Journalist Q&A: Mark Stencel, managing editor, NPR

NPR's managing editor for digital news Mark Stencel speaks with Alexandra Bruell about the site's Web investment and lessons it has learned on breaking news online

Name: Mark Stencel
Title: Managing editor for digital news
Outlet: NPR
Preferred e-mail address

NPR's managing editor for digital news Mark Stencel speaks with Alexandra Bruell about the site's Web investment and lessons it has learned on breaking news online.

Discuss your background and how it relates to your current job at NPR.

I spent all these years bouncing back and forth between online and traditional media. I'm a newbie in public media, but spent most of my time in print, as well as bouncing back and forth between the business and editorial sides of publishing.

I was involved in the Washington Post's first website. I also worked as a science reporter at The News & Observer in North Carolina that turned out to be the second newspaper in the country to go on the Web.  

I've worked in politics and government; I've done science and technology; and there's a smattering of business in there. The canvas here is pretty broad, everything from our arts and cultural coverage down to the Iranian nuclear talks going on right now. We have one of the largest teams of national and foreign correspondents, a whole army of station reporters we can tap into. The range of material we have access to is amazing.

How much funding does NPR allocate to the Web?

We're making a significant investment. I have a newsroom of about 50 to 60 online journalists. Some are dedicated bloggers and reporters and writers. The vast majority of them are producers and editors and a lot of what they spend their time doing is work with counterparts on our shows and subject matter from the foreign or national desk. Our science desk, for example, produces a lot of journalism. Their primary outlet used to be our radio shows, but they put a tremendous amount of energy into doing online shows now.  

In addition to those 50 to 60 people, there's roughly the same number of people called digital media, and a large chunk of what I do is make sure that what happens in business design and technology is aligned with what we're trying to do editorially.

Who is your online audience?

We're lucky to be doing journalism for a very smart, well-educated audience both on-air and online. One of the best examples we have is when the balloon story was going on a while back. That's not exactly the most high-minded news story of the last couple of years, but we were covering it in a live blog with a lot of audience interaction and very quickly we started to see a thread of discussion among users. They started [saying], if this balloon is about this size, and it's over Colorado, and the average temperature in Colorado is this, and the lift of the helium is this, and you start doing these calculations, and what do you think the average weight of a 6-year-old is. While it's still in the air, [readers] are saying I don't think a little kid could be on that balloon.

Any lessons from the "Gifford death" gaffe? Are you changing the way you work with staff or report digital news?

That was a horrible mistake that could have happened in any medium. We made it on air and online. We have a two-source rule, and we had two, but it made us talk about our decision-making processes on certain-magnitude stories. We'd always rather be right with a story than be first with it, particularly one like that.

What struck us was how vulnerable to the error we were on all platforms. We circulated new guidance procedures about how to deal with certain kinds of breaking news stories.

What are the challenges and/or benefits of being a publicly funded outlet?

NPR has had, like all news organizations, its financial challenges through the economic downturn. But even during that downturn, we've been able to invest in new efforts both editorial in terms of new beats and areas of coverage and technical in terms of our buildup of mobile outlets. We have a lot of different sources of funding. From a journalism standpoint, the main difference between being a for-profit media company like the ones I've been at and a non-profit media company like NPR is that a non-profit organization can operate a little more like a privately held organization and can make longer-term decisions and investments based on the needs of our audience and organization. [But] we have different types of shareholders, which are all the organizations that provide different kinds of support to us.

Which sections are gaining the most traction?

Ours is a really broadly interested audience. It's amazing what they'll click on. We're making a big investment in expanding our books coverage. That's an area where a lot of traditional media has pulled back. Our audience's appetite for book and author interviews and news and information about new books or even old books has just been amazing.

What's your favorite story right now?

We do some really interesting tech coverage. There's no shortage of tech journalism, but only a few places, such as Wired, are really covering the intersection between technology and every other aspect of our lives in a way we could. There's so much more we'd like to do in that place.

People won't come looking for gadget coverage, but when Verizon announced its iPhone recently, one of our culture bloggers wrote about the experience of transitioning from clumsy fingers to touch screens. It was a fun, smart, and relevant beyond-the-moment approach to a story.

How do you communicate with PR pros who pitch things that obviously aren't a fit for you?

My wife is in media relations so I'm very sensitive to the concerns of professional communicators, although even she is blown away by the number of misdirected calls that come my way. Most news organizations are set up the same way ours is in that the beat reporters who cover stories in areas for our traditional [platforms] are the same people making news decisions about what we're going to cover online. We have a handful of beat specialists who are dedicated online-only journalists. I have a health blogger, a pop culture blogger, a politics blogger, a breaking news blogger, and photo and multimedia journalists. In the end, that person is going to decide whether that's a story or not, and the managing editor is not that person. As all journalists know, any idea that comes out of the brain of a managing editor is immediately suspect anyway. 

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