BBG Watch Commentary


Former Voice of America correspondent David Dyar commented on a recent post by another former VOA reporter Dan Robinson, “Resistance to reforms equals not enough reach and respect for Voice of America.”

Dyar’s comments prompted a response from Robinson.

We repost Robinson’s original op-ed, Dyar’s comments, and Robinson’s response in one post because they offer an interesting view of what went wrong with the Voice of America English news website and VOA Newsroom in general.

Those interested in how VOA senior management has for years ignored numerous and repeated complaints and recommendations from VOA journalists may also want to read this BBG Watch post:

VOA journalists: ‘BBG, Please Save Voice of America’ – ALL RECOMMENDATIONS I THRU VII, BBG Watch, February 24, 2014.

Reform or Revolution Choice

Resistance to reforms equals not enough reach and respect for Voice of America

By Dan Robinson

“Former VOA Staffer” observes that it is “sadly true that the VOA English website offers no real reason for anyone to follow it”. . . .

Mismanagement of VOA English web operations, for years based in the VOA central newsroom in a bizarre and inefficient exercise of bureaucratic bumbling, is among the many factors that came to the attention of members of Congress, in large part due to the efforts of BBG Watch.

“Former VOA Staffer” asserts that the web operation was not run by Central news or professionals. True in one sense. The English web operation some years ago came under the control of alleged Internet/Web experts whose primary concern was producing the highest metrics figures, and who merrily proceeded to eliminate the voices of VOA correspondents from reports posted on the English website.

It’s also a fact that the English web desk has been under the bureaucratic control of long-time VOA managers frequently promoted by the VOA/IBB leadership.

The so-called Internet/Web experts presided over numerous embarrassments, notably major breaking news stories delayed for multiple hours, or not being updated. Rewarded with promotions, these experts were recently given the responsibility by the VOA director and his deputy of presiding over the latest “reorg” of Central News. Apparently (according to a written account by one VOA broadcaster), one of them had no idea that VOA still put out English newscasts 24 hours a day.

And it’s also a fact that the English web desk was run for much of the past year or so, by newsroom staffers, one of which was a former correspondent and editor, another a former newspaper journalist with short VOA experience, brought over from the main newsroom in a desperate attempt to (supposedly) make the web desk more efficient.

“Former VOA Staffer” correctly observes that it has been a “huge mistake” for VOA’s website to try to compete with other major news outlets. Again, it is none other than BBG Watch that repeatedly drew light to other media organizations ability to routinely leave VOA in the dust, even on major U.S. domestic stories. Those “extremists” at BBG Watch — at least in this respect they revealed the emperor to be truly naked.

The observation of VOA web dysfunction in comparison with the State Department, White House or other Twitter government and news media accounts is accurate. But another observation by “Former VOA Staffer” deserves attention, as it underscores how far down the ladder VOA plummeted when it comes to respect within the corridors of official Washington.

This former staffer suggests that if U.S. officials “were encouraged to give VOA reporters first access to news or more exclusive interviews or provide sources with groundbreaking news, then VOA’s reputation would soar.”

Forget it, to put it bluntly. Things are too far gone. Any sudden renaissance that might bring a flood of sudden interview offers or access, should be treated with suspicion because not enough has been done in the Cohen Building to repair the shattered reputation of the BBG/IBB and VOA.

More likely, any sudden wave of respect for VOA and USIB/USIM would likely be the result of back-channel appeals by the VOA director and IBB officials — which by the way only serves to emphasize the extent to which VOA and government-funded media are, in fact, intensively intertwined with the foreign policy and national security structures of the U.S. government.

Remember, a key criticism by opponents of HR 4490 has been that the legislation would make VOA an “arm” of the State Department. The next time someone on the 3rd floor of the Cohen Building sends an email to State or picks up a phone, suggesting that BBG/IBB be given some special access to an official, or be used to “get the word out” in some conflict zone, remember this rallying cry of the anti-HR 4490 crowd.

“Former VOA Staffer” also suggests that VOA executives do more to press reporters to “break stories”. You can’t separate the two issues.

There is still not enough respect for VOA or for that matter other US international broadcasting journalists to get USIM/USIB to the point where it will enjoy anything approaching the level of access of mainstream media.

I participated in meetings with VOA managers who cluelessly enjoined correspondents to obtain “scoops” that were simply not possible because quite simply, the reputation of BBG had fallen so far as to completely rule out such favors by official Washington.

Of course, the next time VOA actually is granted an interview with the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, or even with President Obama — whose staff have studiously avoided giving BBG entities another interview opportunity with him since the one granted in 2011 — VOA executives will undoubtedly crow about it: VOA EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH PRESIDENT OBAMA!

And the existing IBB/VOA crowd will thus justify their SES or GS14/15 salaries for another year, though nothing actually will have changed in terms of longer term respect for VOA in official Washington. As VOA’s former Pentagon correspondent (who moved to the White House after I departed earlier this year) quoted a high-ranking military official saying: “You guys have no [expletive] reach!”

David Dyar comments on Robinson’s analysis of VOA website and news failures

DAVID DYAR, FORMER VOA CORRESPONDENT AND SENIOR EDITOR: As a former senior editor on the English web site for 13 years before retiring last year, I’d like to provide some insights into how the site actually operated, which may be helpful in understanding some of these issues.

For most of the time I was serving on the desk the work of the editors and content producers mainly involved repurposing material. This material was mostly written by the central newsroom and other reporters in the English division and language services. It was was originally meant for a radio or TV audience. There were efforts made to get material written specifically for the web site, but the limited resources and multiple clients the newsroom had to serve made that effort difficult.

Thus, it is disconcerting when the criticism of the English web site’s failures comes off as an indictment of the competency of the web desk staffers. The web editors have had little control over the material from the rest of VOA that the site uses to fill its pages.

Dan has been a long time critic of the site reducing or adding to the content of correspondent reports. This is nothing more than a reflection of the confusion at VOA over its news mission. Is VOA supposed to be a breaking newswire type site, or is it supposed to provide a US perspective on news events? The answer tended to be: both. But of course, there has not been the staff at VOA to do that for years and as all the correspondents know, they are constantly jerked around trying to do live radio updates, write correspondent reports for the language services and doing TV.

So in order to try to keep breaking stories up to date, there were efforts to get senior newsroom editors to write updates for the web site to the main stories. This included content from the correspondents and from other sources. Any delay in posting some breaking stories was usually a combination of the under staffing on both the web desk and in the news division, the two source rule, coordination among all divisions and a bunch of other mundane problems, but not really web staff incompetency.

I don’t think VOA has the staff to do breaking news any longer. When the web desk tried to do a full court press on a breaking story, the small staffing meant no other stories could get processed while everyone worked on the breaking story. Even then, the effort was prone to errors.

The effort to chase high audience views Dan mentioned also contributed to the problem of the quality of the output. There was a standing order for the staff to shift resources to embellish stories with high trending web metric views when I was there and that was reflected in such things as extensive royal wedding coverage. The idea was similar to the Radio Sawa model: grab their attention with pop music and then slip in some important news.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the main problems you have seen on the English web site are a reflection of VOA not having the staff to produce the material needed for the expansive “all things for all people” mission that is reflected in the structure of the site.

The new legislation seems to be moving to pare that mission back, but I have doubts that you will see a paring back on the vast subject categories on the English web site. Such a change would make VOA appear to be in a “niche” category of news sites and not the type of site that reflects the vision David Ensor described in his blog “VOA in 2020”

There is one other issue in Dan’s article that needs clarifying. The newsroom editors brought over to work on the web desk spent most of their time editing original content generated for the English web site by both the news division and the various blogs, reports and other web material from the English division and language services. They also helped coordinate coverage from the news division to better serve the needs of the English web desk. I don’t think it was a desperate move, but rather it was a move in part to deal with the rather strange structure of having the English web desk as well as English Division reporters and bloggers in one organizational body seperate from the news division which also generates all its output in English.

More from Robinson on problems with VOA website and news

DAN ROBINSON, FORMER VOICE OF AMERICA CORRESPONDENT: Dyar, a former VOA correspondent now retired, recently posted a detail-rich take on the problems facing VOA’s English website, based on the time he spent working there. The information serves to underscore some key points about the dysfunction (a word IBB/VOA managers asked to be banned at one point) afflicting not only VOA web operations, but VOA’s newsroom.

That Central News, and the English webdesk lacked resources and staff is no news bulletin. I had many conversations with web staff, and the complaints could fill a small encyclopedia. So yes, I was a persistent critic of what became an official policy of “reducing or adding to the content of correspondent reports”, which Dyar asserts was due to “confusion at VOA over its news mission.”

Confusion indeed. What I and other correspondents saw done with our material may have been viewed by some as SOP at a newspaper, or in other news organizations. But when a correspondent spent hours reporting, structuring, writing, and then voicing a report, only to see it turned into a pretzel for dubious reasons, including higher metrics, something is wrong in Mudville.

Other comments underscore what everyone has known for at least the past four to five years, namely that the newsroom has been decimated. As employees themselves would frequently note, what used to be a vital place full of people was transformed into a veritable wasteland. And yes, that did impact efficiency in a range of ways, extending to DC bureaus where correspondents put in long hours just trying to cover the news, and have their material accurately reflected on VOA’s website.

Dyar asserts that I am somehow looking to run down the efforts of web staff. I had conversations with a number of people on that desk, in person and electronically, and before he passed away, with Jack Payton.

People may not recall, but the placement of Jack on the desk at least in part grew out of the joint effort I led with a few others to bring to the attention of newsroom and higher management the enormous and embarrassing problems with the performance of the English site.

All of this has been documented on BBG Watch, and details were also submitted to the State Department Inspector General, a representative of which told me he was personally “pissed off” by the ongoing examples of incompetence by VOA.

My files are full of examples of communications I and other correspondents had with web desk staff, newsroom and other managers about mishandling of material. And when the VOA director and others gave general license to begin using wire service material, often in place of VOA correspondent reports, well the train was out of the station at that point.

There are too many examples, but two stand out. One involved the visit of the Yemeni president to the White House, at the same time the U.S. was closing embassies in the Middle East due to renewed terror threats. His meeting with Obama was a big story, not only for VOA but an important story — PERIOD. My White House dateline report failed to appear —
ANYWHERE — on the VOA site…until the next day that is, when in response to my complaints it finally saw light on the web page.

Another example involved my story on the cancellation by Brazil of President Rousseff’s state visit to Washington, over tensions involving revelations about NSA surveillance. Though my story was filed quite rapidly, based on first reports out of Brasilia, and included material gathered by phone, the VOA web site ran a Reuters story.

The explanation — and this was heard frequently by correspondents who questioned the approach — was that the wire stories were more “comprehensive”, though the obvious elephant in the room was that VOA correspondents still had to adhere to guidelines that limited the length of our stories. Indeed, that is yet another example of the dysfunction in the place.

Reporters tried to adhere to these longstanding radio-related length guidelines, while upper management had given the go ahead for VOA’s English web to use far longer stories by AP or Reuters (though subject to a daily limit), or massage other material into a correspondent’s report, far more than would be normally done in a newspaper article. The result — frequently a correspondent’s byline would never appear, or would be placed on top of a report that bore little or no resemblance to what he or she had written.

In response to my protests over the Brazil story, Executive Editor Steve Redisch acknowledged that there was “a problem” and pledged to hold discussions about the issue. But I never heard another word about any discussions that may have taken place to avoid such a thing from happening again.

Dyar says that he does not think “VOA has the staff to do breaking news any longer.” One assumes he is talking about web operations. But keep in mind that already high officials including the VOA director and at least one BBG governor have stated, in meetings with newsroom staff, that this is exactly where the place is headed.

Breaking news is to be left to the wire services, unless of course, it’s determined that only some special VOA version can supply the audience with sufficient depth and insights. Who knows what kind of process the glorious newsroom of the future, as detailed by David Ensor, will use to determine in any short period of time whether a certain story should or should not be covered by a correspondent or have to wait days to appear anywhere on VOA.

Dyar’s remarks again highlight the chase for higher metrics figures. His information about steps taken to “embellish” reports (see numerous BBG Watch reports for a thorough discussion of this) is quite interesting and cries out for further investigation.

So, while correspondents in the field, including DC bureaus, spent hours of government time trying to do the job they were assigned to do, still covering the now much-aligned breaking news, a major focus back in the Cohen Building was on pumping up metrics figures.

Meanwhile, the BBC with its substantially more robust staffing and skill capabilities was routinely leaving VOA’s face in the dust on breaking news, including major domestic U.S. stories.

Indeed, not only the BBC, but frequently other organizations such as RT and CCTV, Xinhua were able to have a breaking news item somewhere, in some form (even a few lines on a moving scroll) on their websites in a short period, often with live video, something VOA has only recently gotten around to doing in response to criticisms carried on BBG Watch.

Other comments get back to another aspect of the joint effort I and others in Central News were involved in to bring to the attention of an apparently disinterested managing structure the serious problems with web operations, including the fact that the English web desk was managed not by Central News, but by the English division.

As of a couple of months ago, perhaps more, it appeared that management on the third floor may have been finally moving to change this situation. But it was one of the major recommendations of our group that there be more coordination between the newsroom and the English web operation, including the suggestion of establishing a special editor to oversee this process, though one would have to consider the entire 24 hour period in doing so.

In one of my last conversations with him, Jack Payton voiced deep frustrations with a range of issues, from newsroom and webdesk staffing problems, to the lack of equipment for the web operation. What he described was essentially a web operation that had to work around a VOA newsroom hobbled and made anemic by staff losses and general disarray.

But we all know, from the VOA director’s comments at the Heritage Foundation a few months ago, that VOA has not been “hobbled”, right? Hmmm . . . I think what management needed to do was dive deeper