BBG Watch Commentary,

Pakistan Finds 'Gross-Incompetence' in Bin Laden Case, VOA English News

BBG Watch has compared Tuesday morning Washington, DC time the number of Tweets for top seven news stories on Voice of America (VOA) English and Al Jazeera English websites.

Seven top news stories and their social media engagement numbers were compared as shown on each website within minutes of each other.

Report says US Bin Laden raid 'an act of war', Al Jazeera

Seven top Voice of America English news stories had 143 Tweets.

Seven top Al Jazeera English news stories had 810 Tweets.

Al Jazeera collected 5.6 times as many or 560% more Tweets than VOA for its seven top news stories.

For further comparison:

Seven top Russia Today English news stories Tuesday morning had 1,151 Tweets.

Seven top BBC English news stories Tuesday morning had 3,525 Tweets.

Russia Today English had 8 times as many or 800% more Tweets as VOA.

BBC English had 24.6 times as many of 2400% more Tweets as VOA.

In engaging audiences overseas through social media, Voice of America is leagues behind not only BBC but also Al Jazeera and even Russia’s state-funded multimedia outlet Russia Today.

But top agency executives have been painting a rosy picture of social media engagement. They have been bragging to members of their oversight board, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), members of Congress, Congressional staffers and media about the agency’s investments in social media outreach. They have also tried to intimidate and discredit their critics.

Article by former Voice of America (VOA) journalist Gary Thomas in Columbia Journalism Review on journalistic practices at VOA and management of U.S. international broadcasting within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).In attacking journalistic skills of a former Voice of America senior correspondent Gary Thomas who had published an article in Columbia Journalism Review outlining serious inadequacies in VOA news coverage, management and employee morale, Kyle King,  a spokesman for Voice of America director David Ensor responded that “A simple look at the Voice of America’s website demonstrates we are a hard-hitting and effective international multimedia news organization. ”

In a manner typical for VOA management, executives dismissed and refused to answer Gary Thomas’ questions for the article and later accused him through their spokesman of unspecified errors while bragging about their non-esistent online prowess.

The claim of successful online audience outreach and digital strength was repeated by International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo who said at a recent Digital Innovation Expo hosted by IBB on Capitol Hill that “today we are reaching and engaging audiences like never before.”

Director Lobo has been responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in digital and social media technology, which critics charge was wasted on IBB bureaucracy and contractors as the money was being taken from news and programs.

In a pattern that has been obvious for the last several years, original news coverage by VOA English correspondents has greatly diminished. In the last few days, VOA English website was late repeatedly, between three and 48 hours, in posting original reports on violence in Egypt, the plane crash in San Francisco. VOA was late by several hours in generating its own report on the White House press conference statements on the future of U.S. assistance to the Egyptian military.

Rather than provide original reporting, VOA relies more and more on posting short news items from Reuters that get near zero attention through social media. Al Jazeera, Russia Today and BBC have extensively covered the protests in Egypt and the U.S. plane crash with original reports that have received thousands of Facebook “Likes” and Tweets.

Sources told BBC Watch that VOA’s poor news reporting and dismal social media engagement performance is due to considerable amount of the dysfunction within VOA and IBB management team. It is not the fault of reporters and correspondents whose numbers are constantly diminishing and who receive less and less support while IBB and VOA bureaucracy keeps growing. Radio pieces get cranked out rather quickly, but the TV reports languish, often for hours, as video production scrambles to find relevant footage and put together a final piece. Getting any content in a timely manner on the website and Facebook page is a constant challenge, sources told BBG Watch.

“The VOA English Newsroom is under-resourced and the agency is under-resourced in general. Hence, disorganization and dysfunction,” one VOA correspondent was quoted as saying. But sources also point out that the biggest problem are top managers at both VOA and IBB. Their retaliatory management style and silencing of any inside criticism are blamed for the agency receiving the lowest employee morale scores in the entire federal government and for its dismal scores in social media engagement.

Gary Thomas and other critics blame top IBB and VOA managers for deemphasizing hard news, especially in the VOA Central Newsroom and for encouraging production of more soft feature-type stories which also fail to attract much attention on Facebook and Twitter. This kind of commercial media approach had been tried by the Russian Service of BBG-funded Radio Liberty for several months until BBG members intervened and changed the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty management team. They recruited Kevin Klose to restore traditional news reporting practices. While the Russian Service has made tremendous progress under Kevin Klose, it still has not fully recovered from the loss of popularity on Facebook caused by the failed experiment.

It appears that BBG members, who now lack a quorum, have now a much more difficult time trying to reform IBB and VOA management. They are encountering strong resistance from entrenched bureaucrats. But something must be done and it must be done quickly.

If Director Lobo truly believes that “today we are reaching and engaging audiences like never before” and Director Ensor believes that “a simple look at the Voice of America’s website demonstrates we are a hard-hitting and effective international multimedia news organization,” they and their top executives should go and someone like Kevin Klose should be appointed by BBG to restore good journalism at the Voice of America.

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