Assessing Outgoing NPR CEO Jarl Mohn's Newsroom Legacy
After five-plus years, NPR's chief executive, Jarl Mohn, is leaving the role in mid-October. He will transition to part-time volunteer roles as president emeritus, a board member of the NPR Foundation (which raises money) and co-chair of NPR's 50th anniversary capital campaign.
I'm eager, as I'm sure NPR's listeners and readers are, to hear about the priorities of John Lansing, NPR's incoming president and chief executive.
But in the meantime, I thought it was worth looking back at what Mohn's tenure meant specifically for the NPR news consumers who also are the constituents of the Public Editor's office. I sat down with him last week to hear his thoughts. (Full disclosure: The public editor reports to NPR's chief executive, so Mohn has been my boss. But I reported on him before I joined NPR and while we have not always agreed on everything at NPR, he has not intervened in my work, and I am thankful that he has honored the office's independence.)
The CEO at NPR does not play a direct role in the newsroom operations, that is to say, the newsgathering decisions themselves. But the CEO oversees the financial health of NPR, which has a direct impact on the newsroom's budget; hires the top news executive; and sets all sorts of other priorities that are reflected in what listeners ultimately hear.
We had huge swaths of people in this building, in the system, saying radio is dead. And people believed that. I was not one of them.
Mohn's relatively long tenure brought welcome stability to NPR. He was NPR's eighth CEO in eight years (including interims), and as he noted in our conversation, the only one to actually finish out his contract, bringing a much-needed period of continuity to the top of the organization.
But Mohn's tenure also saw disruptive turnover in the newsroom not quite two years ago when two senior news executives — including the person at the top, Michael Oreskes — were forced out because of sexual harassment allegations. Many people in and out of public radio argued that mistakes by the upper management team led to the situation; Mohn took ultimate responsibility. (NPR's David Folkenflik recapped the history here.) NPR's newsroom is still dealing with the fallout, as Nancy Barnes, who joined NPR in November as senior vice president for news and editorial director, puts her priorities in place.
Mohn had previously served on the boards of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California and California public radio station KPCC. But he was hired because of his business experience, not as a journalist. He saw his most important goal at NPR as bringing financial soundness. "My role here has been to make sure the whole organization, NPR and the public radio system, has the resources that it needs to do great journalism," Mohn told me, noting that in six of the seven years before he came on board NPR had financial losses, resulting in newsroom layoffs and buyouts. "My mission broadly was how do we get a business plan, a strategic plan put together that keeps this really valuable institution not just alive, but growing," he said.
His team did that. Mohn noted that NPR during his tenure had its five best years in its nearly 50-year history; the only better time was in 2003, when McDonald's Corp. heiress Joan Kroc left a major bequest of roughly $225 million. A good portion of the new financial stability has been due to sponsorship revenue driven by the booming podcast business, which NPR dominates. That success has translated into more resources for the newsroom, where spending has grown 5 percent annually for each of the last five years; spending on other programming, including new shows and podcasts, has nearly doubled over the last five years.
When Mohn came on board, relations between NPR and its 264 member stations, which are independent and locally owned and managed, were fraught. As Mohn put it, "there was a lot of mistrust." One goal, he said, "was to reduce the tension and increase the trust and begin working more closely with the stations. We've made huge strides there," he said.
Part of the way he did that was by focusing on NPR's radio platform itself. Five years ago, he said, "We had huge swaths of people in this building, in the system, saying radio is dead. And people believed that. I was not one of them. And, of course, we had the other camp that said, we have to invest all our money in digital."
NPR did innovate on the digital side in recent years (crafting a strategy to tap into fast-growing smart speaker usage, for one), but terrestrial radio got needed attention. Mohn pushed through one of his pet projects adapted from his early years in commercial radio: promotions for upcoming reports. He also pushed NPR to focus on one of the radio medium's strengths, its ability to go live to cover breaking news.
Whether it was the promos, or the changing tone of the newsmagazines or increased public interest in news following the 2016 election, a precipitous decline in audience was also reversed during Mohn's tenure, as NPR hit record-high ratings in spring 2017.
Mohn and I have sparred over the increasing use of live reports, my concern being the ethical journalism issues that they sometimes raise.
"The joke used to be, listen to NPR two days later and we'll explain to you what happened," Mohn argued. But to compete in the world, with The New York Times, CNN or even Twitter, "being live and being in the moment is a key strategic imperative," he said. "Yes, when we do live interviews, they do have downsides. We have to be better at them, we have to be sure we have a way of correcting the record if somebody says something that is not right" (issues that listeners and I have raised in recent years).
Mohn said his biggest challenges at NPR revolved around the speed with which new ideas were tried. The venture capital world, where he worked before NPR, has a mindset of trying new ideas and if they don't work, "we'll fix it on the fly," he said. Public radio, by contrast, operates at a much slower pace, which he called "the single most frustrating thing for me." ("I was shocked at how difficult it was to float that idea," he said of the promos.)
Public radio system resistance to changing ways of doing things also contributed to the one goal he did not meet, Mohn said: to raise "significant money, $200 to $250 million," in what's known as major gifts, from individual donors and institutional foundations. To do that, he said, NPR and its member stations need to collaborate on approaching donors. He will work toward that in his new role.
Mohn had one other big goal when he joined NPR. In one of his first interviews, he talked about diversifying the newsroom. By absolute numbers, NPR has made, at best, modest progress there. When Mohn took over, the newsroom was 77 percent white, and the latest numbers from October 2018 show only incremental change, down to 72.5 percent white. (We will publish the 2019 numbers in November.)
We can't change what happened then, but we can change it moving forward.
Mohn argued that other metrics — including diversity among NPR's on-air hosts, newscasters and executive producers — point to greater progress at meeting that goal during his tenure. "We moved the numbers marginally for the company [as a whole]. We moved the numbers somewhat more for the newsroom. I think for the programs and content that we do that reach the most people, I think we've done a really good job," he argued. "Can we do better? Yes. We should do better. But this is the way we reach the consumers, and we have those voices on the air now, and the editorial decisionmakers. I am very proud of what we've done."
Those are the major headlines of his tenure. (Mohn singled out one more important point for him: the deaths of NPR photojournalist David Gilkey and Afghan reporter Zabihullah Tamanna, who was working with NPR when the two were killed in an ambush in Afghanistan. "That was a tough one," he said.)
But precisely because Mohn came from the commercial world, I wanted to hear his after-the-fact thoughts on a smaller question, one that I've heard raised both in the newsroom and by listeners and readers: Does NPR have an obligation, because it is public media, to do things differently when it comes to dealing with its staff?
The question arose in the newsroom when NPR conducted its last , when, as Mohn himself told me, "I heard from a lot of people; they did not feel respected." Audience members believe so; they expressed profound unhappiness at how a recent, quite minor newsroom reorganization was handled.
Mohn said the recent layoffs and reorganization "were the right decisions and I don't think they were executed the way they should have been." As for the labor negotiations, he said, "I do think we have an obligation to treat our people better [and] we are changing law firms because of that" to approach the next negotiations differently. "We can't change what happened then, but we can change it moving forward."
Ultimately, he said, "We really do want to hold ourselves and need to hold ourselves to a higher standard, because we are public media."
On behalf of the audience I hope that approach — holding public media to a higher internal standard — will be taken to heart by NPR's new leadership, as well.
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