by The Federalist
At the end of July 2013, a series of meetings took place with staffers of the Voice of America (VOA) Central Newsroom. The primary focus was on the work of the Newsroom’s correspondents corps.
These meetings appeared to be intended to address reorganization in the Newsroom. There was no hardwired action plan presented. Instead, these meetings appear to have focused on a generalized view of how the Newsroom reorganization would be shaped.
We talked at length with sources familiar with the meetings.
It is clear that the state of the VOA Newsroom continues to worsen. The conditions responsible for this are various. Some would include:
- The intention by senior agency managers to destroy the functionality of the Newsroom. We call this “being set up to fail.” This would include downsizing the Newsroom workforce by eliminating funded but unfilled position vacancies resulting in a Newsroom that is permanently under-staffed and under-resourced for the size and scope of its mission.
- A chaotic production environment in which the demands of churning out television content seriously delays reports from appearing on-air or on the agency’s websites, sometimes for half a day or longer.
- Overtaxed production technologies like “Pangea” and “Dalet” break down often, sometimes in the attempt to update the systems.
There are other aspects of this implosion of the Newsroom. These are some of the core issues.
The Newsroom correspondents – among others – are seriously frustrated by what can be likened to a free-for-all where no one seems to know from one day to the next what the news priorities are.
At one point in the discussion it was noted that scripts are often found languishing in the Newsroom’s “DALET” operating system without anyone acting on them. Why? No doubt it is because people are being yanked around to do other tasks in the helter-skelter approach to processing news material that is a direct consequence of being under-resourced.
In order for a newsroom – any newsroom – to be effective requires a solid foundation in a process that is seamless, orderly and timely: writing, editing and dissemination. This is particularly important when dealing with a crisis or rapidly developing news.
But that’s not the current environment of the VOA Newsroom.
What we hear is the exasperation from Newsroom staffers: “I don’t know who I answer to…it is too chaotic,” and a sense of people saying, “We want clarity…who my boss is, who is my editor…?”
[Frankly, if the situation has devolved to this point, the “schizophrenia” we have commented upon previously has become “the new abnormal,” spreading throughout the Newsroom and the mechanics of processing news. Psychologically, dealing with this as a daily occurrence, seeing the disrepair, one can quickly reach the conclusion that it no longer matters if the process works or doesn’t work. Indeed, the moment one enters his/her login at a Newsroom workstation, there is the feeling that one is merely becoming an active participant in the systemic failure.]
At one point in the discussion, Sonja Pace, the Newsroom chief opined,
“…we have got to have more context, we have got to bring something to the table to make our coverage stand out, because if I am a listener, reader, viewer, I can get this stuff all over the place so why am I going to go to the Voice of America?”
But the conditions inside the VOA Newsroom make it less likely that people will turn to VOA for news content that is becoming more, not less, devoid of originality.
Third Party Reliance
Increasingly, the agency is becoming reliant upon third party news providers like the Associated Press, Reuters and others.
A measured proportion of support by wire services is not an uncommon practice, found among major newspapers, radio stations and news websites.
But for the most part, this is an addition to and not a replacement for original reporting by these news outlets. The reason why people tune to WTOP or read the national newspapers is reports from these news outlets own reporters, columnists, commentators, editorial staff and program hosts.
In the confused environment of the VOA Newsroom and its website, the drift has been toward more reliance upon these third party news services. And in doing so, it is eliminating originality and character that creates the VOA identity – and just as importantly, executes the agency’s mission as codified in the VOA Charter.
In essence, the answer to Ms. Pace’s question is that the audience isn’t going to any VOA media platform if all that is seen, read or heard is recycled stories from third party news services.
A Washington Bureau?
One of the subjects discussed in these meetings was the concept of news bureaus: for the Washington-based VOA correspondents specifically, a “Washington bureau.”
We are familiar with the use of the term “bureau.” It is a word intended to create an image – but not always the fact – of a large specialized operation. Even DC radio station WTOP does the same thing, referring to a report coming from its “Northern Virginia bureau,” for example. Some organizations that use the term “bureau” often mean a one-person operation.
We’ve also heard the term “bureau” used within VOA. In this case, it is a term to be wary of. A specific example is the VOA Indonesian Service. This service negotiates agreements to have its program material placed on Indonesian television stations. If the station takes the material provided by VOA Indonesian, what has sometimes occurred has been the Indonesian station passing off a report from a VOA Indonesian staffer as one belonging to the local Indonesian station, reporting from the station’s “Washington bureau.” Sometimes, the VOA logo is minimized or removed altogether, making it impossible to identify the person as an employee of an agency of the United States Government. In effect, this makes the VOA Indonesian Service a surrogate of the local Indonesian station.
This is not good. And if the agency plays along with it, that is something worse.
It is not what the American taxpayer pays for or expects from this agency.
It also provides a template for the VOA Newsroom correspondents to be purloined in a similar manner.
Does this serve US national interests? No, of course not!
Does it serve the parochial interests of the agency? No, of course not!
In short, this leaves the Newsroom grasping about in the flotsam that has been made of its operation, trying to latch onto something that will keep it alive, treading water.
Over, Under, Sideways, Down
Here’s a question: when it comes to the news, which comes first: the VOA Newsroom or the VOA language services?
We say: the Newsroom. Why?
In our view, the Newsroom is the core operation for getting news and information processed for use by all the language services in a timely manner. The language services are thus provided with a foundation in major global news. At that point, there can be additional follow-up on a developing story by the Newsroom; or, the individual language services may pursue additional follow-up if the story has local or regional context.
As you may recall, Mr. Ensor tried to sell the idea of “43 newsrooms:” that is, each VOA language service acting as its own newsroom.
[We enjoyed regaling our friends in various quarters, including Capitol Hill, with various scenarios of the “43 newsrooms” and having their offices besieged with calls from VOA on a particular story. They weren’t amused.]
Generally, it appears that this scenario has crashed and burned, largely because the language services are also under-resourced.
However, in its place is a new scenario, as described by our sources, in which the VOA language services want (or are being directed) to have the Newsroom write stories to provide adaptations for use by specific services.
For example, should there be a story about North Korea, the Newsroom staff – already under-resourced as it is and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future – will be asked by individual language services to adapt the story with an angle for the Mandarin (Chinese) Service, the same story versioned for the Korean Service and again versioned for the Cambodian service, etc., etc.
Is this efficient? Not ever.
We call it “boutique journalism:” trying to stylize the news on an individual language service basis. Like anything that is “boutique” in nature, it’s going to cost more than something produced to be efficient and effective in meeting the needs of a large demographic base – in this case, all the VOA language services rather than one service at a time.
If this is the intended new direction in the Newsroom, we can guarantee you it will be a nightmare – yet another layer of dysfunction and chaos added to the ones already existent in the Newsroom.
We should note that some of our sources have spoken critically of the VOA Newsroom and a problematic relationship between it and the agency language services.
We don’t dismiss these concerns. However, from our perspective the place that needs the big fix at the core of the agency’s operations is the Newsroom. Absent that fix, the entire process is jeopardized.
At the End of the Day
On Thursday, August 1, 2013 VOA employees got an email notifying them of an “all hands” meeting scheduled for Tuesday, August 6, 2013 from 2-3pm in the Cohen Building auditorium. This “school assembly” styled meeting will be conducted by David Ensor, the VOA Director. As the email notes, “(Ensor) will be discussing the budget, current programming initiatives, Frequently Asked Questions from office visits, the Workplace Engagement effort and more…”
Beware: “current programming initiatives.”
With their CNN backgrounds, both David Ensor (VOA director) and Steve Redisch (VOA executive editor) are TV-centric. Some might say they are “TV-holics.”
Television production is the universal black hole of media. It is costly, labor intensive and time-consuming. It is not the ideal platform for an agency that is seriously under-resourced and likely to remain so into the foreseeable future.
Under these circumstances, the TV-centric focus is out of alignment with reality. Absent a more efficient television model for the agency to follow, Ensor and Redisch are prepared to pitch overboard all VOA direct radio broadcasts in order to desperately hang onto television, voraciously consuming the agency’s resources.
While television (or perhaps more appropriately, video) has to be part of the media presentation for the agency, it has to be approached intelligently. Right now, it isn’t.
Call it what you will – a display of Third Floor arrogance or ego – at the end of the day, the real label for the VOA Newsroom and the rest of the agency remains:
It is an unbearable and unsustainable state of being.
We’ll know more after the meeting and will share our observations accordingly.
[Note: We want to close with one more thought to this piece: there is no mechanism in place within the agency to fix what is broken – whether it be the Newsroom specifically or the agency in general. Senior agency management is heavily invested in maintaining a fiction that the agency and its mission are still viable. Neither is the case. Any remedy, if there is to be one, will come from outside the Cohen Building. Remember: dysfunctional, defunct. The agency has no capacity for remedy from within itself.]