NPR News Chief Michael Oreskes' Remarks At PRNDI 2017

Jun 26, 2017
Originally published on June 28, 2017 3:04 pm

Remarks delivered by Senior Vice President of News and Editorial Director Michael Oreskes at the Public Radio News Directors conference in Miami, on June 23, 2017

Good morning,

It has been two years since I first joined you here at PRNDI.

I was just a few months into my new job and I began by apologizing for the many sins of NPR. And then I tried to paint an ambitious but achievable goal.

I said I hoped we could work together to achieve the same level of dysfunction between NPR and Member stations that already existed within NPR.

So today I want to thank all of you and say we are well on our way to that goal.

Ok, seriously, we have achieved a lot. We are cooperating and collaborating and coordinating to produce exceptional, award-winning journalism.

In fact, can I take a moment to brag about us?

The Edward R. Murrow Awards were announced this week. Basically, there was public radio and everybody else.

316 prizes altogether and 235 of them were won by public radio.

Congratulations to all of us.

But we are winning more than awards. We are seeing the power of independent journalism in serving the country.

Our biggest reward has been the audiences flocking to us. You all know the numbers. It is not just that public radio is up double digits since 2015...

More than four million new listeners.

Our audiences are growing far faster than commercial news competitors.

We are delivering journalism that audiences want and that society needs.

Reliable, verified facts.

Civil, informed conversations.

Deeper thinking and broader perspectives.

You have stood your ground for fact-based news and the public is standing with you.

Congratulations.

Today let me tell you what we get as a reward for this hard work: we get more hard work.

What I'd like to discuss with you is where we go from here and what it will take to get there.

Now I very much mean we.

For the opportunity before us is to create a true public radio news network, independent of commercial or political interests and loyal to the public that supports us.

Telling the story of the entire country from everywhere in the country.

It is a big opportunity.

In fact, I believe it is a responsibility and a fulfillment of the original public mission we were given 50 years ago in the public broadcasting act.

Let's remember history as it really happened: neither radio nor journalism were top of mind when that law was enacted.

In fact radio barely made it in at all.

The challenges were very different back then.

Newton Minnow, Jack Kennedy's new head of the FCC, spoke to television executives, daring them to actually sit and watch all day the programming they put on the air.

He called their programming a vast wasteland.

The Carnegie Foundation urged the creation of a public television system. In 1967 the house passed the public television act and sent it to the Senate.

Only then did the voices of radio succeed in writing radio into the legislation. Quite literally. Television was crossed out and broadcasting was written in.

There it was, a system of radio and television.

Summed up in a sentence: the mission of public broadcasting was to fill needs that were not being met by commercial media.

Back then, the unfilled need was cultural and educational television.

In fact, that era was really a golden age of journalism, in both commercial print and broadcast.

Think about it. The central role played by reporting on the civil rights movement, the space program, the Vietnam War and, ultimately, Watergate.

In local news, newspapers were raking in profits, and the best of them were plowing at least some of those profits back into local journalism.

That was then.

While the focus was on television and cultural education, public radio began to get organized. You all know this history as well as I do.

90 public radio stations, empowered by the Public Broadcasting Act, created NPR to provide national and global news. All Things Considered launched in 1971 and Morning Edition in 1979.

So a snapshot from 1980 is a good way to capture the world when we got started versus the world of today.

In 1980, the combined circulation of America's daily newspapers was sixty million. The cumulative audience of public radio was five million.

Well the world has changed.

Today, the circulation of America's daily newspaper is about 40 million. The cume audience of public radio? Also about 40 million

Public radio, a legislative afterthought in 1967, has become a major force serving the news and information needs of our country.

You have become major players in the journalism of your communities.

Those national audience numbers are only one of the many ways to talk about this dramatic shift.

America's local newspapers, once the core of American journalism, have been weakened and hollowed out by the business disruptions.

As they have been forced to cut journalists you have been adding journalists.

As chains have gobbled up these local newspapers you have remained independent and locally owned.

As the digital disruption has driven hiring and news decision-making to the coasts, you have remained rooted in your communities.

To sum this up, the mission we were given by the public broadcasting act was to fulfill needs unmet by commercial media.

In 1967 the urgent need was for cultural and educational programming on television.

We still love that programming and public radio and television continue to offer wonderful music and art and educational programs.

But today there is a new need unmet by commercial media.

That need is robust, independent fact based journalism, and in particular local journalism.

The decline in journalism is a major factor in a civics crisis in our country.

There are two major parts to this from the perspective of journalism.

The first is the steep decline in local news, as one analyst put it, is that the disinvestment in journalism has been most severe at the local level.

This is happening virtually everywhere. There was a good piece recently about the decline of newspaper newsrooms in New York City.

And of course in some smaller and more rural communities local journalism has all but vanished, leading to the phrase "news deserts."

I don't have to belabor for you why this is so scary.

Unwatched governments, unmonitored police departments, developers held to account by no one, communities facing hard decisions with no source of independent information.

This alone would be enough to justify a major response.

But it's only half the challenge...

A number of studies have described the other half of the problem.

Much of the decline of local journalism has been driven by digital disruption. That same disruption has led to the concentration of national journalism in the hands of a small group of news organizations – mostly based on the coasts and hampered by the lack of eyes and ears and boots on the ground across the country.

So not only has local journalism been badly damaged, the countries overall view of itself has been severely restricted.

That's the problem.

Public radio is a key part of the solution.

We can bring journalism to news deserts, as we already are in places like the Ohio River Valley.

And by strengthening our ability to operate as a network, we can bring the country a portrait of itself from everywhere in the country.

There is no other news organization with the potential to do as much to address these twin challenges as public radio.To be as effective as we have the potential to be we need to act together.

We need to build a true journalistic network that has the resources we need in wealthy communities and less prosperous ones, too. Where we all trust each other and have each other's back because we have established journalistic procedures, shared values and agreed upon standards.

Where our work is "driven by a culture of journalism," a phrase I have adapted from my colleague John Barth at PRX.

Where reporting drives us—reporting that gives us the understanding of our challenges, from the community to the country, and the judgement to decide what's important to focus on.

And where those news judgements drive our newscasts and programs and not the other way round.

This is going to take a lot of work.

I know this will shake you, but NPR doesn't have all the answers (I promised cultural change) in fact, we've got plenty of work just to change how NPR operates.

So we have to figure this out together.

For some of us this will require setting aside old rivalries or current competitions.

Our structure invites internal competiveness for radio audience and particularly for revenue.

We have to work past that.

Believe me, we operate now in a world of giants – Facebook, Google, Apple – all of us together can go toe-to toe with them. But none of us alone are anything but little fish.

So let me get practical. We are talking about a multiyear product of network building. Breaking into manageable elements so that groups of us can take on parts of the puzzle.

And then put it all back together into the public radio network of tomorrow.

There is a crucial digital component—and an essential revenue component.

A will say a word about both at the end.

But let me talk about news first, and to be clear, when I use the words news and journalism I am speaking very broadly.

Most of what we do in public radio is journalism. Whether it is a newscast, an interview program or a cultural review or conversation about music.

Journalism and news aren't about the topics or about whether they reach our audience in a program a podcast or a tweet.

Journalism is about the way we gather and distribute what we know.

It is a way of thinking about the world that puts our reliability and credibility with our audiences ahead of getting the most possible attention.

It means we check things out, even the stories that are too good to check.

It means setting our personal opinions aside.

It means witnessing what our audiences don't have time to witness.

Being their eyes and ears and legs to dig into records, or reconcile conflicting accounts or demanding answers from recalcitrant officials

It means telling stories that won't otherwise be told.

So what are we proposing?

First, that we set up regional hubs run by senior journalists, who have the skills and news chops, to make strong journalistic decisions.

They would work with stations and with NPR and other national producers.

They would have a team of editors and other journalists—digital, visual, investigative, data—who would help stations strengthen their work for local and regional audiences

They would coordinate among stations so those regional stories are raised up and shared.

And so stations could help each other in breaking news or in situations where a station just had a great story that it needed reinforcements to do right.

Regional hubs could provide resources to help stations – big and small – take on the most ambitious projects.

And of course the regional hubs would work with NPR—in fact, would be NPR—to continue down the path we are already on with our national news.

We have in recent years doubled the amount of journalism that goes from Member stations to the national magazine shows.

That locally driven journalism is one of our greatest competitive assets.

In a world of national and global competition our ability to think local, as well as global, sets us apart just at moment when the country needs exactly that blend and isn't getting it elsewhere.

Who exactly should be at each hub, you might ask?

I don't know, exactly. But clearly they will have to be people jointly appointed and trusted by all of us.

How many hubs should there be? Again I don't know...maybe a dozen? We currently have four badly overworked bureau chiefs across 264 members: Ken Barcus, Russell Lewis, Jason DeRose, Andrea de Leon.

They do an amazing job and you're honoring one of them this week. NPR's Andrea de Leon is receiving PRNDI's 2017 Leo C. Lee Award.

Will hubs be both geographic and thematic? Almost certainly, but let's think it through.

I am sharing these uncertainties because our next step, I believe, is to start to pilot this idea.

I've asked Bruce Auster, who has done so much to build collaboration in the past few years, to lead NPR's role, he's here today and will be throughout the conference

The good news is a lot of work has already been done.

A team on collaborative coverage drawn from NPR and Member stations worked for two years and concluded that we are better when national and local coverage are brought together.

In fact, one member of that task force, John Dankosky, has taken his ideas from WNPR in Hartford to the larger platform of the New England regional journalism collaborative.

That's one of the Regional Journalism Collaborations and Local Journalism Centers set up by the CPB. They have helped create a culture of working together, and we've spoken to CPB extensively in recent days to make sure we build on all that work and all the learning from the RJCs and LJCs.

We are also well aware of efforts like state impact, which produced and continue to produce much good, but also never achieved all that had been hoped for or promised.

We are committed as part of this effort to build not just great journalism, but long-term financial sustainability.

So let me say a word here as I promised about digital and revenue.

It is by merging our thinking about journalism, digital and revenue that we can ultimately fulfill the goals of larger audiences and more revenue.

This idea is what drives what we have been calling the station compact discussion. A more united network where our financial relationship pushes us all to think about our biggest goals.

We have underachieved as a system in digital.

The reasons don't matter much anymore. Our reality is we must be successful in terrestrial radio and across digital platforms.

At NPR we firmly believe that what has worked on the radio will work in digital, too—A robust blend of local and national news.

But a generation in to the digital age, we are still operating in a fragmented way that reduces our impact.

A united digital network, stretching from local to global, is vital to our success. Our journalism makes us indispensable, our local journalism can create local audiences and our national journalism can drive even larger national audiences.

But if we continue to create separate, fragmented audiences, as we are today...we are working at cross-purposes—the world is just too competitive for that.

We can and should strive for one public media digital audience.

And that will give us our very best shot at the biggest question of all: enough revenue to build a sustainable future for our public radio journalism network.

Our business model is a sensible one. In fact, commercial counterparts are moving to business models a lot more like ours: A blend of corporate advertising or sponsorship and public support in various forms –from subscriptions or membership to foundation grants to large individual donors to government funding.

Our message in search of this support is simple and goes all the way back to our start.

We are stepping up to serve needs unmet by commercial media.

We are bringing news to news deserts.

We are creating a network of journalism to tell the whole national story from everywhere in the country.

And we are doing this for the benefit of no one other than the public, which supports us.


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