NPR, temporary workers, and survival of the fittest journalists

Over the weekend, the Washington Post provided some insight into the sausage-making of public radio with a look at how NPR is using temporary employees to staff its news operation. Now, some of the networks brightest full-timers are amplifying what they see as a problem via Twitter.

Temporary employees — 1 in 5 workers at NPR, the union says; management says 16 percent — are subject to termination without cause, and, of course, they have no guarantees of employment after their stint is done. That, the Post says, is one reason why so many young journalists have left.

“I felt like I could never make a mistake because, if I did, they’d just hire someone else,” said a former employee, who temped for two years before moving on. “I felt like I couldn’t take Christmas off, I can’t go to my high school reunion. Because if I do, I’ll be out of the loop.”

For temps who don’t land a longer work assignment, NPR’s system all but guarantees financial uncertainty, several said. A week’s employment, for example, might be followed by a longer, uncompensated layoff followed by another call to return. A long stretch between assignments not only plays havoc with a temp employee’s income, it also threatens to leave them with gaps in their insurance coverage.

Some temps at the network had been in the category for three years.

“You feel like you have the boyfriend who’s never going to put a ring on it,” one said.

“As a media company that strives to be innovative and nimble, we need talented people who can come in on a short-term basis to help us experiment with a new idea or pilot a new program,” Loren Mayor, NPR’s president of operations, tells the Post. “As a breaking news organization, we need additional reporters and editors to staff up for targeted news events like elections.”

It’s a good way to drive away good journalists, NPR’s Sam Sanders tweeted; particularly journalists of color.

“This was my exact experience,” host Audie Cornish said. “Got an offer to temp. Knew I could not afford it. Came back to NPR as an adult reporter after working elsewhere for a number of years. Sam’s thread brings up an important point regarding diversity.”

“I was a temp for seven of my 16 years at NPR. I can’t say it caused my anxiety issues, but it certainly didn’t help,” former NPR reporter Julie Rovner said.

Left unmentioned in the article and the tweets is the experience level of those in temporary positions.

Historically in broadcast news, you don’t start at the top — and NPR is the top. And if you did — in internships, for example — eventually you went to a small market where you could make all your mistakes and learn all facets of the business.

It also provided a needed perspective that is often missing from the media centers of New York and Washington — a few square miles surrounded by reality, as my father in law, a broadcasting pioneer, used to say.

In smaller markets, journalists are closer to the audience, experience more, and can wean themselves off the “big on policy, short on humanity” aspect of the inner-Beltway mentality.

It was practical experience you can’t find at “the top.” Back when I was an editor at a radio network in New York, for example, I could look around the newsroom when breaking news created the chaos journalists usually feed on, and point out which reporters and anchors had experience in small and medium markets and which ones had started closer to the “top” and stayed on.

That process of becoming the “fittest” among journalists — or “paying your dues” — is more difficult now because small-market media has been drying up for decades, denying young journalists the opportunities they once had on their way to climbing the media ladder.

But, make no mistake, that ladder produces great journalists, as the number of people who’ve left NPR as temps, got experience elsewhere, and then returned as better journalists proves.

For sure, the business is hard economically, and has been since Marconi. But over the years its method of advancement also provided networks with a steady stream of seasoned journalists. Only the best survived the winnowing process. And the listeners were better for it.