BBG Watch Commentary

Crisis Management Needed at VOALet’s face it: Voice of America’s (VOA) news reporting and management structure are completely broken. It is an American embarrassment with a worldwide impact. It is also a public diplomacy and national security issue considering that the United States has been and may still be on the brink of going to war.

It’s bad enough that the VOA website is one of the most visually unattractive and difficult to use among all major international media outlets. On top of that, it is often not updated in a timely fashion. It is poorly managed, if it is managed at all. It gets almost no audience engagement through social media.

Compared to zero-to-five, a dozen, or at best a few dozen Facebook “Likes” for VOA top stories, Russia Today, BBC and Al Jazeera regularly get hundreds and thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of “Likes.” They get hundreds of readers comments compared to barely a few, if any, for VOA reports.

But the biggest failure are VOA’s top managers. They did not plan or did not plan effectively for the coverage of President Obama’s speech because there was no comprehensive coverage or even coverage meeting basic standards and audience needs. They did not assign extra reporters to provide U.S. and international reaction to the speech, or if they assigned them, it was clearly not enough. There were no reaction pieces on the VOA website for well over 12 hours. They did not assign anyone to put full video of Obama’s speech on the homepage or even a link to the video. If there was such a person, he or she did not place the video on the homepage.

For several hours, there was also no video attached to the only VOA English report on the speech. The report itself by a VOA correspondent was good, but by itself it was certainly far from sufficient, considering that the Voice of America is America’s official media outlet to the world. Foreign audiences turned to Al Jazeera, BBC and Russia Today websites to find out what President Obama had to say about Syria and to hear reactions to the speech. They may have also turned in large numbers to China’s CCTV.

Foreign audiences may have already concluded long time ago that the VOA English website has very little to offer in terms of hard news, comprehensive news coverage and news analysis. VOA did not do anything new this time to change this perception. The Obama speech did not become VOA’s “Featured Story” on its English homepage. For many hours after the speech, the “Featured Story” was about illegal trade in monkeys and other animals. The “Featured Video” on the homepage was also about monkeys, not about war and peace, Syria, President Obama, and U.S. and international reactions. Most VOA language services did not do anything different on their websites than what the VOA central English website has provided. Most VOA language services have to rely on VOA central output for such news stories.

We already said that there were no speech reaction pieces for many hours, just a single, short report on the speech itself. BBC, Russia Today, and Al Jazeera had much longer reports on the speech. They also had Obama video. Some even had U.S. reactions.

It appears that only one or two VOA reporters may have been mobilized to cover the story last night. One of them was lucky that his report was placed on the VOA homepage. But the web desk apparently was not beefed up or given any instructions to expand online coverage or to make changes on the homepage to reflect the story’s importance. If there were any instructions, they produced no results for the website and for international audiences.

It was Voice of America’s amateur hour. It was a complete embarrassment.

One former VOA executive told us that such lack of planning and amateur approach to news reporting would have been simply unthinkable under previous VOA directors. A presidential speech of this international importance would have meant that the VOA director would have been present in the building during the entire evening and a large number of VOA English news reporters, not to mention numerous language service broadcasters, would have been mobilized to provide special reporting covering all angles, including any criticism of the speech. This was obviously not done. If by any chance, Director Ensor and/or Executive Editor Steve Redisch were in the building during the speech (sources said that Redisch was overseeing VOA live coverage of the Obama speech) and afterwards, they apparently did not do anything to help or provide guidance to the VOA web team on how to report on the presidential address and reactions. The ultimate irony is that they claim to be pioneers of social media-focused programming.

They have not done anything earlier to manage and inspire the staff. VOA correspondents have been complaining for years that they are prevented from filing in-depth reports, and what they file is often discarded, shortened, and frequently does not make it to the homepage or even onto the website.

Many excellent reports by VOA correspondents are filed promptly but are often posted late and often buried deep inside the website. Site visitors have a difficult time finding these reports. VOA correspondents also have to work under unreasonable restriction on the length of their reports, even for major news stories. BBC and Russia Today do not seem to have similar restrictions. If VOA correspondents violate these restrictions, the web team cuts down their stories or rewrites them. These experienced journalists are completely demoralized. Their complaints have been ridiculed and ignored by the management.

The biggest tragedy is the lack of any effective leadership from the very top on news gathering, news reporting, website management and staff motivation. Top VOA executives are seen by VOA correspondents as hostile, angry, vindictive, remote and incapable of managing. Employee morale at VOA and at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) is one of the lowest in the entire federal government.

Compared to VOA, BBC and Russia Today websites are visually attractive, well designed, well organized, and constantly updated. (It can take hours for VOA to post or update major stories; some stories are posted hours and days late.)

Most BBC news stories are much more comprehensive than VOA news reports, and they are much longer. They are also far more interesting to read. They focus sharply on controversial issues and explain them, while most news items written by the VOA web desk are short and boring. Reports by BBC correspondents are prominently featured. They include many links, related stories, and related videos. More and more often the VOA web desk simply resorts to posting short news items from Reuters.

VOA’s treatment of President Obama speech on Syria showed quite clearly that senior VOA management is either completely disengaged or simply incapable or organizing coverage of a major news event. This is a sad, embarrassing and costly failure for the United States and for American taxpayers.

VOA employees have alerted the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the State Department to this continuing waste of government resources in the way the VOA/IBB management and VOA news and website operation function, but apparently no action was taken either by the OIG or VOA and IBB executives. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) should take immediate steps to address this problem. We believe that Director Ensor and his deputy should leave and a new, professional news management team should be put in charge of VOA. Someone like Kevin Klose at BBG-funded Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), who is both an excellent journalist and an excellent and respected manager, should be brought in by the BBG to save the Voice of America. The same management change is perhaps even more desperately needed at the International Broadcasting Bureau.

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