No bottom line requirement at NPR protects edgy new format (second in a 3 part series)

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By Kelly McBride, Public Editor | National Public Radio | Commentary

Kelly McBride

WASHINGTON, DC – In 2013, NPR conceived ‘Code Switch’ – a news product specifically for “people of color.” This article appeared on the network’s website in December 2020.

Public Media Business Model

It’s unlikely that Code Switch could have survived this long in a commercial newsroom. Between 2012 and 2015, several media organizations founded similar teams and products, but they didn’t last.

“MTV News, Teen Vogue, a bunch of places had teams that were dedicated to covering race circa 2014, and they all went away,” Demby said. “I don’t think [race is] necessarily lucrative to cover. It’s very much mission work. The fact that we’re insulated from the bottom-line stuff, in a way that those people weren’t, allowed us to stick around.”

Although a cost analysis for the team likely exists, it’s notoriously difficult to do them accurately at a nonprofit media company. The team of four full-time journalists originally started with a $1.5 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and there have been other grants along the way.

The team now consists of nine full-time journalists. Meraji said she often asks about the sponsorship revenue the show generates. But that information is not routinely shared with journalists at NPR.

“All of our podcast teams are dedicated to growing audience and making their shows successful,” Senior VP for Programing and Audience Development Anya Grundmann told me. “The financial piece is the thing that editorial teams have the least control over, so we don’t foreground that in most of our discussions.”

Still, Meraji longs for the details.

“There’d be some power [if] they came to us and said, ‘We’re going to cancel your show,’ like they canceled Michel Martin’s show, like they canceled News & Notes,” she said. “To know what those numbers look like, what we’re bringing in, how we’re doing, how we could do better, that would give us some power if that ever happens.”

It would be very unlike NPR to share revenue data with a content team, but it’s not a completely bad idea. Across both for-profit and nonprofit media, journalists are getting more information about the revenue side of the business. When that’s done in a way that incorporates the journalists into the business decisions, the collaboration can be healthy. But transparency about the money requires guardrails to protect the independence of the editorial vision.

Now that the team is mature, it’s unlikely that information would have a harmful impact. Meraji pointed out that analytics on individual shows tell them that the audience is much more receptive to topics that specifically address Black-white race relations, even though the team is interested in the experiences that span non-white cultures.

“The stories that get into the Black-white binary, those are always the stories that seem to be the most interesting to people,” she said. “We’re all trained to hear race stories in that way … We need to create an appetite where people don’t just want to hear about their own issues and their own stories, but are really interested in hearing about other people who live in this country.”

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