'Mixed Signals' — NPR Enters the World of Blogging

One of the most interesting and useful developments on NPR’s Web site is the arrival of the NPR blog.

This feature involves an NPR journalist who posts (as often as a dozen times a day) his or her impressions and opinions of what’s going on behind the scenes at NPR News. Included in this are responses, impressions and opinions of listeners to NPR programs and from visitors to the NPR Web site.

The blog is called "Mixed Signals" and for the past few weeks, it was hosted by JJ Sutherland until he was sent to Baghdad as NPR’s news producer. I am assured that his reassignment had nothing to do with his witty and occasionally acerbic observations about NPR.

An Insider’s View of NPR News

Sutherland was replaced in late March by the equally witty Robert Smith, a reporter who usually works out of NPR’s New York bureau. For the past weeks, Sutherland and Smith (sounds like an establishment law firm, or a 70s folk-rock group) have commented on a astonishing range of NPR stories, backroom gossip and extra angles on stories that didn’t quite make it past the editors, but which the bloggers, in their own puckish way, deemed worthy of note and mention.

Some of the extra-journalistic issues that ended up on "Mixed Signals" include: retired Japanese gangsters on welfare, unmentionable Dutch cultural benchmarks for would-be immigrants, Chinese pandas who operate as fellow-travelers on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (according to the Taiwanese), succession management in case the National Archivist dies in office or in a terrorist attack, bird-flu paranoia and (the even) more offbeat musings from NPR’s own "political junkie," Ken Rudin on Sen. John McCain’s remarkable ability to nurse a grudge.

Unlike some other blogs, "Mixed Signals" does not allow listeners’ comments to be posted without some content- and copy-editing. Some years ago, NPR’s Talk of the Nation hosted a chat room where listeners would send unmediated emails that would be posted onto the NPR Web site as they came in. It was not a success because of the tendency of a few listeners to use some earthy and quaint expressions that can’t be reprinted in this family-friendly column.

So "Mixed Signals" is a blog that works because it does appropriate editing and frankly, I think it’s terrific.

Newsrooms have always been great sources of endlessly amusing storytelling, absurdist observations and wry notes on the idiosyncrasies of humanity — especially the foibles of journalists.

A Whimsical NPR? Who Knew?

NPR has a well-deserved but perhaps overstated reputation for reporting the news with great seriousness, so the initial impressions one gets from reading "Mixed Signals" are: 1) Why didn’t NPR do this sooner? and 2) Who knew that the news organization with a reputation of earnestness could be so whimsical?

NPR’s Digital Media department (formerly known as NPR Online) deserves much credit for this. "Mixed Signals" has created a wonderful opportunity for NPR listeners, who are always clamoring to know more about what goes on behind the scenes, to get a real sense from some very good writers about the ebb and flow of ideas at the network.

Most importantly, it is another opportunity for listeners to comment on and to challenge NPR’s programming decisions. This is particularly important because even though the number of visitors to npr.org remains relatively small compared with cyber-behemoths like Google and Yahoo, it is growing steadily. More than 5 million visitors a month come to the site and "Mixed Signals" will likely be an important vehicle to lure even more there.

Jeffrey Katz is the Senior Supervising Producer at NPR Digital Media. I asked him why NPR decided to have a blog.

Katz: NPR has had blogs before. They've been specific to an event — for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Turin Olympics, and New Orleans six months after Katrina. We started a daily blog to bring a voice to our Web site. It's a way of guiding our audience through some of the most interesting offerings we have on the air and on the Web. It's also a way of connecting what we do to the rest of the Internet, pointing out stories and developments that we think will be of interest.

Ombudsman: What is the value to the listeners/Web site visitors?

Katz: We place hundreds of news stories and features on our Web pages each week. People find the stories they want to hear or read in different ways. Some scan the site like a newspaper. Some use the search function to zero-in on a topic. Blogs are just a different way to get information. Just as a program host serves as a guide for a radio audience, we hope the blog will help people find the best things on our Web site — and have a little fun in the process.

It's also important to note that the blog is primarily meant to be read. We have a lot of remarkable audio on our Web site, and we've increased our photographic resources, too. But our readers have told us they also want more text, to be able to have more that they can read and scan. And blogs are a convenient way for readers to respond to what they hear and read on NPR and to connect with one another. We received about 2,000 comments to our blog and to two community forums in the past month. Those readers' opinions and ideas add real value to what we do.

Ombudsman: Is there any downside to a blog? Shouldn't there be some mystery left to NPR?

Katz: I don't see any benefit in making NPR a mystery to our audience. Plenty of media entities have blogs to give their readers a personal and frequently updated take on the news, or to keep them informed on a particular topic. It's a more direct form of communication than readers have had in the past. And it's one that many companies have adopted, too — businesses that extend far beyond the media sphere — as a way of connecting with their customers.

Ombudsman: Some listeners have told me that they find that the gossipy nature of a blog antithetical to NPR's more serious purpose.

Katz: I've been a part of NPR for more than seven years now, and I was a listener for two decades before that. NPR has always had a serious side and a playful side. How serious was it in 1979 when Susan Stamberg and Ira Flatow took a microphone and two rolls of wintergreen Lifesavers into a pitch-black closet to see if the candy sparked when chewed? A mix of news, conversation, entertainment, analysis and fun has always been part of what gives NPR a distinctive sound. If the blogs have a somewhat different tone than what you hear on the radio, that's just part of adapting to a different medium.

30 Million and Counting!

According to technorati.com, a Web site that tracks these things, there are more than 30 million people writing online journals. Blogging is clearly something that is growing more rapidly than anyone had anticipated.

Ariana Huffington, who has her own site called HuffingtonPost.com wrote in The Guardian on March 14, that "Bloggers share their work, argue with each other and add to a story dialectically. It’s why the blogosphere is the most vital news source in America."

Risking Its Reputation?

But (and with the Ombudsman there is always a "but"), does "Mixed Signals" do justice to the serious job of journalism that is needed in these times? Or does the blog run the risk of heightening the trivial at the expense of more sober coverage of issues by NPR?

Most people at NPR to whom I asked this question, suggested that I was in no danger of losing my reputation as a journalistic worrywart. In fact, I was told that allowing NPR to publicly "lighten up" was good for internal morale and good for the listeners.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say at this point, that I was asked to turn this column into a blog and I declined.

Why No Ombudsman Blog?

I declined because I thought that the value of a blog is precisely in its spontaneity and in the play of opinions between the blogger and the listeners. The blogger must do this several times a day in order for the blog to remain "fresh."

If this column has any value to the listeners, it is found, I believe, in deliberately gathering the best opposing points of view together – from NPR and from the listeners – and then to provide an opinion as to whether the listener or NPR was correct. In my experience, the best and most useful answers to the questions and comments I receive are found by taking the time to distill a measured and thoughtful response out of the swirl of argument and contention.

The value of "Mixed Signals" is found in the opposite direction – in the flash and flair of smart deadline writing, clever opinions and in the wit and repartee of newsroom culture. It is essential that the listeners play an important role in giving feedback and comment to the blog.

Frankly, I’m a little envious. "Mixed Signals" is an enjoyable read and I hope that more listeners catch on to it soon. For the next two weeks, it will be run by NPR’s Andrea Seabrook whose day job is to report on Washington politics. She, like her predecessors, has a reputation as a sharp observer around NPR. No doubt, hi-jinks will ensue.

As for me, somebody has to stay up at night, worrying.

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