America journalists propose replacing gimmicks with real reforms – RECOMMENDATIONS I

Reform or Revolution ChoiceA group of Voice of America (VOA) journalists expressed their disappointment upon learning from a Washington Post article that executives responsible for dismal employee morale at VOA have spent tens of thousands of dollars on a private contractor to address morale issues with gimmicks while ignoring fundamental problems with their own heavy-handed management style and lack of effective leadership.

According to VOA reporters and broadcasters who have contacted BBG Watch, replacing some of the key executives who for years have contributed to poor employee morale is the only way to transform the organization from its current dysfunctional state while saving taxpayers’ money. They describe themselves as working in an intimidating atmosphere.

An outside critic told BBG Watch that while these VOA reporters may still be intimidated, it may very well come down to “a choice between reform or revolution” if the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which has oversight responsibilities, does nothing about abusive and ineffective managers. A revolution may be an action by Congress that will take the initiative away from the BBG, lawsuits by illegally employed full-time contractors exploited and abused for years by senior agency executives even more so than the permanent federal staff, or legal actions by these desperate employees.

Voice of America needs managers who can do an excellent job of managing the organization on their own, these critics say. Bad managers should not be allowed to spend $84,000 on top of their three figure salaries to deal with morale problems they themselves have created and keep making them worse.

VOA reporters have provided BBG Watch with a list of concrete reform recommendations, focusing largely on the VOA news reporting and web posting operations. We will publish them in several parts over the next few days.

Their list begins with a call for personnel changes in VOA executive positions.


Voice of America journalists propose replacing gimmicks with real reforms – RECOMMENDATIONS I

Replace [a senior VOA executive] The incumbent […] has presided over a process in which breaking news coverage has frequently suffered, leaving essential hard news stories uncovered and exposing VOA to ridicule by critics [… as well as] in the Washington governmental and media communities. He has also earned a reputation for unnecessary roughness and abusiveness in dealing with staff. Any […] transfer to Central News would be a mistake, given this record, and […] arrogant dismissal of concerns voiced by employees… .

Unambiguous Statement On Morale-Building Efforts Require VOA Director, all IBB and Central News managers, and others in the management chain to make definitive statements in support of [Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chairman] Shell’s remarks about the importance of employee morale in the agency. Make a clear statement to Central News staff disowning [senior VOA executive’s] statement in 2010 to newsroom staff that “you are responsible for your own morale.”

The Washington Post article: Agency tries to improve its low employee morale, Joe Davidson, The Federal Diary, Feb. 19, 2014, already has a number of comments, some apparently from Voice of America reporters.

Here is a typical one:


“Moral and low self-esteem are not the problems at VOA and the BBG. Bad management is the problem. Bake sales and yoga classes do not fix bad management. In fact they are the types of events bad management puts in place to hide behind. Management is so disrespectful of its employees that they honestly believe cookies will buy their loyalty. That the face to face meeting with employees is any different than the daily face to face realities experienced each and every day. Mr. Davidson, you have skipped around the edges of the problem and you too have drunk the CoolAid. Bad managers do not change overnight because you wish it so. You must educate them, you must monitor them and if necessary you must remove them. If the same managers for the past 15 years have made the same mistakes why would they change now? They will not. It is time for a clean sweep. From the top down. Mostly from the top. Leadership is inspiring when leadership is inspired. It’s 2014 this is a really odd problem to be having in Government this late in the game. Employees are entitled to a safe, productive and meaningful workplace and if my tax dollars pay for it, I want it to be so.”

Read more comments


VOA journalists: ‘We don’t want to wait 3 to 5 years to improve morale’ — RECOMMENDATIONS II


Confidence Building Measures Regarding Office of Performance Review (OPR) Prohibit language in preliminary or final reports that denigrates or has the appearance of denigrating, work or capabilities of one class of employees (GS or FS) in contrast to another. This is destructive to morale, increases anxieties, and exacerbates workplace resentments when the goal should be to forge a unified, coordinated workforce. Prohibit OPR from using as examples material of staff reporters, without prior consultation with those whose work may be subjected to criticism in open sessions. This is highly embarrassing to employees and does not help efforts to rebuild morale.

Confidence Building Measures Regarding Labor Relations Engage BBG/IBB Labor Relations office in an honest and open discussion about the current morale disaster in the building. Some L/R officials openly deride individual employees seeking even the most minimal clarifications from Central News managers. Make clear to L/R staff that this will not be tolerated.

Confidence Building Measures Regarding Office of Ombudsman Hold discussions with the Office of the Ombudsman, and to extent necessary AFGE 1812, to ensure a “cleaner slate” and address employee concerns that the Office of Ombudsman is not impartial or able to act as an effective advocate for them.


VOA journalists: ‘Talk to us about failures of Voice of America website’ — RECOMMENDATIONS III


VOA Website Performance Immediately begin discussions with correspondents (DC bureaus, domestic and foreign bureaus) and the English web operation about what the latest Office of Performance Review assessment of Central News acknowledged are “tensions” regarding performance of the website. Web performance issues demand intensive discussions to ensure that breaking news material in “radio” or other formats is best represented on VOA’s English web site.



VOA journalists: Disavow Executives Who Disavow Breaking News Coverage — RECOMMENDATIONS IV

Free Journalists from Bureaucratic Tasks End practice of having Central News production staff, who should be concentrating on TV/video, audio and other needs, performing time and attendance bookeeping. This was discussed two years ago, with Director Ensor stating that another way should be found to handle T&A.

Give Priority to Breaking News Coverage Have an overarching approach establishing that breaking news coverage, carried out as rapidly but as carefully and accurately as possible, will come before other platform production, specifically “TV” which remains highly labor-intensive and time-consuming. Make clear to language services that Newsroom content will not be “pushed” to meet a specific service deadline if doing so undermines the accuracy and comprehensive nature of a report.

Remove Content Restrictions on Reporters Allow VOA beat and field correspondents to file breaking news, without artificial restrictions requiring think-tank analysis to be included in every report before it is issued by Central News. This seemingly rigid requirement often causes delays of hours, if not days, in the issuance of news reports. Comments of analysts, if required or helpful, can be added later in updated scripts for various platforms.

Give Correspondents A Voice Issue an unequivocal statement supporting the principle that VOA correspondents, even while undertaking “breaking news” coverage, provide personal insight and interpretation based on their familiarity of a subject from specific datelines, that is valuable in and of itself and should not be sacrificed for the “original content” fetish.

Ask Staff How Best To Save Money Hold new consultations with Washington, domestic and foreign correspondents to discuss challenges of carrying out missions with diminished funds and capabilities, and the best way to carry out coverage with foresight and coordination while not dis-incentivizing and discouraging staff.

Disavow Executives Who Disavow Breaking News Coverage Clarify statements that appear to have high-level endorsement that devalue breaking news coverage. Example: A recent Office of Performance Review assessment of Central News mentioned “reports of scheduled events and news conferences or reactions to breaking news rather than unique ideas and material.” It also contained overt criticism of the work of correspondents as having failed to support “the BBG mission.”

Establish Journalistic Ombudsman Position VOA should join NPR, major newspapers and networks in having an Ombudsman specifically focused on journalistic and coverage issues.

Increase Newsroom Staffing Up-staff the newsroom so that VOA is able to process and cover all major news developments. End the humiliating and embarrassing practice of using Reuters wire copy on the VOA website. Make a clear statement of policy that the two-source rule is restored, and underscore traditional VOA news ethics.

43 Newsrooms Not Working Carefully review the “43 Newsroom” approach. It is not working, and never was going to work, given deficiencies existing in language services. Review extent to which this approach has damaged services ability to meet Charter obligations to provide timely accurate and comprehensive news. Restore the central news operation as the “hub” of all VOA news gathering.


We continue posting morale improving recommendations sent to BBG Watch by a group of Voice of America reporters and other employees.


VOA journalists: ‘Stop Damaging Personnel Tactics’ — RECOMMENDATIONS V

Resolve Outstanding Performance Evaluation Issues Central News managers have intensified a practice of inserting negative remarks in employee ratings. This has been designed to punish those who are most vocal in expressing opposing or alternative views, is destructive to morale, and gives employees targeted little incentive to carry out the news mission. Some have refused to sign evaluations they consider inaccurate and insulting. Require Central Managers to immediately “clear the slate” and resolve these cases in the interest of progress to repair the Central News morale morass.

Stop Other Damaging Personnel Tactics Denying staffers Leave Without Pay, as has been seen in the recent past, is similarly destructive and goes against what should be a general family friendly approach that would be more constructive in efforts to repair devastated morale. Examine application of telecommuting policy. Ensure that all staffers are authorized to telecommute when it is feasible.

Use Overtime To Meet Mission Requirements Require managers to be aware of, and immediately approve as necessary overtime, including hours spent at home on official duties. Currently, many employees perform U.S. government work, including time-intensive activities linked to satisfying greater demands for TV production, on their own dime. Managers assign labor-intensive TV and related elements but do not immediately assess overtime impacts. Many staffers feel they would be targeted if they demand approval for overtime in advance, or even specify how much time might be required to complete an assigned task.

Review Position Descriptions Work with AFGE 1812 to ensure that the most important highly-complex and challenging Washington bureaus have job descriptions that accurately reflect demands at these posts. End the practice in which lower GS grade employees and “general assignment” reporters are assigned for long periods of time to bureaus without receiving higher pay. Ensure that all employees, regardless of grade level, are performance evaluated based on the specific tasks, skills and demands involved in coverage at these locations, rather than general skills listed in existing PDs.



VOA journalists to management: ‘Fix Digital Infrastructure’ — RECOMMENDATIONS VI

Restore Hourly English Language Newscasts Restore hourly English language newscasts, not merely summaries, either radio or radio-TV simulcasts, as the backbone of VOA programming. It was under this aegis that VOA achieved its greatest success in building audiences world-wide.

Restore Overseas Correspondents and Bureaus Upgrade VOA’s depleted corps of overseas correspondents and bureaus. This is an essential step if VOA is to return to relevance in international broadcasting. Provide clarity for all staff about the FS system, and potential for promotion into it from GS grades.

Fix Digital Infrastructure Problems Conduct aggressive review of Central News Division infrastructure problems. Set up annual review process to examine every infrastructure and support issue, including at DC and domestic bureaus. This should include interoperability and communication issues between computers, edit systems, servers, that have wasted valuable government time, caused missed deadlines, and subjected employees to management criticisms. Well-known crippling problems involving the Dalet system should be front and center.

Fix Digital Infrastructure Problems in Bureaus Deal rapidly with VOA bureau technical/equipment deficiencies. Some bureaus are saddled with radio-focused equipment dating back years. High speed connectivity is only just now being installed in DC bureaus after a delay of several years. Ensure full ongoing funding for this.

Give Correspondents Tools Support every DC bureau and traveling correspondent with adequate broadband/hotspot capability, latest laptop and tablet technology, portable storage, and audio and video capability, including available DSLR/mirrorless HD-capable cameras, shoe-mountable shotgun and wireless microphones, tripods, etc.

Re-Evaluate Tensions Between TV Production and News Coverage On domestic coverage, end what one correspondent calls “casual disregard for the realities of getting video reports filed” amid increased demands from services for TV reports with multiple elements, and b-roll, all of which has fundamentally changed work patterns.

Replace Old Equipment Replace old video and underpowered computer equipment suffering from heavy use. Examine reliance on FTP to send video to Washington, slowness of VOA to send equipment to bureaus, slowness in paying bureau phone bills.

Address Productivity Issues Address productivity issues revolving around diminished capabilities and funding, including manpower resources wasted when reporters make contacts, set up interviews, obtain b-roll, only to have stories canceled by Washington managers for “lack of funds” or dubious reasons of editorial judgment.


VOA journalists: ‘Increase Visibility of VOA News Reporting’ — RECOMMENDATIONS VII

Increase Visibility of VOA News Reporting The VOA English website often shows huge amounts of Reuters material. Make clear that it is not the responsibility of VOA correspondents to match wire service reports — either in length or content. Establish a general rule that VOA staff reports deserve visibility. If VOA reporting regardless of platform cannot be reflected in a consistent and reliable way, it erodes the credibility of individual reporters at their beats, and makes it harder to raise the visibility of VOA.

Review Limitations on Length of News Reports Review existing guidelines for length of correspondent reports. Consider lifting limitations so reports can serve web needs, and reflect reporter’s bylines and datelines, without imposing new burdens on correspondents to file multiple reports on the same subject.

End Practice of Crediting VOA With News from Others Examine the highly questionable practice by the web desk of merging Reuters or other wire service reports with VOA staff material, and placing a correspondent’s byline on the final product. This dishonestly credits to a VOA reporter a product that he or she has not originally reported, structured, and written, and raises other serious issues relating to journalistic integrity.