Collaborative Coverage: Ideas for a 'True Network'

Jul 16, 2014

The relationship between NPR news and member station newsrooms took center stage at the recent PRNDI conference in Washington, D.C. During their session members of the “Collaborative Coverage Project” team assembled by NPR — Kelley Griffin of Colorado Public Radio, John Dankosky of WNPR, Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Radio, and Vickie Walton-James of NPR — shared some of the ideas that have emerged since the project got going in March of this year. 

A “True Network” 

Vickie Walton-James, who is NPR’s acting senior national editor, opened the session. She said the Collaborative Coverage team is looking at how decision-making happens and wants to figure out how to collaborate “from the ground up”. 

Based on their initial survey of stations sent out in March, she said there's a hunger for more editors (i.e. more bureau chiefs or something like it, regionally and along beats), and for more training. 

Walton-James offered up the idea of embedding NPR reporters at member stations for a stretch and also embedding station reporters at NPR HQ for a stretch to share expertise and best practices. The goal, she said, would be to raise all boats. 

Erin Hennessey, news director at KPLU, chimed in from the audience, suggesting that with consistent training from NPR, member station editors could fill in for NPR bureau chiefs. 

Another audience member, who referred to his experience working for NBC News, suggested making member station story feeds available to other stations. 

Demonstration Project

Kelley Griffin, Vice President of News at Colorado Public Radio, said the Collaborative Coverage team wants to try producing an enterprise reporting project involving NPR and member stations working together from the beginning. One idea that's surfaced as a topic for that reporting project is "changes in the military" with a focus on veterans. 

"NPR doesn't have the depth in the communities and that's where stations play an important role," Griffin said. 

Survey of Newsrooms

Scott Finn, executive director and CEO of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, highlighted some of the results of the Collaborative Coverage team’s March station survey. The survey found the median newsroom has a staff of 6. “General assignment” was the most common beat, followed by statehouse, education, and health; more than half of the stations responding to the survey had no full-time beat reporter. 

A plurality in the room for the discussion agreed that beats make for better reporters, but Finn wondered, “can we afford to have beat reporters?” Martha Foley, news director at North Country Public Radio, responded, “I doubt I will ever be able to afford beat reporters. … I hope beats will not exclude general assignment reporters from the ‘executive’s list’.” 

Communication is Key 

News directors in the audience voiced that better communication between NPR and member stations is a high priority.

In particular, some said they want to know when a national correspondent is assigned to report in their region. Gene Sonn of WHYY said with a heads up, reporting from the station could be formulated to go with what NPR is producing “hand-in-glove”. 

“Greg Allen’s based in Miami,” said Terence Shepherd, news director at WLRN, “We would like a system set up so we know what he’s working on.” 

Walton-Jones’ short answer: that’s possible. “We have a week-ahead document internally,” she said. “We need to figure out a way to make that digestible and get it out to all of you.” 

“It’s a cultural problem of communication,” said Collaborative Coverage team member John Dankosky, news director at WNPR. 

Dankosky said the team is looking at putting together a communication checklist that would help NPR keep member stations in the loop — compelling NPR reporters, for example, to reach out to the relevant member station before heading out on a story.

The Collaborative Coverage team said the project is all about “doing better journalism and serving the audience better.” They expect to have a progress report ready in the fall.