In the fall of 2014, NPR announced plans to restructure its newsroom with the goal of de-emphasizing the isolated work of single beat reporters. Instead, NPR envisioned a more interdisciplinary approach to covering important national and international issues with reporters capable of exploring those issues from numerous vantage points. For instance, NPR reduced the number of dedicated environmental beat reporters and made it the job of every reporter, regardless of their beat, to explore and report on environmental issues as part of their work. To support this new philosophy, NPR made available the 33 journalists that are part of its Science Desk to provide background, context and data to its reporters. In explaining this new strategy, NPR wrote: “The global environment story is rooted in many disciplines: international affairs, business, technology, politics, energy, and local action to name just a few … NPR News produces coverage of the environment and climate that is broad in scope and touches (these) multiple disciplines. We are committed to fully representing the areas of public life and policy that these important topics touch.”
This approach is not new to stations like JPR. Lacking the scale or resources of a national network or major market station, JPR has always taken a holistic approach to covering regional issues of public importance. After all, you can’t really do a credible job covering forest management, drought, marijuana, water rights or wildfires without covering their economic and sociological impacts on communities. JPR journalists don’t’ have the luxury of specializing. If they don’t understand a particular aspect of a story, they need to learn it so they can help our listeners see more of the big picture.
Some national interest groups have criticized NPR for taking this new direction, maintaining that NPR needs to double down and commit more focused resources on the environmental beat in order to be the “truth squad” against the likes of Fox News on climate change and other environmental issues. I think that’s a losing game and won’t move the needle toward achieving public radio’s mission to help create a better informed citizenry. The issues central to public life are not getting narrower, they are becoming broader and more interconnected. While expertise in a given area is essential for a reporter to cover an issue well, seeing and being able to convey the interrelated aspects of a complex community problem is also paramount if we are to succeed in stimulating an informed and meaningful civic dialogue that has any chance of leading to a community solution.
Another part of NPR’s evolving news philosophy, which I reported on last summer, is integrating the work of local station and regional reporters into national coverage. This initiative continues to develop and NPR has recently announced several programs designed to put this plan into action. By making a more committed, intentional and measured effort to collaborate with reporters already on the ground in local communities, NPR can generate stories with greater depth and perspective, strengthen local stations and save money. This effort is already paying dividends – NPR recently received a prestigious Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Award for stories on energy, the environment, and the economy produced as part of a reporting project in conjunction with member stations.
As you listen during the coming months, I hope you’ll listen with a critical ear and share your feedback with us.
Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.