “We’re going to have to do everything possible to make this not feel just academic, like a scholarly exploration of linguistics. But the idea of code-switching, it’s a fun concept. It produces a lot of good stories from folks, it turns out. Because when we asked for stories about it, they just came flooding in. Like, 350 submissions came to us through the Public Insight Network, and folks were tweeting all sorts of stuff at us. We got lots of love from linguists, but we got a lot of love for the name from ordinary folks and some phenomenally interesting, funny, rich, stories that folks were willing to share about how code-switching plays out in their lives and when they did it. And we were not expecting that.

Just playing that one Key & Peele sketch, “Phone Call.” I have learned if you play that sketch, you never have to explain it again. The few people who heard the name and were like “What?” — you just play them that sketch and they’re like “Ohhhhhhh.”

Ellis: When the team was coming together and you were thinking about the mission, how did you focus it? When you talk about reporting on race, ethnicity, and culture in the U.S., that can seem like a gigantic playing field.
Thompson: One of the things that we were doing in preparation for the team — we actually convened a group of dozens of folks from all over the organization, representing a variety of ethnic cultural backgrounds. We spoke about what we wanted to do and debated the ideas of having different reporting efforts for different cultural communities.

What came out of this conversation that took place over the span of a few months with folks from all over was we asked folks to start sharing interesting links they came across. We didn’t set very many parameters in that, we just said “share stuff you felt was interesting that sort of touched on these things we talked about.” We wanted to see if that could hang together — whether there was a strong conceptual thread running through this that we could use as a foundation for reporting, whether we could define the core, the center of gravity of this topic in such a way that it was compelling.

We found, as we looked at the links coming in, that really there was a center of gravity here and it’s something that absolutely overlaps with all different areas of coverage. This topic and our approach to it requires coordination with the arts desk, and the national desk, and the Washington desk, and the science desk, and NPR Music.

It’s a dimension of our stories that when you focus on it, when you actually ask yourself about the role race, ethnicity, and culture play in our lives and in the stories we report on — as opposed to taking a different tact, like covering a particular community or whatnot — it allows you, I think, to enter all of this deeper, more nuanced and fascinating territory we didn’t have the same way into before. It allows us to explore things like code-switching. It allows us to have a conversation about something that is often both very difficult and very oblique, but is at the same time incredible important too the dynamics of so many news stories.

Ellis: It’s something people always use the word “sensitive” around.
Thompson: Exactly. Covering race, ethnicity, and culture, I say, it’s like going straight into the heart of it. We’re diving into deeply sensitive territory.
Ellis: When you launched there was “Accidental Racist” and that seemed like really great timing. But then there’s Jason Collins, and the stuff with the Boston Marathon bombers.
Thompson: Jason Collins is a really good example, because one of the fundamental, definitional things that we had to do is figure out what about Jason Collins is just interesting, and what about Jason Collins is interesting because he’s black? Or what about Jason Collins’ blackness is interesting about this story? That lens allows us to ask the question, as Gene did last week — there is this specter in all these stories and all the coverage of this issue of “Jason Collins is black and everybody knows that black folks have an extra special problem with homosexuality.”

Because we dive straight into the headlong, uncomfortable space, we can ask the question: “How true is this? And what is the special black perspective on homosexuality, to the extent we can parse it from available polling?” And he came out with a really nuanced and interesting take. He spoke to a professor who had done a pretty exhaustive review of opinion polling among African Americans on issues of homosexuality and found that the picture is complex. You have to juggle a lot of ideas to characterize black thought on gay and lesbian issues.

Ellis: It seems like you guys want to delve into a lot of nuance, either challenging perceptions or finding stories out of something that may have been the second graf of a different story.
Thompson: For a radio organization, one of the differences in medium between broadcast and web stuff — for the web stuff we’re pretty comfortable and we can get away with talking in ideas. We can do pieces that are conceptual, talking about these abstract ideas, or doing essays like Gene’s launch essay, which takes you from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, to the Harlem Shake, to Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, on through African American vernacular and the development of hip-hop. You can do that online in an essay. The digital piece of this allows us to start with a foundation of thinking around something that might be fairly abstract and develop that over time.

For radio, for audio or broadcasting on air, you need these settings and characters. You need this bright and colorful sound. You need things that can paint the canvas of the story you’re trying to tell in sound. It’s much more difficult to do that, from a state of nature, with headier stories.

I think having the two pieces, the digital and broadcast pieces linked, enables us to start something in a place where we’re exploring ideas but very quickly find stories around it. Code-switching is one of those things. The reasons why they do it, the way it plays out — all of those can be abstract ideas to represent in audio. But because we started with this week of posting about it digitally, and conceptually, we were able to solicit hundreds of stories from people which then turned into material we used on air.

I think the reverse happens also. For radio, we find ourselves seeking stories with characters and places and settings that are very specific and tangible. That lets us produce these things that can play out very nicely online. This weekend, we produced a post for the blog that was composed of two stories that appeared on Weekend Edition Sunday, stories from two of our foreign correspondents on the idea of personal space. On air, these are very vivid stories. We have reporters on the metro in Sau Paulo talking about what people are like on the subway in Brazil and how they relate to one another. But you hear that — their voices, their giggling; you almost hear the claustrophobia of the space and people’s elbows jostling against each other. But we’re talking about this abstract thing, personal space. I think the radio can be a nice kind of anchor for a rich and broader conversation online.

Ellis: The project seems to fit well with the direction NPR is going in, which is across multiple mediums — which is to say it’s audio and digital. How do you think this fits into the overall direction that NPR is trying to go in?
Thompson: I think it fits really nicely. One of the things the team has been built to do is be a pioneer for us strategically in some of the ways we’re developing editorially. The most basic is expanding those universes of digital and broadcast. Really thinking constantly about this daily blog at the same time we’re thinking about less-regular segments on air.

Another piece of it is, so far I think the team has been successful, and it certainly intended to, to reach an audience of people, part of our existence is to reach people of color, as well as providing additional richness to NPR’s coverage for its full audience. We’re seeking to reach and bring into the conversation more and more people who are, by dint of demographics, somewhat younger than the population as a whole and more likely to be using mobile technologies for more of their media consumption. As we think of ourselves as a mobile organization, we’re uniquely oriented towards reaching a group whose media habits presages the habits of our general audience as a whole.

Ellis: Is reaching a new audience a matter of content and having new voices? Specifically, how do you guys think you can reach out to these new corners?

Thompson: I think the content is part of it. The way we deliver that content and the way we tell our stories, all of those things are part of it.

But, just to make it vivid again for a second, we know we’re reaching, and we’re seeking, an audience that is more likely to use social media than the full general population. This means that social media is incredibly important. It’s an important place for us to be looking for stories and to be reporting. It’s also important to factor social media in, to build that into our editorial planning as a place where we’re telling stories.

So we have a member of the team, Kat Chow, whose primary outlet, the arena in which she spends most of her time, is social media. She’s working closely with our folks in broadcast. There’s a lot of cross-fertilization and mixing. Social media is uniquely one of these spaces where you can actually reach out and touch the people you actually want to reach out and touch.

Ellis: I did want to ask you about the element of building a community with this. You guys had the post about the comments you remove, and you’ve been active talking to people through the Twitter account. How are you thinking about those tools and how they can feed into growing an audience?
Thompson: We’re still very much figuring it out. Almost the biggest thing you want to do when you’re covering race, ethnicity, and culture is foster a fantastic conversation. One of the most delightful pictures of success for us, I think, is having people around a dinner table talking about stories, questions, seeds of things that we’re bringing into their lives.

We knew from the outset that it was incredibly important to foster a really robust and vibrant conversation on these issues, and we knew, also, that it’s really easy for conversations about race, ethnicity, and culture to go off the rails. So we wanted to take a very active stance in our discussions all across the blog but also in social media, online, and all the places folks were discussing our work.

Ellis: Is that kind of freedom typical of different projects at NPR? You guys are being very deliberate in your approach.
Thompson: I would say absolutely. So my title is manager of digital initiatives and mischief, but I am by far not the most mischievous person in this organization. I think generally there is a lot of trying and breaking and fixing things here. We definitely enlisted our social media team early on — Kate Myers, and Wright Bryan, and Andy Carvin, to say, “Hey, folks, we want to take the NPR discussion guidelines and interpret them very strictly and aggressively. We just want to let you know you’re going to be removing some comments.” And Kate and Andy and Wright were like, “Awesome, you guys, go nuts — let’s play and learn about what’s working and figure out what we can try to take from this universe and apply to our work elsewhere.” It’s a hugely encouraging environment in which to experiment to try stuff, break stuff, fix stuff, and make stuff.
POSTED     May 13, 2013, 11:15 a.m.
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