The entities – all the entities – function better as self-contained units, serving their respective missions and intended audiences. — The Federalist
We could not agree more with this statement from The Federalist, one of our regular and popular contributors. A Global News Network envisioned by BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson strikes us as a job creation project for former CNN employees, favorite contractors and other recent hires who speak no foreign languages and have no experience in international broadcasting. But they have to do something, so there you have it.
It will be a major distraction to the mission of serving information needs of foreign audiences. That job requires specialization, not centralization. The merger proposal in its current form is also likely to destroy the effectiveness of the surrogate broadcasters. For Chairman Isaacson’s information, surrogate broadcasters were created because there was too much centralization at the Voice of America. A Global News Network can never provide what these surrogate broadcasters and VOA language services need. We know it from our own experience.
Broadcasting Board of Governors: BBG Plans Hit Major Rocks and Realities in VOA Central News – A Federalist Extra
Note: In this piece, we take a look at the operations of the Voice of America (VOA) Central Newsroom. This is “getting down in the weeds,” a place we don’t often go. However, as anyone inside the Cohen Building knows,” the weeds” are where the action is, where the big ideas of the BBG’s “flim flam strategic plan” come into contact with reality. We examine some key aspects of how the “new world order” as dictated by the BBG/IBB is impacting a core VOA operation and its relationship with the various VOA language services and other entities.
For a long time now, stretching across two stages of what has been called the “reorg” in the VOA central newsroom, discussion has been intensifying about the role the BBG envisions for what was, back to the time of VOA’s founding, the essential core operation of U.S. international broadcasting.
Recently, an email from the Central News Director, Sonja Pace, touted the newsroom as an important agency core operation. However, based on what The Federalist has learned, it seems that the VOA Central News operation has been thrust by BBG plans into a barely-controlled chaos as it tries to be too many things to too many people.
A view purported to be that of VOA David Ensor is that the 40-plus VOA language services are now each their own newsroom. In other words, each service appears to be expected to generate original material to be available on-demand throughout the agency, including the grantee operations of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Sawa/Al-Hurra television, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Radio/TV Marti.
Here is where reality intervenes.
Consider the internal VOA environment. It is one thing for a language service to provide a report for distribution to all of VOA. It is another thing altogether when breaking news happens and a language service is besieged by the other forty-odd services for material. What appears to be the plan is for material from services to be “re-versioned.” It is not clear if the bulk of this is to be done by an already over-burdened Central News operation, or if language services themselves are expected to do this. It could be a combination of the two.
Add to this the various grantee operations, each with their own missions, and the editorial direction and perspectives they want to put to stories, although it is now unknown how a revised reorganization creating a so-called “hybrid” amalgamation of grantees and VOA will affect the latest vision of VOA Central News.
This latest development aside, what is happening is a division of resources away from the center. An example would be the preparation of news items for the central news file.
Rather than continuing what was a finely-honed operation in which Central News, with various regional desks prepared news for distribution to language services, the BBG (with its endorsement last year of what newsroom staffers saw as a highly-flawed program review document) is now busy taking apart that system.
VOA language services — many utterly incapable of shouldering the news writing burden in addition to translation of news material not generated within a language service — have been ordered to start writing news for the countries or regions they broadcast to. BBG re-negotiated contracts with major news services to accomplish this. Having direct access to news services without depending on Central News was long a goal of language services — a symbol of their independence, so to speak. The problem is that many are understaffed and under-resourced, due in large part to the deliberate attempt by the Third Floor’s “ideas people” to seemingly undermine and undo language services, at times using highly questionable audience research. Added to the mix are requirements for doing television pieces and keeping language service websites updated.
To appearances and in its effect, in the revamped news environment, language services will be expected to generate their own radio, television and Internet product, and turn themselves into those 43-plus newsrooms in the Cohen building. This appears to be nothing short of a disaster in the making. It is unclear how the BBG intends to ensure that services are carrying out this new function well, or detect if they are doing so poorly and what is falling through the cracks, the kinds of things that may not register with the Board when they give something their approval.
What we understand is that some the language services contributed a lot of vocal support to decentralization finding expression in the “program review” document ultimately adopted by the BBG. “Program review” is an in-house process in which language services are critiqued. Various agency elements get involved in the process and congregate around a large table in an agency conference room for a lengthy discussion of conclusions reached.
In this case, a prevailing sentiment in the VOA newsroom is that insufficient consultation took place with the staff making up the varied elements of the newsroom.
What appears to have won the day were the views of language services exerted through the program review process, and a desire by other agency officials to “reinvent the wheel” as far as Central News is concerned.
Further, if there is any hint that senior officials are inclined to buy into the idea of reinvention, other factors start to kick in, not the least of which would be to get enthusiastically supportive of what is being embraced by senior officialdom in the Cohen. Cautions and reservations are often muted, as one doesn’t want to be seen as being out of sync with Third Floor thinking.
Back for a moment to the plan, mentioned in several BBG Watch reports, to create a Global News Network (remember BBG’s annual budget has remained largely static over the years, now in the mid $700 million range and BBG and IBB officials have been clear that there should be no expectation of larger budgets coming down the pike). Under that plan (prior to this latest BBG talk of a “hybrid organization”) in theory any material developed by any of the entities should be able to be used by other entities.
However, in reality, what appears to be the case is that the entities don’t necessarily want the same product in the same media. In the obsession with television product, some entities may want a “re-versioned” piece that is formatted for television. Others may want a piece for the Internet. And lastly, some might want all three!
And then there is always the presence of shifting priorities.
We have heard employees describe situations in which they have had to drop everything to produce a television spot, scramble to put a production together, and are then told to drop the piece for some reason or other. In one case, after
hours of work, an order came down from one major non-VOA BBG entity to have a certain report delivered within 30 minutes. This may not seem like a big deal. However, the fact is that all the entities have their own broadcast times and program schedules, making requirements or demands easier said than done.
The television aspect of what is now being expected has consequences. It takes more time and more staff to produce a television piece, compared to what can be done in the same amount of time for a radio piece. One wonders if this aspect of working with these media hasn’t been examined by agency heads, to see what gets the most bang for the buck. Cross-pollination of media product is not always a seamless process.
The Federalist has heard that in the frenzy to produce TV, senior officials ordered Central News to steadily reduce its production of news items, the so-called central file which used to be the “bread and butter” of VOA, in favor of increasing video product. At times, this created a situation where VOA’s newsroom often did not cover certain breaking news stories. One has to wonder what happens when production of news stories finally drops to only a few each day, on the assumption that language services will be able to pick up the burden.
The goal apparently is for Central News to decrease production of news items from say, 100 ore more a day, to only a dozen or so. If this is correct, it’s a broad differential to be placed on the backs of the language services to make up. That’s one of the things that appears on its face to be out of whack: previously VOA Central News was supposed to service all language services, not for individual services to attempt to create material for the entire BBG and its entities, but lacking the resources on hand to do so, in a timely manner and to ensure that reports are accurate. Also, under the goal, explained in the most recent BBG meeting by Walter Isaacson, to create a new “hybrid” agency, individual entities are to retain their brands and identities. So it appears that, in addition to the 40-plus separate newsrooms in the Cohen building, similar multiple operations in RFE/RL, RFA, etc. will still be busy doing what they have always done to produce material for their programs. It’s starting to look like that old Abbott and Costello routine of “who’s on first,” etc.
For VOA in particular, television is a black hole – gobbling up resources and with a high price tag attached. Within easy eyesight of Capitol Hill, agency officials seem to be blind to the fact that this is not an era of unlimited resources. The United States Government is confronted with problems of enormous import to the American people. It cannot support the blue skies ideas concocted on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building.
It seems to be the view of VOA director David Ensor that television can be done on the cheap. Most assuredly it can. However, it is equally likely that the product will be seen as such. In the increasingly competitive environment that includes not only international broadcasters but capable regional ones as well, a cheap product is going to be outclassed by superior product. This will make it all the more likely that potential audiences will turn elsewhere as they have in the Middle East and Iran, two key strategic locales for US international broadcasting.
VOA Central News and the VOA language services need to have a balanced, symbiotic relationship. The plan being orchestrated by agency officials is not that relationship.
Wasting American taxpayer money in attempting yet another reinvention is not an option for the BBG/IBB. The taxpayer cannot be treated in the manner of an ATM machine. Congress and the White House must demand a higher standard of performance and results buttressed by greater oversight and accountability.
Nothing else is going to work or work well enough to justify the expense of U.S international broadcasting which, in the hands of the IBB, is open-ended and growing.
If there is one thing to be learned from examining this one issue it is that embracing complexity is not a solution to the dilemmas of U.S international broadcasting. The reorganization plan concocted by the IBB doesn’t make things run smoother or work better. The entities – all the entities – function better as self-contained units, serving their respective missions and intended audiences.
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