Newsrooms tend to shield their interns from the rougher side of the news business. But this summer, two NPR interns were inadvertently thrown to the digital wolves. Emily White and Austin Cooper were assigned to write blog posts for All Songs Considered, a music show on the station. But when 21-year-old White wrote that she’d only bought 15 CDs in her entire life, she became a target for abuse by defenders of the music industry, not least musician David Lowery, whose 3,830-word response on his blog lambasted White’s entire generation for its reluctance to pay for the music it owns. White’s post got 925 comments, Lowery’s another 563—which is a lot for both sites.
Less than a month later, Cooper filed a post to an All Songs Considered feature called, “You’ve Never Heard . . . in which we get our unimaginably young interns to review classic albums.” His review of Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” went down particularly badly, with the poor boy widely ridiculed in the comments and his post shared more than a thousand times on Facebook.
The online music community is tight-knit, due to a long tradition of blogging and sharing music online, but it still operates with the hierarchical snobbery that music circles have always had. The naïve, willfully or otherwise, are vulnerable to being eaten alive, as Cooper discovered when his piece spread to music sites like Prefix and Fact, drawing the ire—and the eyeballs—of the serious music fan as it went. This looked to many like an NPR ploy to drive traffic. NPR insists that it would never deliberately feed its “unimaginably young” interns to the trolls for hits, and notes that the feature has been running for years. “We’re very aware of the tone of the reaction to the series,” said Anya Grundmann, the director of NPR Music. “This series has been going on for nearly three years of internships—it’s not a new ploy dreamed up for traffic.”
Nonetheless, Grundmann says the station is taking a “fresh look” at how to present the series going forward.Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield.