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.
Putting together an NPR newscast takes at least a four person team - anchor/reporter, tape cutter, producer and editor. At PRNDI's "Newscasting NPR-Style" session, we heard from four NPR anchors and an executive producer about how they each contribute to the final product.
NPR's executive producer, Robert Garcia, moderated the panel of anchors, including Korva Coleman, Lakshmi Singh, Jamie McIntyre and Jack Speer. Garcia showcased one anchor at a time. He played one of the anchors' best newscasts before letting the audience Q&A from them.
Garcia showcased Coleman's newscast from June 20, 2014. He pointed out the calming presence in her delivery as she told the story of Eric Cantor's defeat.
Coleman commented on her newscast saying, "I've truly been given a great privilege…I really don't want to waste your time, so I'm going to make the most of it." She says that it's her direct writing with the model subject-verb-object that makes her casts so good. Coleman also arrives ten minutes ahead of time to re-check audio and give herself a final edit.
Next, we heard Lakshmi Singh's newscast from the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. Garcia stressed that the cast was a true team effort. The sound on tape "all happened about 5 to 8 minutes before the actual newscast," he explained. Garcia added it was most likely so successful because "Lakshmi brings out the best in people around her. She's demanding, in a good way." Lakshmi heard the sounds on the feed and immediately worked with her tape cutter to get the clips she wanted. Singh added, "I wrote into the sound and that's why it came together as well as it did."
The audience also listened to a portion of one of Jamie McIntyre's first newscasts with NPR - the night Osama Bin Laden was killed. McIntyre explained that they were very careful and conservative (with a lower case 'c') about what he was going to say on air. "In our newsroom there really is an emphasis on getting it right, there's no push to have it first," he said. That's why McIntyre prefers working for NPR compared to his old gig at CNN.
Garcia took us back to May 5, 2010, with Jack Speer's newscast on Wall Street's flash crash. Speer previously served as a business correspondent for several other stations, including NPR. He claims that beat reporter experience quickly provided him with the sources he needed to report on the crisis.
Besides good writing, a strong team, wise editorial decisions, and a well-versed background on certain topics, Garcia said that there's still room for improvement at NPR. Moving forward, the newscasts will depend less on spots, include more two-way Q&As, and more of the story will be told in the ledes. And of course, the more sound, the better.
The days of lugging around heavy recording equipment could soon be long gone.
With new apps coming out and old ones being updated every day, smartphones are becoming more capable of capturing, editing, and sharing audio, video, and photos. WTOP reporter and technology editor Neal Augenstein is an expert on using smartphones for start-to-finish reporting, so much so that his old iPhone is on display at The Newseum. Attendees of Augenstein's breakout session, "Smartphone Reporting," had the opportunity to pick the reporter's brain and learn about all things iPhone.
It’s no secret that public radio has a diversity issue; diversity in our newsrooms and diversity in our content. News outlets are making efforts to be more inclusive in the reporters they hire and the stories they tell. But that opens up a whole new set of issues: How do you tell stories about a community you aren’t a part of? Is it the job of the reporters from those communities to tell those stories? And what exactly are we talking about when we refer to “diversity?” A conversation between PRNDI attendees and Tara Gatewood (UNITY) and Hansi Lo Wang (NPR’s Code Switch) at the session entitled "Reporting from Diverse Communities" touched mostly on race and ethnicity, though there are many types of diversity including religious, economic, and gender.
Before I share some of the highlights and tips from the conversation, it’s important to note as Hansi Lo Wang did during the breakout session that “it’s about context.” There are no simple solutions or pieces of advice that will fit every situation. What we do know is that it makes the difference for audiences. Wang told attendees, “Look at the demographics of the area you’re reporting in. If there are no voices that represent that diversity then it’s not really truthful. If you don’t have diverse voices I don’t know if I trust you’re accurately reflecting the reality of the country.”
Here are four more more tips from the “Covering Diverse Communities” session:
1. Be Yourself
This one seems pretty obvious, right? But Wang noted that for many reporters this can be the most difficult part. You’re a journalist, you’re helping tell a story. “I think people can detect that you’re not being genuine. Ultimately in any situation, you’re trying to develop trust. Being confident in your role in that situation is an important start.” Be straightforward about what you’re doing and don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
“You don’t have to trick people,” Gatewood said, “You’re there as a journalist.”
2. Find the Universal in the Specific
Hansi Lo Wang told an anecdote about one of his first assignments for Code Switch, a story on Lunar New Year. He knew immediately what type of story he didn’t want to tell. “The typical story is, ‘Oh there’s a parade, and fireworks, and look, they eat weird food.’ I don’t gain anything from that. Listeners don’t gain anything from that either.”
Wang decided to cover the red envelopes filled with money typically given out during the festivities by family members, and the decision-making process for folks when it comes to figuring out how much to give someone.
Wang said, in the end, the story was about,“The calculus of celebrating New Years. It’s something everyone can connect to and that can provide insight. And it’s also a conversation between generations and diasporas. It’s about capturing that and marking a holiday that’s important. You get insight inside and outside the community.”
“People want to parachute in, do a story and not come back until the next big thing,” says Gatewood. That leads to some skepticism on the part of those being interviewed. Subjects want to understand why the story is being told and if they do, she says, they’re more likely to open up. Explain yourself as a journalist. A lot of people, especially in under-reported or misrepresented communities, have a mistrust of the media, and for good reason. For years they have only shown up in coverage when the media wanted to talk about plight, incarceration, poverty or violence.
It also helps to go into a story with some basic knowledge of the community you’re entering. "Communities want to be able to set the record straight,” Gatewood says. Research is essential. “That's how you show you respect."
4. Find the Diversity in Diversity
When we talk about diversity, in the context of reporting and just generally, it’s easy to fall into referring to races, genders, and religions as if everyone who falls under those umbrellas are the same. Whether in the neighborhoods that we’re reporting from or in our newsrooms, it’s good to remember that individuals exist. Wang says, “Just because someone is Latino doesn’t mean it’s a Latino story. The words like Asian, Latino, African-American describe a lot of people."
When it comes to media, a lot has stayed the same, but a lot has changed, too. Amy Mitchell, the Director of Journalism Research at the Pew Research Center, gave the keynote address at the PRNDI conference this year. She titled her talk "The State of the News Media." In her presentation, she tracked the trajectory of traditional and digital media in the United States. Here are some of the highlights:
1. More Media-Makers, Sharper Focus
There are currently 5,000 full-time staff and editorial positions at nearly 500 digital news outlets (30 larger sites and 468 smaller ones). Two areas where these outlets are investing much of their focus are investigative and international coverage. Sites like Propublica and Buzzfeed are cornering the market. Propublica is utilizing data-driven coverage to engage their audience and Buzzfeed is preparing to open offices in Berlin, Tokyo, Mumbai and Mexico. While digital media outlets are major producers, they still account for a small percentage of media producers. Traditional media lost 16,200 jobs from 2003 to 2012 but it has also retained 38,000 full-time editorial newspaper employees.
2. New Money, Old Story
There’s a lot of new revenue finding its way to media organizations. This last year, venture capital brought $300 million to news organizations and foundation support added nearly $150 million. Annually, the news industry brings in between $63 to $65 billion. But philanthropic investment, audience donations, and other revenue still only make up less than half of those dollars next to advertising money.
3. What’s Social Media Got to Do With it?
News continues to be important. Whether you’re a researcher like Amy Mitchell or just a social-media junkie, it’s pretty clear. About two-thirds of adults use Facebook, half of them get news there. Less than a quarter of Twitter users are adults, but half of them get their news there. News consumption continues to be the top activity on tablets and smartphones right under sending emails. The real opportunity to reach new audiences is found in young adults who make up the majority of social media consumers. They’re getting news at greater portions than older generations, mainly because they understand digital spaces like no one before them. 18-29 year-olds represent the population that is consuming news most, across every medium (phones, Facebook, Twitter) except online news videos, where 30 to 49 years-old beat them out by only one point. Young adults are still consistently absent across the board when it comes to traditional media consumption.
The flip side of this, of course, is that digital media audiences have become more engaged in news than ever before. 50% of them have shared or reposted news, videos or pictures on social media and 46% have discussed news issues or events. Amy Mitchell noted in her keynote presentation that, “The idea of civic engagement in digital spaces is real.” And that this creates an opportunity to involve a new audience in the process of news dissemination.
4. Our Population is changing (And so is your audience!)
“Our country is going through dramatic changes in population,” noted Mitchell. “ Thinking about our audiences and about the makeup of our audiences who will be looking for news tomorrow, in three years, needs to be a part of our process.” She was referring mostly to the Hispanic population in the U.S. which has grown 48% from 2000 to 2011.
Since the beginning of that influx, 13 local and 6 national Hispanic news websites have launched to better serve them. Keeping this population in mind when thinking about content will be essential, Mitchell said, as we move toward growing our newsrooms and crafting our content.
Every edit NPR Western Editor Jason DeRose does begins with him listening to the reporter read the story aloud while he/she plays the actualities on tape. "Each piece has to work as radio," DeRose says. It's important to remember that the listener will not have the reporter's script in front of them.
During a "first edit," DeRose listens and times the story, but he says that he's also thinking of his emotional response. This leads to the "macro edit", during which he addresses problems with the structure, narrative, flow, fairness and/or balance. When it comes to actualities, DeRose says, "Keep people together, don't bounce around with your sources."
After what should be no more than a 15-minute edit, the reporter is expected to spend the next hour re-working their piece.
DeRose demonstrated a first edit in front of a live audience members during a session at the PRNDI conference in Washington, DC. Deena Prichep, a freelancer based in Portland, OR called in with her story on raw milk.
After we hung up with Deena, DeRose explained the next step -- the '"second edit." After the reporter reads his/her story aloud again, the "micro issues" are addressed. DeRose says, "The editor and reporter begin sentence-level work focusing on narrative flow, information and clarity."
Fact-checking is also discussed. It's important to "remind reporters they need to verify facts, even the well-seasoned reporters," DeRose points out. He even suggests that each newsroom have their reporters become comfortable with the reference section at their local library.
This second edit shouldn't last longer than 15 minutes. Now, the reporter has about a half hour to fix their piece.
Finally, the reporter will call DeRose back for a "third edit." And again he listens through the first time. "Changes at this point will be minimal," DeRose says. This final check should take about 5 to 10 minutes of their time. Then, the reporter can send his/her the final script. It's NPR-ready!
DeRose says he's found it's crucial that the reporter has written to the assigned time. If they're way over, DeRose will have a conversation for decision-making. He won't even begin an edit.
As for tips for station editors, DeRose stressed the importance of allowing the reporter to develop their own voice. One of the challenges of editing is making sure the editor doesn't push his/her voice too much into the piece.
In planning your next special project, think about your audience before you begin. In the PRNDI session "Thinking Audience for Your Next Big Thing," NPR Digital Service's Kim Perry and Eric Athas shared their 'user story' model and how two stations are already putting it into practice.
KCUR and Vermont's VPR are using the model to attack the issues of a divided city and a state's drug problem.
KCUR's focus on the stigma surrounding the eastern part of Kansas City has resulted in a community engagement team and a Tumblr page specific to the area. Donna Vestal, the station's Director of Content Strategy, says this has helped the reporters realize the stories they want to do may not be what their audience wants to hear.
VPR is utilizing the 'user story' model for an investigative piece on the state's heroin crisis. They're reaching a new audience through fliers. The station is also encouraging addicts and their friends and families to share photos through email and record their stories through a phone call. It's untraditional, but it's not possible to reach everyone through social media.
Once you've identified the problems your audience wants solved, the next step is to decide how to solve them. Athas says, "Each user story doesn't result in one story, but how to attack it."
You can reach that 'new group' by utilizing NPR Digital Service's 'user story' model: "As a [role] I want to [desire/goal] so that [benefit]." This can be translated to: "What is the thing you're creating, who are the people who want it and what will they do with it?"
Reaching that new group is only possible when you're specific about the audience you're going for. Athas says, ask yourself, "Who's your audience? What do they need? How can you meet their needs? And, how are you going to reach them?" Athas warns that it'll be easy to slip into the common pitfalls of project planning like assuming you know what your audience needs to know. But, you can avoid assumptions by validating your user stories. Talk to people and listen to the community. Then go from there.
Why does covering Congress matter? Here's how Todd Zwillich, Washington correspondent for "The Takeaway" answers that question: "Lack of (civic) engagement is the corrupt politician's most powerful tool." In other words, if the media don't keep an eye on the people's business, it's good news for those who want to sneak through corrupt agendas.
Zwillich joined NPR Congressional reporter Ailsa Chang and Matt Laslo, who files stories about Congress for NPR and 40 of its member stations, for a lively PRNDI session on "Covering Congress."
"I'm never particularly interested in a 'this is happening' story," said Tom Cole, who's been editor of the desk for more than two decades.
Cole, along with NPR reporter Neda Ulaby, kicked off the PRNDI "NPR Arts Desk" session with an open discussion about how they operate. While everyone's questions were unique, they all seemed to be asking the same thing: What will make you pick my story?
Reporters and news directors are constantly seeking the hidden formula that will deliver their arts features to a national audience, but in reality there simply isn't one. It's about a solid pitch, great sound, and national relevance. Advance obits and book pieces don't hurt either.