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NPR to impose near-freeze on hiring but avoids layoffs as budget cuts loom

NPR expects a $20 million shortfall in sponsorships this fiscal year. It plans to freeze hiring, among other things to reduce expenses.
Stephen Voss
Stephen Voss
NPR expects a $20 million shortfall in sponsorships this fiscal year. It plans to freeze hiring, among other things to reduce expenses.

Updated November 30, 2022 at 4:45 PM ET

NPR will need to cut at least $10 million from the current fiscal year ending next Sept. 30, the network's chief executive, John Lansing, announced Wednesday, due to a sharp drop in revenue from sponsors.

Lansing told staffers in a memo that he intended to avoid layoffs, but would be forced to severely curtail hiring, amounting to what he described as "close to a total hiring freeze." The network will also sharply cut back discretionary spending and non-essential travel. The $10 million cut constitutes approximately 3% of NPR's current annual budget.

"As we did during the pandemic, we are prioritizing our staff and not anticipating layoffs at this time," Lansing wrote. Yet he noted that he recognized the strain that a near-freeze on hiring would put on NPR's current journalists and their non-newsroom colleagues.

"It means we won't have the skills and support of the people who would have been in the roles that must remain vacant," Lansing wrote. "For those working long and stressful hours, that is not good news. But it is a reality we can't avoid if we are to save jobs."

The 137 job vacancies at the network represent about 11% of its workforce.

Among the casualties: Lansing said he would slow down the search for a chief content officer, a new position that would be over the network's news and programming leaders.

Other media outlets have announced cuts that include layoffs.

On Wednesday, CNN Chairman Chris Licht told the network's staff that long-planned cuts are starting. On-air contributors and full-time employees will be among those who will lose their jobs, he confirmed.

The Washington Post also said today it would cease publishing its Sunday magazine on Dec. 25, affecting a staff of 10. Executive Editor Sally Buzbee told staffers in a memo that it would shift some of the most popular content to its Style section. She pointed to the paper's efforts at digital transformation, though the Post reported that she also invoked "economic headwinds" in speaking to the magazine's staff about the decision.

Shani George, the Post's vice president for communications, said the paper eliminated one position outside the magazine and ended contracts for several people working there.

Many companies have scaled back advertising in the face of an uncertain economy. And the ongoing costs of covering the war in Ukraine have taxed newsroom budgets as well. The federally supported Corporation for Public Broadcasting gave NPR grants totaling $1.25 million to cover the conflict, but the cost exceeds those amounts.

NPR needs to cut $10 million due to a sharp decline in projected revenue in sponsorship — at least $20 million. Some of those losses were offset by new revenues from new agreements to license NPR content on Facebook, YouTube and Amazon and from fund-raising efforts.

Lansing said that 700 staffers attended an all-staff meeting Wednesday afternoon that was arranged to address the workforce's concerns and questions. In an interview afterward, Lansing said the decision to make moves now was based on comparisons with how current revenues matched up with past patterns.

"It's a slowdown in the advertising market, just like with every other media company," said Lansing, who joined NPR in 2019 after decades in broadcast and cable television and a four-year stint overseeing the U.S. government's international broadcasters. "The pacing [of revenue] just indicates a range of potential pain. And that's what drives those numbers."

Lansing also said NPR would achieve savings through slowing down or reviewing capital expenditures. In the interview, he defended an $12 million renovation of NPR's New York City bureau, which he called a needed upgrade to its studio complex, even though many NPR journalists now work from home.

Much of the bureau's technology dated back to 2006. The network's chief communications officer, Isabel Lara, noted that the studios back up NPR's systems should the studios fail at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. She said the cost was funded through refinancing the network's bonds three fiscal years ago, requiring no use of any cash reserves. A donor gave $500,000 toward the aesthetic and design aspects of the renovation.

"NPR is going to be in New York a long time," Lansing said. "The effects of the pandemic are just barely understood at this point. But updating the New York office was a critical need for NPR, absolutely."

Lansing has an ally in the largest union at NPR, the Washington Mid-Atlantic local of SAG-AFTRA, which covers 570 employees. "It's happening other places as well, in the advertising world. I am pleased they are making determinations now as how to deal with it," said the local's executive director, Pat O'Donnell. "I hope that it does not result in any layoffs."

O'Donnell noted that NPR had taken a similar tack in addressing even larger shortfalls during the early stages of the pandemic. "They've not only been collaborative, they've been communicative," she said. "They talk to us. We meet every single week."

Disclosure: This article was written and reported by NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by Senior Business Editor Uri Berliner. No corporate officials or news executives reviewed this story before it was published.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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