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Inside A Bub

Voice of America needs a new culture

By An Insider

As VOA management begins to hammer out and implement the final details of the reorganization plan that aims to bring more content to its digital platforms more effectively, there is one crucial issue that has been repeatedly pushed aside, glossed over or ignored.

Central News and English are bereft of editorial talent and guidance.

All journalists know a strong editorial chain undergirds a vibrant and compelling news product. By editorial chain, I mean a culture where ideas are rigorously debated and vetted, where story development skills are nurtured and rewarded and where mistakes are not ignored or rationalized away (an all too easy thing to do in a federal environment where management believes it’s nearly impossible to fire or demote those who do not perform).

That culture does not exist in VOA Central or English. Basic editorial standards (tight and vivid writing, strong editing, close consumption of other news sources) are not upheld as a matter of routine — and that goes for everything from balanced coverage to adhering to in-house style guidelines, a very important matter for digital journalism, which like print, is read and not heard or watched for the most part. Despite the popularity and push towards all kinds of video products on news websites, the vast majority of the content is written.

The most vehement critics of the status quo at the Voice lay the blame entirely at the feet of upper management. I disagree with that point of view because the reality is far more complex.

Does management sweep chronic editorial gaffs and gaps under the rug? Yes. Does management react to, rather than look ahead and plan for developing stories? Yes. Does management allow sub-standard content to be published despite internal calls to more closely vet material? Absolutely.

But there is another gap that drives this: a stunning lack of highly skilled and motivated rank and file journalists.

That is not to say they don’t exist at all; they do and their content can be found online and in our broadcasts. But much of that very high level work is drowned out by a lot of very mediocre and lackluster work. The instability of the past few years has also driven out some of VOA’s most gifted storytellers. And there is little effort to mold and nourish young talent.

Many mid-level editors and reporters/newswriters either willfully refuse to get on board the digital train — or lack basic skills — writing, editing, news judgement. And here one CAN fairly point to management for knowing about the weaker elements of staffing and not acting.

They say “we can’t” because we have no latitude to fire or demote federal employees. That belief — which is buried in the walls here — allows management to not hold rank and file journalists accountable, perpetuating a cycle of poor performance at both levels.

That said, there are some very skilled managers who have pushed past the bureaucracy to make hard calls recently — to take action in some key areas that needed attention. It can be done.

And it desperately needs to be done or this last big push towards a concrete reorganization will fail.

You cannot make a success of highly uneven content in the over-saturated and highly competitive digital news environment, either here in the States or in VOA’s targeted audiences overseas.

A radical change in the editorial environment is what is needed. Those of us who try to remain committed to editorial excellence know this, and hold out little hope that it has has been adequately addressed by both the rank and file and management.

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