Culture of Journalism Team Addresses General Managers at Super Regional

Oct 31, 2018

The Culture of Journalism Collaborative gathered in Atlanta last week for a break out session at the 2018 Public Radio Super Regional Meeting. “Station Culture Matters: Let’s Put Journalism First,” marks the fourth panel discussion presented by the COJ team this year. The group also presented at the PRNDI, PMDMC and PRPD conferences.

In September, the COJ team sent out a series of five surveys to public radio news managers that focused on gathering information in five areas: ethics, managing talent, leadership, daily journalism practices and public perception. Data gathered from the third survey on station leadership provided the focus for the discussion at the Super Regional.

Those attending the breakout session were greeted by this question when they walked into the room: “What’s not working at your station? Identify one factor, concern or influence that may be hindering your station’s journalistic mission.” Participants were invited to respond anonymously by writing down their answers on pieces of papers passed to the front of the room.

Shula Neuman, Executive Editor at St. Louis Public Radio, kicked off the discussion by walking through the data gathered so far on the relationship between newsroom managers and station leaders. Sixty stations responded to the survey sent to 165 news managers. One question focused on whether news directors feel like they have the resources needed to provide the best news product. Of those who responded 23% said yes, they have what they need, while 62% said they did not have all that they need, but they get by. Fifteen percent claimed that they don’t have the required resources and they desperately need more.

The survey also focused on the influence of station licensing organizations and station boards. According to the survey, stations with 6 to 15 employees felt the most pressure from these entities to alter content or include suggested sources. The largest stations, those with 30 or more employees felt the least pressure.

Mark Memmott, Supervising Editor of Standards and Practices at NPR, presented several scenarios that occurred at stations, where station leaders or the licensing organization stepped in to try to influence news coverage. One of the cases occurred at WLRN in Miami, when the station’s licensing organization, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, tried to enforce control over WLRN’s newsroom in retaliation for stories that cast school district officials and policies in an unfavorable light.

WLRN General Manager John LaBonia attended the panel discussion.  He told the audience that while school district officials have backed down from their previous proposals for more control and influence, the struggle continues and LaBonia was steadfast in his defense of the firewall surrounding his newsroom.

“Nobody walks into our newsroom and tells our reporters what to do,” said LaBonia. “I help provide the resources they need to do their jobs and then I protect them.”

Many station leaders in the room echoed support for their newsrooms and for creating a set of practices to produce the best news product possible.  Ellen Rocco, Station Manager of North Country Public Radio emphasized that consistent local news coverage is what keeps listeners coming back.

“I buy into basic best practices for journalism. Why? Because that’s our job,” said Rocco. “We just have to do it.”

Joyce Slocum, President and CEO of Texas Public Radio in San Antonio, also sat on the panel.  She asserted that station managers need to be guardians of the newsroom and the news product. Slocum suggested that station managers and news leaders work together to develop a course on journalism ethics designed for station board members to access. And she emphasized that station managers should not wait until an issue arises before establishing honest communication between themselves and newsroom managers.

The discussion ended by revisiting the question: “What’s not working at your station?” Among the anonymous responses, several wrote that a lack of diversity inside their newsroom and station is an obstacle to serving their audience completely. Other responses included not elevating the news director to the station’s senior management team further hindering communication.

The Culture of Journalism discussion continues.  PRNDI will be coordinating more webinars surrounding issues surfacing from survey data.  Also, a complete report of the survey data will be released in the coming months.