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A day at NPR

Yesterday was a treat.

I spent the day at NPR with five other consultants — Zadi Diaz, Jeff Jarvis, Doc Searls, and Euan Semple, and Jay Rosen — brought in by Rob Paterson, who has been consulting to NPR for months. As Jeff Jarvis points out (in a post that covers the day well enough that I don’t feel a need to rehash it), many consultants would be too insecure and self-centered to bring in a bunch of others. So, thanks, Rob.

We’d spent Wednesday afternoon in a lively open discussion amongst ourselves, along with Maria Thomas , the head of, with whom we all felt an immediate bond, and with Andy Carvin, the estimable blogger whom most of us already knew. (Andy’s been blogging the meetings.) Not surprisingly, the NPR folks we met were uniformly, well, wonderful. You don’t get to NPR without being good at what you do, and you don’t try to get to NPR unless you love what NPR does for us all.

Wednesday night we went to a red-checked tablecloth Italian place for a group dinner with NPR folks, which was one great conversation after another. Then, Thursday morning we met in a slightly larger group to hash out issues and to prepare for the two-hour panel discussion open to all NPR’ers. Jeff Jarvis was nominated to lead the morning discussion because he has an uncanny ability to do so. Quite remarkable. David Folkenflik led the afternoon panel, with only a few moments of hippy panelist rebellion.

So, that was the format. As to the substance, Jeff’s post covers it well. The discussions throughout the 24 hours pretty consistently progressed from full-time Web heads (Maria and Andy) to those less involved in the Web side of things. So, the focus of concern shifted over time from the long-term internal contradiction — NPR is a product of member stations, but as audio content gets “miscellanized” and available to anyone at any time, member stations are at risk of becoming just another play list — to shorter term hurdles such as the assumption that the growth of listener-created-content means lowering NPR’s standards.

To the standards point, I tried to respond that this isn’t a matter of posting listener’s content as if we’re all now as good at telling stories as NPR reporters are. Rather: (a) There are lots of ways that listeners can and will contribute, beyond posting their own NPR-ish reports; (b) Metadata saves the day. We humans are good at sensing the metadata that tells us that this is a comment someone dashed off, that is an audio piece NPR’s staff has picked out as meeting its professional standards, and everything in between.

For me a highlight was Jay Rosen‘s response to a question from Michel Martin , the host of a new program being developed in public at Rough Cuts, about objectivity. Jay gave a measured, thoughtful response that was a brilliant use of language. When controversies are particularly polarizing, Jay said, NPR inevitably is going to resort to strict objectivity in order to retain its innocence. But, he continued, that can be at the price of truth. Beautiful. I loved Jay’s Blake-ian use of the term “innocence.” (I followed up by asking him if NPR’s Web site gave it a way to blurt out the truth. Blurting is the opposite of objectivity?)

I also thought the various discussions about how and when to enable the users to filter content, rather than relying on an NPR editor to do so, were particularly illuminating.

Zadi Diaz, host and co-creator of JetSet, provided a series of highlights throughout the day. She told a story about a 14 year old who approached JetSet with an ambitious idea for a video series and received unbounded help from the community. It made me want to yell, “Jeez, I love the Web!”, but I managed to restrain myself.

So, it was a great 24 hours for me, and I hope it was at least worthwhile for NPR. What a treat to be allowed to participate.

I had a brainstorm-y idea I floated to NPR I will try out on you, too. Keep in mind that it’s an ill-formed, un-thought-through idea, which you should feel free to kick the bejeezus out of.

NPR values civil discourse. And, despite its reputation in some circles, it’s committed to being non-partisan. So, suppose on pages devoted to particular segments or topics, NPR listeners were explicitly charged with pulling together links that represent the spectrum of opinion and thought on that topic. If it were a page about, say, the Libby trial, users would be asked to find Web references from the left and right, from US and elsewhere, from the scholarly to the flippant. If this were to work, it would presumably be because some small cadre of users stepped up to the task. Getting the “social physics ” right would be crucial, of course.(This idea is spurred by Debatepedia, except it aims at a plurality of views, not a duopoly.)

Bad idea? Impractical? Undesirable? Too much coffee, not enough reality?

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2 Responses to “A day at NPR”

  1. on 20 Feb 2007 at 3:22 pmmacbeach

    Maybe I’m missing the point of your idea, but I’ll kick the bejeezus out of anyway:

    Slashdot, Digg, Netscape, the list is endless of places you can go and have a good argument (insults are down the hall). We started down this road before the Internet even got popular with the original “Usenet” newsgroups, where the word “flame war” was first coined (I think).

    Never in these “debates” doesn’t anyone appear to change their mind about anything and almost never does anyone even admit to having discovered an aspect of the issue that they were previously unaware of. Such discovery does take place I suspect, it’s just that everyone too proud to admit it.

    I’ve never understood why media outlets maintain the pretense of neutrality (they don’t do a very good job of it generally), but my hunch is that it is simply to get the largest audience. You can lean to the left or right, so long as you don’t lean so far as to drive half the audience away in disgust.

    Let’s face it, we can’t all be well informed about everything. Read one of the web sites mentioned above to see how woefully uninformed we can be. Even journalists display their ignorance on a regular basis, and some of this ignorance comes through as bias (eg: yes there ARE scientists that don’t buy global warming theories, no matter how often you say the issue is settled, their stories are on the net, why not on NPR?).

    My favorite programs often have well spoken (key ingredient) representative from across the political spectrum, and a moderator that lets them have more or less equal time. I’ve never seen anyone do this better than the McLaughlin Group, but others do a passable job. Often the commercial interruptions or the need to cover too many topics spoil the chance for any depth. If there is such a show where they only cover one topic per week I don’t know of it (but I’m a radio and Internet person who rarely watches TV).

    I don’t know of anything like this on the Internet, but it could be a perfect, in ways, a much better format:

    1: Pick topic
    2: Assemble two or three topic matter experts with views that span the spectrum.
    3: Post starter article (this could be in written, podcast, or video format, or some combination) that lays out the basic issue in the most broad terms (no potentially biased details). Topic expert could express themselves at this point, but I sort of think this would be distracting to “viewers” who might start forulating responses rather than just spelling out what they think from their existing knowledge.
    4: Allow readers, viewers, etc. to either post their ideas to a public forum, or (this might be better) e-mail their points of view, to prevent the flame wars. E-mail would encourage each viewer to give it their best shot in one message rather than drop into “debate” mode.
    5: Have the topic matter experts read all the responses (offline) and prepare a statement that puts forth their (the expert’s) point of view, augmented by any supporting statements from the received comments (and/or pointing out particularly flawed arguments from those same comments).

    Give each expert the same amount of time to speak or the same word limit to stay within. Optionally have a rebuttal round or two.

    The problem with this format is of course it doesn’t give the professional journalists much to do. That is unless they also serve as the topic matter experts, something that might be OK for some political discussions, but not so OK for hard science, technology issues, and other areas where journalists don’t have enough depth. Maybe thats why it’s never been done.

    We used too expect our politicians to do our homework for us. Daily public opinion polls have made our democracy more participatory, but do we really want these decisions made based on who shouts the loudest? Our form of government could well vote itself out of existence if we don’t find a new way to carry on the debate soon. I’m not optimistic.

  2. on 14 Jun 2007 at 4:23 amIsabela Bayers

    This one makes sence “One’s first step in wisdom is to kuesstion everything – and one’s last is to come to terms with everything.”