Many television journalists[from the bigger networks] say they are fed up with the move toward consumer-friendly news-you-can-use and away from weightier subjects like foreign affairs and government.
TV News Stars Move to NPR And Sound Off
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
January 20, 2006; Page A9
When Ted Koppel appeared on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" in 2002, he plugged National Public Radio to so much studio applause that host Jon Stewart cracked, "Somebody got themselves a tote bag."
At the time, Mr. Koppel was simply another NPR admirer. Now, the former "Nightline" anchor is getting more than just swag -- he's got a new part-time job with NPR, joining the growing ranks of television news stars who are seeking refuge at the Washington, D.C., public broadcaster.
While some of the NPR recruits, like Mr. Koppel and CBS newsmen Walter Cronkite and Daniel Schorr, have joined the organization at the end of their long broadcast TV runs, other television news talent is defecting to NPR mid-career. ABC News, for example, has almost become a farm team for NPR. Last week, NPR announced it had hired Michel Martin, an ABC News correspondent, to jump-start a new program targeting African-American listeners. Last month, it reeled in Robert Krulwich, another ABC News correspondent, to join its science squad. The new hires will be greeted by a familiar face: ABC News correspondent Michele Norris signed on to NPR in 2002.
Network news is increasingly generating prospects for NPR in part because some broadcast journalists think the networks are veering away from serious, in-depth reports. Many television journalists say they are fed up with the move toward consumer-friendly news-you-can-use and away from weightier subjects like foreign affairs and government. And many also see news of any sort as an increasingly low priority for their employers. For example, "Nightline" came close to losing its perch in a humiliating 2002 episode when ABC brass unsuccessfully tried to lure in David Letterman's nightly comedy show to replace it.
"[NPR's leaders] still believe it is the responsibility of the journalist to focus the attention of the listener on issues that are important," says Mr. Koppel, who will provide analysis about 50 times a year to shows like "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." "All too many media outlets right now think the correct way to lead is to take a poll, or study the demographics, and see what it is that the people who are most attractive to the advertisers would hope to see on television."
"When I started at ABC News, it was a large division of a communications company, only radio and television stations," says Ms. Martin, recalling the days before Walt Disney Co. bought the company. "Now, it's a small division of an entertainment company, and that creates different pressures."
The star recruits come from television, not radio, because commercial radio isn't a breeding ground for the kind of serious journalists that NPR covets. Commercial radio emphasizes quick-summary news while public radio news tends to go more in depth, executives from both formats say. "I think the difference between big, booming-voice commercial radio and NPR is a lot further than the difference between NPR and 'Nightline,' " says Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition.
For the most part, the television stars aren't snatching away jobs from veteran NPR staffers. The newbies tend to become special commentators, like Mr. Koppel, or join newly formed shows, like Ms. Martin. But for some posts, in-house talent has to compete with top journalists from print and television. "What it means for people coming up through member stations is that the bar is probably a little bit higher," says Sam Fleming, managing director for news and programs at Boston's WBUR, traditionally a feeder station to National Public Radio.
NPR's big ambitions got a boost in 2003, when it received more than $200 million as a gift from McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc. The organization cranked up an existing plan to expand its news division, adding staff, beats and bureaus.
The buildup extended to overseas, where most other news organizations are scaling back. NPR News has 36 bureaus in total, up from six in 1990. The news operating budget is about $59 million this year, up from $38 million in 2001.
Newspaper reporters, amid cutbacks in print media, have also been drawn to NPR as a place that seems willing to support journalism that has gravitas. Bill Marimow, former editor of the Baltimore Sun, joined NPR in May 2004 and is managing editor. He's brought in several former Sun reporters, including David Greene to cover the White House, and Laura Sullivan to cover criminal justice. NPR also recently hired John Hendren from the Los Angeles Times to cover the Pentagon and Elizabeth Shogren, also formerly of the Times, to cover the environment.
NPR has 25.3 million listeners, up from 22 million in 2004. It's impossible to attribute all the growth to the recent hires, but at least some longtime listeners seem to appreciate the new blood. Peggy Bachman, a museum docent in Bloomington, Ind., and NPR devotee, likes the concept of bringing in "people of quality, whose names we know." She adds that "it lends even more credibility to their news programs." Mrs. Bachman has noticed several former television journalists on public radio, but she has a particular fondness for veteran talking head Cokie Roberts, who for years has worked for both ABC News and NPR.
Many of the new staffers aren't completely severing their ties to their old jobs. Ms. Martin will contribute occasional pieces to ABC, to help compensate for the large pay cut she took to join public radio. (David Westin, ABC News president, told his staffers in an email that the network is "delighted that we are able to continue to benefit from her talents and reporting.") But the free-lancing won't plug the entire gap, forcing some personal budget cuts, big and small. "I'm going to save a lot of money on haircuts," Ms. Martin says, adding she is dreading telling her stylist to no longer expect her every two weeks.
As for Mr. Koppel, who will be working primarily for the Discovery Channel, "I'm not in any danger of becoming excessively rich at the expense of NPR," he jokes. Jay Kernis, NPR's senior vice president of programming, said he made clear from the start of negotiations that public radio salaries were lower than Mr. Koppel's usual compensation.
"We said, 'You have to find somebody else who will pay you a lot of money, so we can pay you a little money,' " Mr. Kernis recalls, and Mr. Koppel concurred. "He said, 'Jay, this is not about the money.' "