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How Should NPR Cover Itself?

by Alicia C. Shepard
Apr 1, 2009

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Alicia C. Shepard

It is always awkward for any news organization when it comes to covering good news about itself.

NPR faced that situation last week when it announced on All Things Considered that its audience had grown to a record 21 million listeners per week — a healthy 9 percent increase over the previous year.

Reporter Tovia Smith tempered the positive news with the bad. Increased listenership isn't translating into increased revenues.

"NPR says funding is down from most of its major sources, including corporate underwriters, foundations and the network's own investments," said Smith.

Then she added more bad news for the network. "NPR recently laid off 7 percent of its staff and cut two daily news shows," said Smith. "Now, with an $8 million budget gap still projected for this year, officials say more cuts are coming."

I heard from a few folks inside NPR who felt uncomfortable with the self-promotion, followed by bad news that some said sounded like an appeal for money — especially during pledge week at some stations.

Smith also did a 52-second spot for NPR's newscast unit that produces news on the hour and half hour.

"I cannot imagine The Washington Post or The New York Times printing a story about their increased circulation," emailed a staffer, who asked that their name not be used. "The business about our $8 million shortfall—was that a veiled plea for donations?"

The Post and The Times last week both wrote stories about themselves. But it was all bad news. The Post just offered its fourth round of early retirement packages since 2003 — the second this year. And The Times laid off 100 people and said most staff would have to take a temporary five percent salary cut.

The difference is that the papers both ran the stories on inside pages. When NPR does a story on All Things Considered, there is no sticking it inside. It's the equivalent of running the story on the front page.

Managing editor Brian Duffy, who assigned the story, said he was motivated by how much listeners care about NPR.

"We owe them a full and fair accounting of news good and bad about its fortunes," said Duffy in an email. "My thinking was that NPR does a very good job of being transparent about the bad news—layoffs, cutting shows. I felt it was appropriate to report on the good, as well, but insisted that it be couched in the context of [NPR CEO Vivian Schiller's] address to the staff last week about the continuing financial challenges we face."

Laura Bertran, who edited the piece, is well aware of the difficulty of the assignment.

"As a media editor, I find it a legitimate story that NPR and other non-profit media organizations are doing better in this environment than some of our for-profit brethren," said Bertran. "I understand someone might say it's self-congratulatory or poor us, but neither was our intent. Our motive in reporting on NPR is to serve the listeners."

The ATC piece was 2 minutes, 20 seconds. A longer piece could have explored the broader difficulties in the news industry and mentioned NPR as a part of it, instead of focusing solely on NPR.

In this case, airing both the ATC story and a 52-second news spot throughout the day was excessive coverage by NPR on news about itself.

Kelly McBride, an ethics expert with the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, disagrees. She says the news media, in general, don't do a good enough job of telling the world its good news.

"We do a HORRIBLE job covering our successes," she wrote in an email. "Horrible. And there are consequences: 1.) The public thinks all we do is screw-up. 2.) Folks under-appreciate the role of good journalism. 3.) No one even recognizes good journalism when they see it. 4.) And we tend to under-estimate our own ability to change the world."

How do you think NPR should handle reporting news about NPR?

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