BBG Watch Commentary

VOA Director David Ensor
VOA Director David Ensor

How can CEO Andy Lack get Voice of America to cover news?

And reform VOA management at the same time without violating government regulations.

An idea came to us from a comment sent by Melville — an anonymous BBG Watch reader responding to our commentary: “Voice of America main news website silent on Brian Williams story.”

Melville also sent a similar comment for our follow-up report: “Voice of America misremembered to cover Brian Williams story.”

FROM MELVILLE: “For crying out loud, then, lobby to get some help in that newsroom which had only one writer and one editor on duty Saturday night and stop moaning that a domestic story about an ego-driven newsreader with only minor global implications was ‘missed.’ Major developments in Ukraine and Iraq and Nigeria were thoroughly covered with a slight staff. If those stories went by the wayside, I could understand the complaining, but not this one.”

Because this is Sunday night and our sources were not there, we were not able to confirm Melville’s information that the Voice of America Central English Newsroom “had only one writer and one editor on duty Saturday night.”

This may sound too incredible to be true. We do not know to what degree Melville himself/herself was able to confirm the information he/she received. But many sources had reported to us previously that the VOA Newsroom often looks almost completely deserted after business hours. That’s confirmed information. Hardly anyone works in the VOA Newsroom on weekend nights.

Not just on Brian Williams, but in recent months and years VOA had missed numerous important news stories and made serious mistakes on others. These stories dealt with Ukraine, Russia and other hot topics. VOA missed important statements from President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry, key members of Congress and many other newsmakers. Brian Williams just adds to a devastating indictment of Voice of America’s senior management led by VOA Director David Ensor and VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch.

Whether there was only one editor and one writer on duty, or even if there was some extra help, we must still respectfully disagree with Melville’s follow-up statement that “Major developments in Ukraine and Iraq and Nigeria were thoroughly covered with a slight staff.

VOA Central News output Saturday night and Sunday morning was both minimal in terms of new reports posted, superficial in terms of their content, poorly received on social media, and showed almost no audience engagement through comments on the VOA news website. The reporting was unremarkable. It left very little impression on us and the audience.

We criticized VOA for ignoring the Brian Williams story for many days while U.S. and international media were reporting on it. VOA finally posted a news report on Brian Williams, its first one on the story, at 8:47 AM ET, Sunday, February 8, 2015, days after other media outlets in the U.S. and abroad.

Whether just one writer and one editor were working Saturday night or the number was slightly higher, it does not matter. The overall output was still minimal, thin and late. VOA reports received hardly any response on social media compared to thousands of responses Russia’s RT got for equivalent news reports during the same time.

If indeed there was only one writer and one editor on duty Saturday night, one could hardly expect more from VOA staff. But much more should have been expected from VOA’s senior leaders: David Ensor, Steve Redisch and their multiple deputies. They are ultimately responsible for managing staff assignments and news coverage.

As we already noted, this is a major indictment of their leadership and management.

How Andy Lack Can Help VOA News – An Idea

BBG Director and CEO Andy Lack may not be able to ask immediately all of them to leave VOA and to leave at the same time, but he can definitely do something almost immediately to improve news coverage output from the VOA Central Newsroom. We are reluctant to propose throwing money at the problem. That hasn’t fixed anything in recent memory, particularly in the hands of inept managers.

What Andy Lack can do is to give each one of them — including David Ensor and Steve Redisch — “Special Emergency Duty Writer/Editor” designation and require them to work night shifts and weekend shifts in the newsroom on a rotational basis. To show that he means business, he could himself spent one or two nights and one or two weekends in the VOA Newsroom, at least in the beginning. Even by saying that he might do it, he could force Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch to do something about work schedules at VOA.

“The fact that they had almost no one in the newsroom this weekend is a huge, gargantuan thing given all the attention BBG Watch has given to that exact fact over the past few years. They were caught flat-footed apparently on a Saturday — the major story was RIGHT THERE — all it would have taken was….DOING IT. They waited until 8:47 AM Sunday to put ANYTHING out. Shameful….”

Andy Lack should add to this emergency rotational pool of newsroom writers/editors all senior VOA executives and managers, as well as International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) directors, deputy directors, special advisors, program directors, program coordinators, etc. — anyone in the GM 15-14 and even GM-13 pay grade with any former journalistic experience. They are the ones who are responsible for the shortage of news reporters/writers and for the explosion of their own bureaucratic ranks. They are responsible for where VOA is now.

If they are SES or GM-15/GM-14/GM-13 VOA and IBB managers, we believe that they won’t be able to challenge an order from Andy Lack to change some of their work hours and work assignments. Mr. Lack should check on this with HR experts. If regulations allow this, he can order VOA Director David Ensor, VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch and IBB Deputy Director Jeffrey Trimble to do this and also to include themselves in the emergency pool. All three are former journalists. This may be harsh, but sometimes desperate situations require desperate measures.

If possible, Andy Lack should also try to include in this” Emergency After-Business-Hours VOA Newsroom Rotational Pool” the most senior and experienced VOA correspondents who may still hold special Foreign Service personnel assignment designation if they do not already currently work the weekend shift and the night shift. We believe that they also would not be able, and most certainly would not want to, challenge a slight change to their work schedule if it results in their considerable experience and talent to be once again put to good use during those times when VOA has hardly anyone working in the newsroom and needs help. Also included in this pool should be all other VOA Newsroom, VOA web desk and VOA English managers who currently keep 9-to-5 Mon.-Fri. schedule.

We are somewhat certain that if Andy Lack were to do this, we would soon see a number of retirements among senior VOA and IBB executives and managers, perhaps not too many, but some. Changing work schedules of rank and file employees requires some negotiation with the union. No doubt, VOA executives would push Andy Lack in that direction, but we think he should start at the top. The problem are not journalists and regular employees. The problem of the VOA Newsroom is the senior management.

Another benefit from this proposal would be to force senior VOA executives to read VOA news and to look at the VOA website, which we doubt they do now. They perhaps would if they were put in the VOA newsroom for several hours at a time each week and told to write and edit news stories.

Since Mr. Lack is new to this job, he will probably be told by VOA and IBB experts that he can’t do this because of some government regulations, but he should carefully investigate such claims. We believe that he can change work assignments for SES and GM top managers without too many bureaucratic problems unless the bureaucracy chooses to fight him, which they might.

What we have tried to do here is to come up with a response to Melville’s plea for help that could produce almost immediate results. Even a threat from Andy Lack of doing this may force at least some senior VOA and IBB executives to start taking their jobs seriously or get them thinking about retiring. Either outcome would be good for the organization and for VOA News.

We’re not saying that our proposal is perfect or will solve all the problems immediately, but at least discussing it and adopting some variation of it might work. There may be other ways of putting pressure on senior managers to get them to manage, to do it right, and to improve employee morale. Andy Lack has a lot of experience, but this is his first government job.

Finally, even as we try to help Melville in his quest for helping the VOA Newsroom, we must completely disagree with his statement on the Brian Williams story that we should “stop moaning that a domestic story about an ego-driven newsreader with only minor global implications was ‘missed’.”

Interestingly, one or two former and current VOA Central English Newsroom correspondents also told us that this story did not deserve coverage from the Voice of America because no one abroad knows or cares who Brian Williams is.

We respectfully disagree. U.S. and internationally-based journalists, not currently affiliated with VOA but some with a previous association with VOA, also disagreed that this was an “unimportant news story.”

“This is not a ‘non-story’. This is an important story.”

“You would be surprised. MSNBC International carries NBC Nightly News. Here in Taiwan it’s shown in the morning. I can think off the top of my head at least another dozen countries where it’s seen. Also Shanghai Media Group in China relays the program.”Keith Perron

“It was a big news story in the U.S. Thousands of previously unknown people create or become big news all of the sudden, domestically and internationally.”

“Considering that journalists in many countries are censored or work for state media, which would censor such news if a state media outlet was involved, this is a BIG story for VOA’s foreign audiences. BBC, RT and countless other foreign media outlets thought the story was significant. In the case of RT, because they probably thought that it made the U.S. look bad when it actually makes us look good to the rest of the world, at least in the ability of segments of our society and segments of our media, including bloggers, to expose wrongdoing and help to correct mistakes.”

“Definitely. Remember RT anchor Liz Wahl who resigned after saying that RT required its anchors to lie and she was not going to do it. It was a big story in the US.”

“Now if it is was a local NBC affiliate, it would have no relevance. But the 3 big three networks ABC, NBC and CBS all have their current affairs and newscasts sold to other networks overseas. It would be the same if lets say a BBC World or World Service anchor was caught in the same kind of scandal. If it was BBC Scotland or BBC Midlands no one would pay any attention.”Keith Perron

“The VOA has lost its relevance years ago. In many aspects VOA serves no more purpose anymore. Perhaps it could be fixed, but I have doubt that will happen. Overseas networks like CNN International now do a much better job at covering the U.S. than VOA. There was a time when foreign governments listened to the VOA. But today it’s CNN International.”Keith Perron

“Some of VOA most popular programs are music related. Even going back to the days of Willis Conover. If programs like Border Crossings today or Jazz America were to be cut, VOA would lose a huge chunk of their audience. I remember in China people saying they would tune to the BBC and RFI for news, but tune to VOA for music.”Keith Perron

“Actually, it wasn’t so much a story of minor global importance as it was a snapshot of how things can happen in the United States where an all-knowing elitist is knocked off his perch, not by the government for specious reasons (disagreement with gov’t policy) but by ordinary people like the guys in the helicopter who did the expose. It then spiraled out of control through all the news media.”

This news story showed America at its best and should have been reported by VOA from the beginning, as soon as U.S. media and international media focused on it in a major way. The VOA Charter requires the Voice of America to provide such U.S. news coverage.

“That they may have had decent coverage of those stories is not the point, nor should anyone apologize. BBC has superb coverage — and doesn’t miss major stories like Williams. That quote from whoever sent that one note is astounding ( ‘an ego-driven newsreader with only minor global implications’).”

“Melville is trying to spin two things: not enough staff and that this isn’t a major story.”

“It’s more of yesterday’s news tomorrow on VOA.”

As to Melville’s suggestion that other than on the Brian Williams story, which he/she dismissed as unimportant, the VOA Central English Newsroom provided excellent coverage Saturday night (and AM Sunday), we again respectfully have to disagree. The coverage was nothing to write home about, including Ukraine, Iraq, Nigeria, the three examples Melville mentions. These stories were NOT “thoroughly covered.” There was also practically no other news coverage from VOA during that period and nothing, in our view, that would excite overseas audiences.

VOA and RT Saturday News in Social Media Numbers

Social media and audience engagement numbers speak for themselves.

Saturday Night/Sunday VOA posted one Iraq story which as of Sunday evening shows 3 Facebook Shares, 15 Tweets, and 0 Comments.

Russia’s RT had two Iraq stories. The first one shows 645 Facebook Shares, 280 Tweets, and ten Comments. The second RT Iraq story shows 11,200 Facebook Shares (over ten thousand), 2,000 Tweets and 113 Comments.

RT did not report on Nigeria during that time (RT covered many other topics VOA did not). VOA’s Nigeria story shows 21 Facebook Shares, 29 Tweets, and 2 Comments.

On Ukraine, RT had posted Saturday Night/Sunday many more stories than VOA. The VOA Ukraine story shows 87 Facebook Shares, 127 Tweets, and 10 Comments. An equivalent RT Ukraine story shows 1,400 Facebook Shares, 319 Tweets, and 521 Comments.

RT had news reports on Brian Williams days before VOA posted anything about the media scandal in the U.S. VOA English News did not post anything on the story before Sunday morning. RT’s Brian Williams story posted Saturday shows 800 Facebook Shares, 170 Tweets, and 135 Comments. VOA’s Brian Williams story posted Sunday morning (the first VOA News report on this topic) shows 19 Facebook Shares, 29 Tweets, and 4 Comments.

While we do not agree with Melville on some of his observations, we certainly agree on his/her plea for help for the VOA Newsroom. The fault lies with senior VOA executives and some senior IBB executives who have been in charge of VOA and/or the agency for many years.

In response to Melville’s request, we provided one possible solution. We are not suggesting that this is the only way to proceed. Andy Lack may have other ideas. But something definitely needs to be done about the management meltdown at VOA, and it must be done soon.

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