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May 20, 2024, 9 a.m.
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After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight

“We will all have to adjust to a new workflow. If it is a bottleneck, it will be a failure.”

NPR has announced new layers of editorial review designed to reach every corner of the newsroom. The changes will include an expanded Standards & Practices team, organization-wide editorial planning tools, and what NPR is calling the “Backstop” — a new group of senior editors who’ll work “24/7 to ensure that all coverage receives final editorial review.”

NPR plans to hire 11 new employees to help enact the changes. Last year, it laid off around 10% of its staff, a total of around 100 people. An anonymous funder is “helping” to pay for the positions, The New York Times reported Thursday, but editor-in-chief Edith Chapin reportedly declined to elaborate on the source of the money when pressed by staff.

Chapin wrote in a memo sent to staff and published online on Wednesday that the sweeping changes are aimed at coordinating and evaluating news coverage across all platforms. The word “content” — as in “a series of Content staff meetings” and “the monthly internal Content Review” — is frequently invoked. The new hires and revamped workflows will add additional oversight over NPR’s mix of radio reports, podcasts, digital news articles, and other output.

“We’re going to regularly look at our content in the aggregate instead of the anecdotal,” Chapin wrote.

The “Backstop” adds a new layer of review across NPR journalism. When I asked her in an email if it would slow down the newsmaking process, as some NPR journalists have already said they fear, Chapin said the new group “will be able to review the volume of content on a daily and weekly basis in real time.”

“We will all have to adjust to a new workflow,” she added. “If it is a bottleneck, it will be a failure. It is not designed to clog the system. It is designed to be an extra set of editing and eyes and ears.”

NPR’s announcement comes after a budget shortfall and the wide layoffs last year. It also follows a public back-and-forth about the news organization’s direction sparked by NPR editor Uri Berliner (who has since departed) criticizing NPR as having lost its “open-minded spirit” and lacking “viewpoint diversity.” (Berliner was a 1998 Nieman Fellow.) The Free Press, the publication founded by Bari Weiss that published Berliner’s essay in April, claimed credit for the changes.

“Some will ask if this is a reaction to recent media discourse about NPR,” Chapin acknowledged in the announcement. “Clearly we have a lot of eyes on our house right now.”

“I swung for the fences and asked for resources I’ve long wished we had,” she added, “and I’m pleased with the support we’ve received.”

The plan as announced on Wednesday:

  • Standards & Practices: We will increase the size of this team to expand coverage across shifts, ensure more oversight and guidance is issued, and create more bandwidth and availability for training sessions and discussion both for NPR and Member stations […]
  • Ethics Handbook: NPR’s Ethics Handbook sets a gold standard. We’ll take additional steps to ensure these standards are baked into our processes. A newly expanded Standards & Practices team will conduct conversations that delve into specific applications of the ethics handbook, creating more space to cover and discuss scenarios that directly relate to different teams and areas of work. To ensure awareness, understanding, and compliance with the handbook, we will also introduce an annual process for all Content division staff to review and confirm review of the NPR Ethics Handbook.
  • Editorial Planning: We will create new processes and technical solutions (particularly in Nexus, our division-wide planning tool) that improve visibility across NPR’s daily, weekly, and long-term offerings. Our aim is to get the entire division fully aligned in one central planning tool to increase transparency, help avoid duplicative efforts, and ensure a well-curated coverage mix across shows, desks, and platforms. The aim is to make as many decisions on duplicative efforts and about our overall mix as early in the process as possible, freeing up time and energy.
  • The “Backstop”: We will institute a process to ensure that all journalism across NPR platforms gets a final editorial review before air/publication. This will be a new group of senior-level editors who are not involved in the inception or development of a particular piece of work, working 24/7 to ensure that all coverage receives final editorial review […]
  • Content Analysis: We will create a content strategy analysis function within the Content division to provide data and analysis of our content mix in a timely manner for editors, showrunners, and Content leadership to review and make more informed decisions. This analysis will also inform other new processes, like the monthly internal Content Review sessions and the Quarterly NPR Network Editorial Review sessions. We’re going to regularly look at our content in the aggregate instead of the anecdotal […]
  • Editorial Briefings: We will hold frequent (roughly six times a year) off-the-record editorial briefings with newsmakers and leaders in their fields to get insights on topics presented to the Content team leadership. NPR already holds these types of sessions on an ad-hoc basis. Formalizing this series will help make sure they continue to happen with regularity and purpose, across the content division, and across a wide range of perspectives.

The 11 new positions will be split between the “Backstop,” newly expanded Standards team, “content analysts,” and trainers, NPR confirmed.

The “ad hoc” editorial briefings have previously been held in Washington, D.C. with political and national security officials, Chapin told me. Now, the process will be expanded and “formalized.”

“The idea here is to broaden who NPR’s editorial leaders are hearing from,” Chapin said.

When asked what groups would be invited to these editorial briefings in the future, Chapin said: “All kinds of people! Our job is to cover all of America. To do that we need to talk to people. Many of these won’t be public but a chance for editorial leaders to hear from and talk to a wide range of people in power and not in power.”

Newsroom leaders at NPR member stations have been asked to make recommendations of people in their local communities to be included in future editorial briefings, Chapin added.

NPR maintains an audience of 42 million listeners per week down from nearly 60 million in 2020. The news org has made reaching new listeners, diversifying its staff, and turning digital audiences into local donors key priorities. With that in mind, I asked Chapin if she believes these changes primarily serve existing listeners. Will adding these 11 new positions, after cutting so many other jobs last year, help NPR connect with new audiences?

“We do believe that focusing on our core listeners will strengthen our relationship with them and we will continue that ongoing research,” Chapin said. “However, NPR has a large opportunity to win new audiences, as we are under-recognized amongst other peer news organizations. Our research is uncovering ways that NPR can broaden its appeal to new and lapsed listeners. We intend to invest in those audiences’ needs to continue our mission to inform all Americans.”

Photo of a baseball backstop at sunset by Bryan Dickerson.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     May 20, 2024, 9 a.m.
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