Michael Oreskes joined NPR as its head of news at the end of April 2015. Since then, he has overseen extensive changes on air, as well as behind the scenes in the newsroom. He has also given a jump-start to NPR's previously stuttering collaboration efforts with local member stations, and led the newsroom during a number of major news events, including the Charleston church shooting, the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage, the European refugee and migrant crisis, the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shooting. It's been a big year for NPR, as well as in the news.
Election campaigning is also well underway, and before the frenzy kicks off for good I asked Oreskes to talk about some of the changes at NPR, as well as NPR's priorities for the year ahead.
On Monday, Jan. 25, Oreskes said Morning Edition listeners will hear the pilot for what may become a regular election-year feature on NPR. Collaborating with local member stations, NPR wants to create what he is calling a "national conversation" examining what is behind the anxiety and anger that so many voters are expressing during this election cycle. The experiment will launch with a story by political correspondent Mara Liasson. Afterward, more than two dozen stations so far have signed on to carry the conversation forward on their local news and talk programs over the week.
On the following Friday, Jan. 29, Morning Edition will circle back with another news story that incorporates some of the responses generated at the member stations. PBS NewsHour, which is sharing some election content with NPR this year, will also broadcast a story on the topic next week.
The project unites what Oreskes called NPR's most-important domestic story for the coming year (the election, not-surprisingly) with his own biggest priority for NPR: forging a closer reporting bond with member stations, to "build a really integrated news network that takes advantage of both NPR's global reach and the deep community engagement of the member stations, and to really use that as a news organization."
NPR will likely have more election coverage this year than ever before, he said. The goal of the specific experiment "is to see if we can use the assets of public media to create a different kind of conversation that supplements our regular news coverage," he said, and engage with voters who see the election season as a time to set an agenda for the country, not as a horse race, a slugfest or debate ratings. Public media's role, he said, should be to help "people think about and talk about what the election is about."
(As an aside, Oreskes points to a couple recent stories where he feels NPR has recently successfully married the local and national resources to provide important public service journalism, including a report with Colorado Public Radio about how the Army is treating some veterans with mental health issues and the creation with KPCC of a database of recent shootings by law enforcement officers in Los Angeles County.)
While Oreskes puts the election at the top of the list for NPR's coverage priorities this year, he notes that global terrorism is close behind, as well as its domestic U.S. component. "We clearly want to do both as well as we can," he said.
To those coverage priorities he adds the global economy and "the slightly puzzling state of the American economy."
Climate change—a topic I hear about from many listeners—is high on the list too, he said, although "it's a harder story to cover." On the continuum of stories about "things that blow up" and "stories that ooze," he said, journalism is better suited to deal with the former "and not as well constructed to deal with things that occur over periods of time," such as climate change. NPR, he said, will look continue to look for ways to cover the topic "that don't revolve around events," including the discussion that will inevitably take place in the presidential race.
I asked Oreskes to talk about some of the on-air changes at NPR that have prompted many listener emails, including a number complaining that NPR content is becoming frothier.
Oreskes rejects the premise that there has been a shift in the content: "We certainly have not adopted a conscious strategy to be less substantial. We think that respect for our audience is actually a central component of what we are," he said.
My guess is that listeners are reacting, at least in part, to changes NPR made in late 2014 to its internal newsmagazine clocks that govern when the breaks happen, including for music, newscasts, underwriting credits and local news. The changes—most notably having Morning Edition newscasts at 20 and 40 minutes past the hour instead of on the half-hour—give the shows a faster feel.
Oreskes said, "I don't believe that length is always a direct indicator of depth. Sometimes a story can be perfectly well told in two-and-a-half minutes. Not every story needs to be 15 minutes long. And I do think we are consciously trying to be more aware of the proper length of something." If NPR is making things "too light," by adding in more stories of different lengths, he said, "We need to go back and look at that."
My office also hears from a good number of listeners who believe NPR has made a conscious decision in recent months to focus on race, ethnicity and gender—and these listeners are not necessarily happy about it.
That focus is indeed a reality, driven in part by the news cycle but also because NPR, which has a number of journalists deeply immersed in the topic, is making it a priority.
"It's not just that the specific news events are driving it although there have been quite a number of them in the last year," Oreskes said. "It's the intersection of the news events and our belief that the changing nature of the American population, the clear problem of violence and police and communities of color; these are real issues and we think they are important to put a focus on." That will continue during the upcoming election coverage, he said, as the country's changing demographics drive the conversation.
Finally, Oreskes addressed what has been a hot topic in the public media world: whether NPR is moving quickly enough to embrace the digital reality. NPR One, a mobile app that users can personalize, will be a high priority in the coming year, he said, with one big move just announced: NPR has hired Tamar Charney, from Michigan Radio, to push forward the integration of more local content. It may sound like inside NPR baseball, but that's important because of the tension in recent years between NPR and its local stations, which have expressed concerns that digital listeners would lose that local connection.
Integrating the local news into NPR One, Oreskes said, means that, "If you love public radio and you love your local station but you don't want to listen on a radio anymore, you want to listen on your phone, you've got a solution. It holds the network together while moving into the digital age." I'll have more on NPR One in an upcoming column.
The growth of digital—in particular the recent explosion in both commercial and non-commercial podcasting—has led to a fair amount of angst in journalism circles about whether there is a public radio "brain drain."
Oreskes' take? "Welcome to the real world. NPR is in an extremely competitive environment. People skilled in audio, people strong in journalism, people talented at storytelling: They are all in great demand. That's a new experience for NPR," he said, adding, "Once we get used to it and learn how to let it energize us, it's a good thing. Not everybody should stay in a place for their whole lives. I'm always sorry to see good people leave but we're not going to hang on to every single good person. We're going to lose some good people and hire some other good people."
He also pushed back at the notion that podcasting is somehow eclipsing more traditional radio. "Producing a two hour radio magazine show is very hard work" and the weekly and weekend versions of Morning Edition and All Things Considered "still have huge audiences. They are still very important in terms of the public conversation," he said, adding, "and yet, I think, to some people and maybe particularly to some of our younger people, they feel old-fashioned, so they'd much rather be making a podcast."
NPR needs to be in both worlds, he said (and is, in fact, experimenting with a slew of new podcasts). Part of the agenda in the coming year, he added, is to take what NPR is learning from podcasting back to its newsmagazines. Listeners are already hearing that with some of the newer newsmagazine hosts such as Ari Shapiro, Kelly McEvers and Rachel Martin, who "are less formal than some previous hosts," he said.
"It's clear that younger audiences are more comfortable with something conversational," he added. While NPR is "not looking to make anyone uncomfortable," he said, "We're trying to find the right mix of things."
These are big challenges: balancing the imperatives of "old-fashioned" journalism and the rapid advances in technology; and figuring out how to satisfy listeners who have been with NPR since the beginning and those who are looking for a less traditional style. NPR does not always get it right, but I have been impressed, so far, with Oreskes' willingness to try new things, while keeping journalistic values at the forefront.