Following the Paris terrorist attacks on the evening of Nov. 13, my office heard from Wyoming listener Patrick D. Sheehy, who wrote, "Out here two time zones away from Washington DC...I am curious what level of news does it take to get NPR out of package mode and into special report mode." NPR's All Things Considered was still running a prerecorded piece about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, with only a brief Paris update, he wrote, adding, "I'm getting most of my news from a friend texting me from the Netherlands."
Sheehy wasn't the only one to write wondering why NPR had not immediately gone to full Paris coverage, as many other cable television and streaming news outlets had. I wondered, as well.
The question of when NPR decides to move from pre-planned reports into live coverage has come up many times before. In a query passed on to me this summer from Colorado Public Radio, a listener also wanted to know how the process works, asking why NPR went to live coverage of the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage but not, say, the mass shooting in Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church a little more than a week earlier, or President Obama's eulogy during a memorial service for that church's pastor.
It was a good question. The answers, it turns out, are complicated, and don't just involve news judgment of whether a story is worthy.
I asked Christopher Turpin, NPR's vice president of news programming and operations, about the decision-making on Friday, Nov. 13, and in general.
As reports started coming in of the unfolding drama in Paris, NPR immediately reported the story, beginning with the 4:30 p.m. ET newscast. All Things Considered also led the 5 p.m. ET hour with initial reports coming out of Paris, but then stuck largely with its pre-planned reports about other topics. The reporting on Paris increased gradually. The 7 p.m. ET hour was mostly devoted to the Paris events, but it was not until the 8 p.m. ET hour that the show was in what is known as full rolling coverage, dedicating all of the program time to the unfolding story.
"In retrospect," Turpin said, "we wish we had been more aggressive about telling listeners there was something going on." Hindsight is easier than making decisions in the heat of the moment, but — also in retrospect — I agree.
That scenario fits a past pattern, Turpin said: "If you looked at our coverage generally over the years you'd say the same thing. We do a great job once we are up to speed but our great failing is we can be a little slow to get up to speed."
Several factors contribute to that general cautiousness, including an admirable — in my view — restraint until it is clear that the information coming in is reliable, which is not always a simple or quick task as a crisis breaks. But, compared to other news organizations such as CNN that almost always go live for major breaking news, NPR has limited resources that can also slow its response, perhaps unduly, as it shifts from pre-taped reports to live coverage.
Some logistics come into play, as well.
The NPR newsmagazines follow a set "clock" that allows for local stations to add their own content at specific times — a process that is automated at some stations. Live reports must fit into that format. NPR can break from the format for something called "special coverage"; It also often offers stations live feeds of events, without any added commentary from NPR hosts, and leaves the decision to air it up to local stations.
The coverage decisions are often made by newsmagazine executive producers and newsroom leaders who are simultaneously trying to produce the show they had originally planned. The decisions must be made across many time zones, affecting differently what listeners hear at each local station. Sometimes when news breaks, NPR has no newsmagazine on the air and a decision to go to live coverage would mean major disruption for local stations, which are running their own programming.
That doesn't mean NPR can't do a better job, Turpin said. He has pulled together a small group of newsroom employees in what he calls a "Golden Hour" task force (after the trauma medicine rule of thumb that patients have a better chance of survival if they are treated within the first hour after injury.) The group will look at how NPR can be "faster off the mark and recognize the urgency more quickly," Turpin said, adding, "We need to get more instinctive about it."
Turpin and the staff have also been trying to figure out just what the threshold for breaking coverage is —what do stations and listeners want? "We can't be all things to all people at all times," he said. But he added that NPR is hoping to be both more aggressive and more consistent, so that logistics do not get in the way of editorial decision-making.
"I would rather see us get into the habit of doing a little too much too soon than doing too little too late," he said.
I would not want to see NPR fall into the trap of going live just for the sake of doing it, which can lead to stories getting blown out of proportion or too much speculation creeping onto the air. But a little more willingness to break with the pre-set formula not only would serve the listeners well, I believe, but it would also play to NPR's great strength, which—although sometimes lost in all the talk of on-demand listening and podcasts—is the ability to bring an immediacy to events that may be happening half a world away.