NPR stations are collaborating more, and that’s a good thing

November 30, 2015
Photo: AP

The day after the Paris attacks, the governor of Michigan suspended the state’s program for resettling Syrian refugees, citing security risks. Within a week, 31 states had refused entry to Syrian refugees, halted existing resettlement programs, or called for tighter controls, accompanied by increasingly strident language. 

As the measures took shape, a group of local political reporters from all over the country met via conference call. They discussed what levers their state governments had to control refugee policy, searched for links between presidential candidates’ fundraising campaigns and their refugee proposals, and considered one of the most extreme statements: a Tennessee lawmaker’s call to have the National Guard round up the state’s 42 Syrian refugees.*

The radio reporters on that call were some of the 18 had been chosen to participate in NPR’s Political Reporting Partnership, a team uniting NPR central and its member stations across the country. It’s one of several thematic teams that fall under the umbrella of NPR’s Collaborative Coverage Initiative.

The initiative started in March 2014 as a loosely defined attempt to actualize NPR’s collaborative ethos, and over the last year, it has begun to resemble a national newsroom. In March, Bruce Auster, previously NPR’s national security editor, was named the project’s senior editor. In July, NPR began soliciting applications from reporters at member stations for two new teams covering politics and energy, and both launched in August. Earlier collaborative efforts on health and education coverage are similar in concept, but aren’t formally a part of the Collaborative Coverage project.

Michael Oreskes, who was appointed NPR’s senior vice president for news and editorial director in March, has been a driving force behind the increased focus on collaboration. “The ultimate goal is to have one unified structure that ties together the stations and NPR,” says Oreskes, who is also a CJR board member.

NPR has long had a transactional relationship with member stations. While the collaborative teams reinforce the relationship between local stations and the mothership, they also strengthen ties between stations, and that horizontal collaboration may be the more powerful result. While the products of that collaboration might not air nationally, they accrue to NPR’s long-term strategy of strengthening the whole network. 

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“The beauty of the team is that you not only get stories from these places, but that you actually get the benefit of reporters talking to each other,” says Auster. He had seen the benefits himself while working on Back at Base,” a joint undertaking with seven other stations close to military bases or large veteran populations, covering the military.

The energy and political teams meet via conference call once a week for what basically amount to pitch sessions. People suggest story ideas, shoot the breeze, or talk about what they’re working on. The rest of the time there’s Slack, a messaging platform that provides an open forum where reporters ask for help, float ideas, connect over shared coverage areas, and communicate with editors.

The political and energy collaborations are designed to serve as launching grounds for ongoing coverage. The stories produced thus far have been both enterprise and breaking news, aired locally or nationally, and produced by single stations, by NPR, or by several member stations without NPR’s input.

One such collaboration, between Ben Adler at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio, focused on the efforts of California’s Secretary of State to move the state to a vote-by-mail system modeled on Colorado’s. Adler produced the story with tape Verlee recorded at a Colorado polling center, and it aired in California. “It took the listeners to two different states,” says Adler, whereas previously, local coverage was often so siloed that the opportunity to connect related stories in two different parts of the country might have been missed.

 Another two-state story came about after the Environmental Protection Agency lowered its ozone standards in October, putting pressure on states to reduce their air-pollution levels. Since air doesn’t honor state borders, the actions of one state–or its weather–can affect another’s ozone levels. When the EPA levels were announced, NPR’s Ari Shapiro, host of All Things Considered, talked on air with two reporters on NPR’s environment and energy team–Mose Buchele at a Texas truck stop and Joe Wertz at an air-monitoring station in Oklahoma–about how the new standards were affecting the two neighboring states.

That story demonstrates not only the need for cross-state reporting, but the benefit of working with beat reporters across the nation, says John Stefany, director of strategic projects at NPR.  The national network gave NPR plenty of resources and local knowledge to work with when designing its coverage.

Buchele, the KUT reporter on the energy team, says he enjoys collaborating with other reporters and the camaraderie on Slack, but adds a word of caution. “Collaboration is a buzzword,” he says. “The point is to produce better stories.”

NPR’s current system divides the country into four regions, each with a bureau chief who handles pitches from member stations in his or her region. One shortcoming of this system is that it is designed for breaking news coverage, not for leveraging subject area expertise, says Brett Neely, the political team’s editor. 

Neely says he has the luxury of thinking about longer term coverage while also fostering relationships with local reporters, so he knows who to turn to for special insight. The discussion about the political response against Syrian refugees produced a national story from Chas Sisk, a Tennessee reporter whose previous work on relations between the political establishment and Muslim communities made him uniquely positioned to cover the issue.

Oreskes says that public radio–and public media more generally–has an opportunity and a duty to fill a gap in local news coverage. NPR and many member stations are expanding their mission to produce not only radio journalism, but robust digital news as well; NPR recently shared resources (read: interns) with KPCC in Pasadena for that station’s “Officer Involved” series, for which staffers built a database from public records of every police shooting since 2010 in Los Angeles County. Oreskes pointed to that as great local journalism, and another way that NPR can lend support to its member stations.

In the past, NPR’s relationship with its member stations has been less than perfect. According to a 2014 poll of NPR member stations by the Public Radio News Directors Incorporated, more than half of respondents said that more collaboration between NPR and member stations was needed, though smaller and medium sized stations were more likely to feel that way than large ones. That could be because some larger stations have less need for NPR support, or because they already have established connections with regional bureaus.

One of the challenges going forward is winning local trust by showing stations that NPR is committed to the network, says Oreskes. In the past, “many stations didn’t trust NPR to be as committed to it as I truly believe we now are.”

Scott Finn, executive director at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, says that both the recent practical steps at NPR and the openness to new ideas point to a real commitment to collaboration. “The most important thing is that there’s an open, honest conversation” between NPR and its member stations, Finn says.

*A previous version of this story stated that 18 reporters were on the call. There are 18 reporters on the team, not all of whom were on the call. An earlier version also stated that the reporters “settled on” the Tennessee lawmaker’s statement as “the most egregious of all.” It came up in discussion as one of the most extreme.

Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa