A Q&A with Jack Speer
The NPR vet gives his take on the current state of journalism.
As a freshman at Edinboro University in 1976, Jack Speer wanted to be a print journalist. It was the era of Watergate and the Washington Post. But back then, there was no print journalism program at Edinboro, so despite his interest in being the next Woodward or Bernstein, Speer studied radio in what was then called the Speech Communication program.
Since 1998, Speer has worked at National Public Radio, first as a business reporter and more recently as a national news anchor. He reports, writes, edits, and produces live, hourly updates airing during NPR programming.
On April 10, Speer will return to his alma mater to speak to high school students from across western Pa. and eastern Ohio as part of the university's annual High School Journalism Day, sponsored by the Department of Journalism and Public Relations.
I recently spoke with him about the business and ethics of journalism as well as the future of radio.
Jim Wertz: What's the summary of your path from Edinboro to NPR?
Jack Speer: I started out first DJ-ing, then in news, and as I progressed up the chain, I ended up where I am now, which is working for NPR. I don't know if that same path, moving market to market, is available today. That being said, there are lots of different opportunities that I didn't have pre-Internet.
JW: Are you seeing a different kind of young journalist coming into NPR or other stations in Washington, D.C. in terms of their experience? It seems the larger markets are seeking out younger talent and nurturing it, rather than bringing in veteran journalists.
JS: There's a lot of people at NPR, a high number, with advanced degrees, and in many cases advanced degrees from fairly prestigious colleges and universities. So they have come up slightly differently than I did. There are certainly people like me who work their way up through the career ladder, but I think there's an opportunity for young people with experience and smarts to come in and do different forms of journalism and to take advantage of a lot of the technologies that weren't there when I started.
I think stations are looking for a different journalist than they were when I started. I morphed into business journalism because I had some experience there, but a lot of our newer business reporters at NPR have MBAs. So I think journalists as a group are more highly educated than when I started.
JW: Would you say that journalists are more niche?
JS: Definitely more niche, more specialty. That applies to both the form of journalism I do – the over-the-air legacy journalism – and the New Journalism that's being done online that is different from what I did when I started. There are less generalists and more niche journalists.
JW: Since we're on the upswing of that trend, what should listeners and viewers expect from the legacy media outlets? Radio seems to be evolving a bit more quickly as a result of podcasts and alternative formats.
JS: Well radio, in many ways, is a surprise success story, even to me. When I started in radio, I thought, "Oh, this will be fun for a while, but radio is kind of old-fashioned and people will be more interested in TV." It's certainly turned out to be exactly the opposite of what I thought it was going to be when I started.
Who would have thought that radio, which is really one of the older mediums out there, would be a success story? But it's one of the more intimate mediums, as people have found out through Serial and other programs that have been highly successful. There's an intimacy with radio that you can't duplicate with anything else and maybe that's why it's sustained. Plus, people are spending more time driving between work and home, and the companionship radio provides is important to people.
JW: You mentioned Serial and podcasting. Podcasts have become a personal investment for so many listeners, but that format is quite different from what many listeners are used to in terms of both the medium and its journalism. Have the kind of stories being told in Serial and The Jinx changed the expectation for what mainstream media will present as news?
JS: In a way, I think of Serial like Back to the Future stuff. I think about the old radio programs, which admittedly were scripted and different, but there's a link between what those old-time radio programs were doing – an intimate storytelling connection with listeners – and what Serial is doing. In some ways, there's more of a question of whether this is news or radio serial drama? Is it news? Is it drama? Is it something else?
I think we see this with The Jinx as well. I haven't watched it, but I'm familiar with the case and I think there are a lot of questions about how the producers interacted with Robert Durst and the format of the program. I don't think Serial has those same issues, but there's a fine line between doing a news program and – to some extent – drama.
JW: Are the ethical boundaries of journalism being pushed or are they somewhat pliable as New Journalism finds its form in mainstream media?
JS: I think the news business, to some degree, is always pushing those kinds of boundaries anyway. 60 Minutes and other major programs have pushed some of those boundaries over the years. The thing I think that facilitates that, which wasn't in place 25 or 30 years ago, is the speed with which you can disseminate information and the power of the tools that everyone has at their disposal. The ability to video anything in hi-definition, the idea that you would have an iPhone in your hand that you could shoot HD video with, to report with – that is a power that everybody has. That's a leveler, but it's also interesting what it does to the overall national psyche and the ability to just throw things out there. The whole gate-keeping function has changed and when it changes that radically, how could the ethical and moral boundaries not be strained?
JW: Do you see management making moves to put different gatekeepers in place to monitor crowd-sourced content that ends up getting absorbed into a major newscast?
JS: Probably not to the extent that it should be. I think management in many cases tends to go along with the flow, and if things are working they're great with it, and when things don't work, they react. I think there are a lot of ethical questions about journalism that have arisen from some of these things. I think management, at times, is engaging with some questionable practices. What if a news director tells a reporter to go out in a storm, drive around with their iPhone, and show the audience what the storm looks like and describe the scene? That sounds great until you realize that somebody is out there driving around in a car for a news organization. What if they run over somebody? Who's responsible for that? Them? The company? And we have distracted driving laws in Maryland. These are the kind of things that can become real issues.
JW: All of this conversation plays into the business side of journalism – the need to be first, the immediacy of presentation, the need to be competitive. Is the business of news playing a greater role in the newsgathering process or have consumers just become more conscious of the business side because of the disruption of the legacy model in recent decades?
JS: Yes, it has changed because journalism is a much more crowded field. In the old days you had the big three – NBC, ABC, CBS – and you had PBS, and the business model was more well-defined. Everyone knew what their sphere of influence was and who their audience was. But when the audience shifts, it creates uncertainty, and that upends the business model. Local television has had their economic model pretty radically shifted. Ours may be less so because we were always a niche player in many respects. We've become bigger and a bit less nichey, but we still have a defined audience. To go back to Serial again, they went back to the old NPR model. They had a few sponsors – one sponsor when they started – and as things progressed they attracted more sponsors and began crowdsourcing, asking people to donate money to get the project off the ground.
JW: You mentioned the number of people or organizations which are now in what used to be the NPR space, the niche journalism space. Does that make your job and NPR's job harder because there is more competition in that space?
JS: Like everyone else, we're trying to figure out where we're going and what we're doing. But I think the broad vision is to keep doing a lot of programming that we're doing and to try to find new outlets to get our programming out there. We have a lot of podcasting at NPR now, and I think podcasting is still growing. Even though Serial was considered a breakout success, and it was great, its numbers weren't close to the terrestrial audience for NPR, which is still somewhere around 26 million or 27 million people per week. I think podcasting has a big future, but it's still a new way of delivering content. Time-shifting is the big story in radio and podcasting is how we're taking advantage of that. People want to hear what they want to hear when they want to hear it, just like they've done with their DVRs. Podcasting is great for that.
JW: There are cynics out there who say that journalism is dead or dying. It's safe to say you don't share that view?
JS: I have entirely the opposite view from that. I couldn't have a more opposite view. I think journalism is alive and well. It has outlets and channels that I couldn't even touch when I started in the business 30 years ago. The way you can tell stories, the tools you have to tell stories, and the people that tell stories – I don't think there's ever been as much talent and as many resources to do what we do.
Jim Wertz can be reached at jWertz@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @jim_wertz.