The Big Picture

Mar 1, 2013

Margaret Low Smith is NPR Senior Vice President for News.

Running the day-to-day activities of a pretty complicated public radio network can be downright consuming. Each day, there are programs to produce, transmitters to fix and money to be raised. Through the buzz of daily work here at JPR, it’s sometimes easy to forget the part we play in a bigger public radio community. A recent email from NPR Senior Vice President for News, Margaret Low Smith, made me step back to put that bigger picture in focus and I thought I’d share portions of her communication with you.

"Highlighting our recent coverage from Syria is the purpose of my note today. Reporting on the situation there remains one of the most challenging we will face in the weeks and months ahead. The government of Bashar al-Assad has tried barring reporters from getting into Syria. That forces journalists like NPR’s Kelly McEvers to travel clandestinely to cover the conflict.

She just returned from a four-day reporting trip in Aleppo in the North of Syria. She describes Aleppo as a tale of two cities. Where both sides think they can win, but neither side is winning, so neither will back down.

This is Kelly’s second trip into that city since the start of the Syrian uprising nearly two years ago; her fifth into Syria itself. Her reports provide an intimate window into how people are faring in a conflict that could grind on for months… or perhaps years. Her reporting is vivid and powerful and tugs at the soul of a city and a people divided by conflict.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists more than 28 journalists were killed in Syria last year. A group of NBC journalists recently managed to escape their pro-regime captors in the midst of a firefight with rebels. Another American journalist was kidnapped in northwest Syria by gunmen on Thanksgiving day. His whereabouts are still unknown. And a French journalist was killed in Aleppo last week, just days after Kelly and her team left the city.

Journalists understand the risk and so do NPR executives. We also understand that this is a vitally important story with major regional and global implications. As Senior Vice President for News, my journalistic instincts sometimes give way to motherly anxiety when a few extra hours pass between check-ins from our reporting team.

This time Kelly went in with her producer Rima Marrouch, with guidance from our security advisor David Holley. Given the level of risk, we sent our Managing Editor for News Operations, David Sweeney to Turkey. He was stationed just on the Turkish side of the Syrian border in Gaziantep. He handled communications in and out of Syria and kept us all informed of the hourly status of our team.

Each crossing of the border is judged both on editorial and safety grounds. A trip can take several weeks to plan, including advance outreach to sources inside Syria.

We agreed on a route for the assignment and a communications plan that included regular check-ins: short coded messages signaling that the trip was on-track or that plans were changing and why. We also use satellite tracking devices, where appropriate.

At the end of the assignment, Managing Editor David Sweeney calculated that he had received 206 texts on his Turkish mobile. He’d sent more than 150 texts to those of us here in Washington, and averaged three double espressos a day at the hotel.

We have been fortunate. All the caution in the world, doesn’t guarantee safe passage in a war zone. Kelly’s simple note to us upon crossing the border out of Syria was this. “We are back in Turkey. Amazing trip!!!!!” Yes. She used five exclamation points.

(In January) Kelly was in New York, along with Deborah Amos, to collect the DuPont-Columbia award for their 2012 coverage of the Syrian conflict. This is among the highest broadcast honors and well-deserved recognition.

But this coverage really reflects the work of many. It is a total team sport. Kelly’s stories were edited by Doug Roberts and overseen by our Senior International editor Edith Chapin. Show producers carefully mixed the stories and our web team wrote compelling text and found perfect photographs to illustrate the stories. This is a labor of love, by people committed to telling the story of a nation at war with itself half way around the world.

This is a small but vital slice of what we do every day. It occasionally makes us sit on the edge of our seats, but more importantly, it keeps all of us feeling eager to come back to work day after day after day. I hope you all feel the same way."

In reading Margaret’s email, I was reminded that the work we do here in the State of Jefferson is bigger than ourselves. It’s an integral and essential part of a public radio ecosystem that relies on listeners in cities, towns and rural places around the country to tell the stories of our world, our nation, our region and our local communities. At the heart and soul of this endeavor are the people who listen to the fruits of our work each day and fuel that work with their passion, commitment and generosity. We are genuinely inspired by your faith in us. Like Margaret says, it’s what keeps all of us feeling eager to come back to work day after day after day.