Temporary Employees, Long-Term Impact : NPR Ombudsman What is NPR losing out on by its heavy reliance on temps and is there a better way?
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Temporary Employees, Long-Term Impact

NPR's use of temporary employees has been in the news, prompting questions to the Ombudsman Office.

On Dec. 7, The Washington Post reported on internal anxiety in the NPR newsroom due to its use of a high number of temps, a practice stretching back many years. They currently number roughly 16 percent of the total newsroom workforce (395 regular employees and 76 temps), according to NPR's human resources office.

These employees handle jobs throughout the newsroom, from booking guests to editing and producing pieces and interviews that are heard on air, or posted online. The newsroom uses them to fill in for employees who are on vacation or sick leave, working elsewhere in the newsroom (say, on a project), or in jobs for which NPR is looking for a permanent employee (in the time between when someone leaves and a replacement is hired). At times, as many as one-third of a newsmagazine's employees can be temps.

As The Post detailed, the system feels "exploitative" to some of these employees (and to many others at NPR). Most are paid at union rates and receive benefits, including health insurance. But they have little job stability month to month, and are often left in the dark about when assignments will begin or end. Sometimes, they say, they are asked to do work for which they have not been adequately trained, if at all.

My office's purview is limited to the content the audience hears and reads. I was interested in how the temp situation possibly affects that content.

Current and former employees said the heavy reliance on temps can been seen in a few areas. Ambitious content takes time to put together (and get approval for from managers). Temps often have lots of ideas and resources to offer, but their short assignments make the logistics of having them work on long-term projects problematic.

Some managers told me they get great input from temps. But other employees told me that temps are sometimes reluctant to speak up, for fear of affecting their prospects of landing a full-time job.

The current temp system may also hinder NPR's efforts to diversify the newsroom (and a diverse newsroom helps NPR provide content that reflects diverse perspectives). "Temping is a primary pipeline into entry-level employment in our newsroom. And when the temp experience and its inherent financial insecurity lasts for years on end, as it often does, that means all but a select few with financial safety nets can make it through to the end of that experience – a permanent job," said Jessica Deahl, an editor at All Things Considered who temped for three years before being hired in 2011. Earlier this year she helped aggregate input on suggested changes from past and current temps for senior leadership.

Finally, temps are held to the same standards as regular employees. But several people said some errors can be traced to temps who weren't given the proper training to do their jobs and were learning on the fly.

I spoke with one former temp, who asked not to be named because she is now employed at another news outlet. She described a schedule of work that had her jumping from newsmagazine to newsmagazine, depending on the week or month.

Many journalists are valued for their deep contacts in subject areas. This former temp described spending weeks corralling overseas information for a story for which she had sources and lining up the best interviewees to discuss it on air, only to see the piece fall by the wayside because her assignment at one show ended. Other bookings she worked on fell apart because of her changing schedule. One story she was digging into was broken by another news organization.

The system, she believes, does not promote enterprise reporting — the kind of in-depth and innovative journalism that NPR newsroom leaders said was a priority this year.

Sarah Oliver, the executive producer of Weekend Edition, has been shepherding an internal newsroom analysis of NPR's temp systems for much of the past year.

I asked her about the impact on what NPR's audience hears and sees.

"It is hard to tackle a long-term ambitious project as a temp and I'm sure that we're losing a lot of creative ideas," she said, confirming the observation of the former temp with whom I spoke. "If they pitch an idea, they might end up leaving and not seeing it through."

She said Weekend Edition has benefited from the range of voices and ideas that temps have brought to their work. But she agreed that some temps are reluctant to speak up. Managers, she said, "need to work on making that an equal playing field. A lot of that has to do with the kind of feedback and encouragement they give to temps."

So, sticking to the content concerns, it seems to me that the impact of the use of so many temps comes down to what NPR's audience loses. Yes, NPR already has plenty of ambitious content. But just think of the additional stories that NPR and its audience might gain if temps were willing and able to pursue them.

In April, the work of Oliver and others resulted in converting 26 temp positions to regular positions. More such conversions are being considered. At the same time, NPR took some steps to provide more administrative and editorial support for the temp workers, including more training.

But those steps did not get at the fundamental question of whether NPR can find a way to move beyond its heavy reliance on temp workers. That question will be the focus of a new internal analysis, Oliver said.

"As a broadcast entity we need a certain number of people to get the content on the air," she said. NPR's shows are fixed in length, and can't adjust column lengths or advertising like newspapers can (or use content from elsewhere, such as the AP). The new initiative will analyze how NPR compares to other broadcasters in its use of temps and examine if there is a way to structure the work to use fewer of them. One idea is to have a pool of rotating producers for the news shows, but that brings its own challenges, including providing for their career development.

The project leaders hope to have the data and recommendations by April.