From NPR President and CEO Katherine Maher: Thoughts on our mission and our work : NPR Extra At its best, our work can help shape and illuminate the very sense of what it means to have a shared public identity as fellow Americans in this sprawling and enduringly complex nation.

From NPR President and CEO Katherine Maher: Thoughts on our mission and our work

The message below was sent by NPR's President and CEO to all staff:

Dear all,

This has been a long week. I'll apologize in advance for the length of this note, and for it being the first way so many of you hear from me on more substantive issues. Thanks for bearing with me, as there's a lot that should be said.

I joined this organization because public media is essential for an informed public. At its best, our work can help shape and illuminate the very sense of what it means to have a shared public identity as fellow Americans in this sprawling and enduringly complex nation.

NPR's service to this aspirational mission was called in question this week, in two distinct ways. The first was a critique of the quality of our editorial process and the integrity of our journalists. The second was a criticism of our people on the basis of who we are.

Asking a question about whether we're living up to our mission should always be fair game: after all, journalism is nothing if not hard questions. Questioning whether our people are serving our mission with integrity, based on little more than the recognition of their identity, is profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning.

It is deeply simplistic to assert that the diversity of America can be reduced to any particular set of beliefs, and faulty reasoning to infer that identity is determinative of one's thoughts or political leanings. Each of our colleagues are here because they are excellent, accomplished professionals with an intense commitment to our work: we are stronger because of the work we do together, and we owe each other our utmost respect. We fulfill our mission best when we look and sound like the country we serve.

NPR has some of the finest reporters, editors, and producers in journalism. Our reporting and programming is not only consistently recognized and rewarded for its quality, depth, and nuance; but at its best, it makes a profound difference in people's lives. Parents, patients, veterans, students, and so many more have directly benefited from the impact of our journalism. People come to work here because they want to report, and report deeply, in service to an informed public, and to do work that makes a difference.

This is the work of our people, and our people represent America, our irreducibly complex nation. Given the very real challenges of covering the myriad perspectives, motivations, and interests of a nation of more than 330 million very different people, we succeed through our diversity. This is a bedrock institutional commitment, hard-won, and hard-protected.

We recognize that this work is a public trust, one established by Congress more than 50 years ago with the creation of the public broadcasting system. In order to hold that trust, we owe it our continued, rigorous accountability. When we are asked questions about who we serve and how that influences our editorial choices, we should be prepared to respond. It takes great strength to be comfortable with turning the eye of journalistic accountability inwards, but we are a news organization built on a foundation of robust editorial standards and practices, well-constructed to withstand the hardest of gazes.

It is true that our audiences have unquestionably changed over the course of the past two decades. There is much to be proud of here: through difficult, focused work, we have earned new trust from younger, more diverse audiences, particularly in our digital experiences. These audiences constitute new generations of listeners, are more representative of America, and our changing patterns of listening, viewing, and reading.

At the same time, we've seen some concerning changes: the diffusion of drivetime, an audience skewing further away in age from the general population, and significant changes in political affiliations have all been reflected in the changing composition of our broadcast radio audiences. Of course, some of these changes are representative of trends outside our control — but we owe it to our mission and public interest mandate to ask, what levers do we hold?

A common quality of exceptional organizations is humility and the ability to learn. We owe it to our public interest mandate to ask ourselves: could we serve more people, from broader audiences across America? Years ago we began asking this question as part of our North Star work to earn the trust of new audiences. And more recently, this is why the organization has taken up the call of audience data, awareness, and research: so we can better understand who we are serving, and who we are not.

Our initial research has shown that curiosity is the unifying throughline for people who enjoy NPR's journalism and programming. Curiosity to know more, to learn, to experience, to change. This is a compelling insight, as curiosity only further expands the universe of who we might serve. It's a cross-cutting trait, pretty universal to all people, and found in just about every demographic in every part of the nation.

As an organization, we must invest in the resources that will allow us to be as curious as the audiences we serve, and expand our efforts to understand how to serve our nation better. We recently completed in-depth qualitative research with a wide range of listeners across the country, learning in detail what they think about NPR and how they view our journalism. Over the next two years we plan to conduct audience research across our entire portfolio of programming, in order to give ourselves the insight we need to extend the depth and breadth of our service to the American public.

It is also essential that we listen closely to the insights and experiences of our colleagues at our 248 Member organizations. Their presence across America is foundational to our mission: serving and engaging audiences that are as diverse as our nation: urban and rural, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, often together in one community.

We will begin by implementing an idea that has been proposed for some time: establishing quarterly NPR Network-wide editorial planning and review meetings, as a complement to our other channels for Member station engagement. These will serve as a venue for NPR newsroom leadership to hear directly from Member organization editorial leaders on how our journalism serves the needs of audiences in their communities, and a coordination mechanism for Network-wide editorial planning and newsgathering. We're starting right away: next week we plan to invite Members to join us for an initial scoping conversation.

And in the spirit of learning from our own work, we will introduce regular opportunities to connect what our research is telling us about our audiences to the practical application of how we're serving them. As part of the ongoing unification of our Content division, Interim Chief Content Officer, Edith Chapin, will establish a broad-based, rotating group that will meet monthly to review our coverage across all platforms. Some professions call this a retro, a braintrust, a 'crit,' or tuning session — this is an opportunity to take a break from the relentless pressure of the clock in order to reflect on how we're meeting our mandate, what we're catching and what we're missing, and learn from our colleagues in a climate of respectful, open-minded discussion.

The spirit of our founding newsroom and network was one of experimentation, creativity, and direct connection with our listeners across America. Our values are a direct outgrowth of this moment: the independence of a public trust, the responsibility to capture the voice and spirit of a nation, a willingness to push boundaries to tell the stories that matter. We're no strangers to change, continuously evolving as our network has grown, our programming has expanded, and our audiences have diversified — and as we look to a strategy that captures these values and opportunities, the future holds more change yet.

Two final thoughts on our mission:

I once heard missions like ours described as asymptotic — we can see our destination and we strive for it, but may never fully meet it. The value is in the continued effort: the challenge stretches on toward infinity and we follow, ever closer. Some people might find that exhausting. I suspect they don't work here. I suspect that you do because you find that challenge a means to constantly renew your work, and to reinfuse our mission with meaning as our audiences and world continues to change.

The strongest, most effective, and enduring missions are those that are owned far beyond the walls of their institution. Our staff, our Member stations, our donors, our listeners and readers, our ardent fans, even our loyal opposition all have a part to play: each of us come to the work because we believe in it, even as we each may have different perspectives on how we succeed. Every person I have met so far in my three weeks here has shown me how they live our mission every day, in their work and in their contributions to the community.

Continuing to uphold our excellence with confidence, having inclusive conversations that bridge perspectives, and learning more about the audiences we serve in order to continue to grow and thrive, adding more light to the illumination of who we are as a shared body public: I look forward to how we will do this work together.