Since he became NPR’s senior vice president for news last year, Michael Oreskes has prioritized increasing collaborations between the network and member stations.
At the 2016 PRNDI conference in St. Louis, he could cite the network’s coverage of Orlando as an example of what’s possible when NPR and member stations work together.
“The more you plan ahead, the more you have in the moment,” he said at Saturday morning’s session.
This discussion along with a smaller breakout session held Friday aimed to update conference attendees on the state of collaborative coverage.
According to an NPR progress report released June 17, current partnerships are working, but several improvements can be made, including diversity and digital content.
Bruce Auster, NPR’s senior editor for collaborative coverage, led a panel about the five ongoing partnerships between NPR and member stations. He comes up with ways for NPR and members to work as one network.
“We’re better when we draw on local and national,” he said in an interview after Friday’s breakout session.
The idea is to produce more creative stories through shared expertise and resources. These collaborations are built around reporting beats:
Back at Base, a military affairs series
NPR’s Ed Team, covering education issues
Auster was joined by Carrie Feibel, a health and science reporter at Houston Public Media; Patricia Murphy, a military affairs reporter at KUOW in Seattle; and Ben Adler, a politics reporter at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento.
Despite their different beats, the panelists all agreed that they produced more compelling stories because they had planned them with NPR from start to finish. Weekly conference calls and occasional fly-ins allowed reporters to consider new angles and find sources.
“It raised my bar as a reporter,” Murphy said.
Murphy, who is the only military affairs reporter at her member station, said she’s been able to access new sources thanks to fellow reporters and Auster, who is also the NPR team leader for Back at Base.
All editorial benefits aside, the panelists stressed the emotional and professional support an NPR collaboration offers.
Feibel from Houston, who transitioned to radio from print journalism in 2010, said she initially felt alone.
“I was new to radio, the only one that covered healthcare (at my station), and I was not on one of the coasts,” she said.
Since her member station partnered with Kaiser Health News and NPR in 2011, Feibel has been able to pursue more ambitious stories, such as a two-parter on abortion training.
Auster said these cases are part of a larger positive trend. NPR surveyed station participants in the five teams. While the results varied by team, all but one of the 100 respondents said they wanted to keep working together.
The survey indicated, however, that radio efforts fared better than digital ones. Though NPR shares member stations’ version of the story, driving traffic to both websites, Auster said that more can be done with data-driven reporting and visuals.
“We have a long way to go with the digital piece,” he said.
During Saturday’s main session, Oreskes announced that the Digital News team at NPR plans to bring back the Local Stories Project, which promotes station stories to local audiences using geo-targeted posts on the main NPR Facebook account.
Conference attendees also asked about the feasibility of collaborative coverage in smaller stations that may not have designated beat reporters.
Auster responded that general assignment reporters in a smaller outlet should still develop a beat. He compared this approach to earning a college minor.
“Eighty percent GA (general assignment) and 20 percent beat,” Auster suggested.
Auster said he hopes more stations participate. More than 50 stations are involved in at least one of the five teams, according to the NPR progress report.
At the end of the panel, Auster announced that state governments may be the next beat ripe for collaboration. He said that state issues can be clues for larger, national trends.
The NPR progress report lists other topics that still need to be addressed. These include:
Using collaborative projects to improve sourcing or coverage diversity
Adler, who covers politics in Sacramento, said he’s optimistic about the potential of these collaborations.
“Public radio has always had the ability to do this. It’s about damn time,” he said.