NPR chief Vivian Schiller: Don’t take the work of news gatherers for granted

By Gretchen Parker

At this time of tremendous upheaval in American news media, its leaders should not focus on transformation at the expense of fortifying and expanding concrete, on-the-ground reporting. That was the message offered Thursday by National Public Radio President and CEO Vivian Schiller as she delivered the James L. Loper Lecture in Public Service Broadcasting at USC Annenberg.

"For well over a decade, at gatherings like this, news people have obsessed about transformational technologies, vanishing business models and new paradigms of mass communication," Schiller told an audience of students, faculty members and leaders of influential Los Angeles-area media who gathered at USC Town & Gown.

Lately, those conversations have become "more urgent and more desperate -- as well they should," she said. "They are about the survival of something democracies need to cherish." But the obsession with how new media will evolve via multiple platforms can distract from the basics, Schiller said, as she made a case for expansion of in-depth, investigative reporting and news gathering.

For its part, NPR -- whose audience has increased 60 percent over the last decade -- has established a new dedicated investigative unit, opened new bureaus in Istanbul and Jakarta, expanded books coverage and added reporters to cover race and demographics, food safety, religion and science. All at a time when most news organizations are shrinking.

News leaders must remember the high stakes of hard news gathering and the dangers journalists face, she said. And they must fight off the degradation of news, as it's increasingly referred to as "content" and "sliced and diced into cyber pieces and aggregated, Tweeted and blogged upon."

Schiller also alluded to the extensive coverage of NPR itself over the past few weeks, which stemmed from the agency's firing of commentator Juan Williams for remarks he made about Muslims on Fox News. Earlier in the day Thursday, Democrats in the House of Representatives beat back a measure that would have cut federal funding for NPR. The rollback was an effort cast by Republicans, who have repeatedly berated NPR as being slanted and liberal since Williams' firing.

"It is clear that public broadcasting is going to be mightily challenged to make its case for funding in the current political atmosphere," Schiller said, adding that NPR's numbers alone do make a strong case: each month, 27 million people are listening to its programming.

She also pointed out that little money granted by Congress goes directly to NPR, but that local stations do depend on federal funding. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets $400 million a year from the government, and about $90 million of that goes to the 897 public radio stations affiliated with NPR.)

schiller_student_240pSchiller also repeated what she's said publicly -- that she regrets how Williams' firing was handled -- and that she regrets not giving local stations more support as the news unfolded. Many of the stations were in the middle of fundraising drives as criticism of NPR escalated, and they were forced to answer to angry listeners. News centering on NPR continued to flow on Thursday, after Fox News chief Roger Ailes called NPR executives "Nazis" and then publicly apologized.

Focusing on core news values doesn't make NPR or any news organization old-fashioned, Schiller said during her speech. "Nothing could be further from the truth. And nothing has dominated my time at NPR as much as helping the organization and the public radio community embrace new technology, new platforms and new partnerships."

The revolution in American journalism actually makes core news values more important than ever, she said.

schiller_wilson_240p"Just how NPR will adapt to all this change and transform itself will be a fascinating and challenging journey. But what cannot change -- and will not change -- is NPR's commitment to original independent reporting. With high standards, fine craftsmanship and integrity," Schiller said.

Indeed, public broadcasting upholds the standards that all media should adhere to, said USC Annenberg Dean Ernest J. Wilson III, a member of the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

"Public broadcasting is sees as fair, more objective and less biased than any of the commercial news sources," Wilson said, as he introduced Schiller to the audience. "The American people have spoken for their preference for the fair and unbiased coverage that comes from public broadcasting."

The James L. Loper Lecture in Public Service Broadcasting, inaugurated in 2005, honors Loper, a longtime USC Annenberg professor and his four decades of service to public broadcasting. Funding comes from the H. Russell Smith Foundation.

Vivian Schiller
National Public Radio