Voice of America English lost most of its ability to originate news coverage on radio and for the web

BBG Watch Commentary

A UK resident who has been relying on Voice of America English news since at least the 1980s has sent us comments which confirm what BBG Watch has been saying for a long time.

The VOA English Service has lost most of its ability to originate news coverage to attract any kind of substantial audience — on radio, television, Internet, social media.

The author was responding to our article, VOA English has a staff reporter in Istanbul, finally, which had the following statistics:

Russia Today Video about Turkey from Istanbul – 597 Facebook “Likes”

Al Jazeera Report “Was this Turkish game show censored?” – 513 Facebook “Likes”

VOA Video about Turkey from Washington – 18 Facebook “Likes”

A Russia Today report on the same day and on the same subject, both with video, was 33 times more popular than a VOA report. Russia Today had reporters on the ground in Turkey; VOA English did not by the decision of its management. (VOA English had a stringer in Istanbul, but he was not reporting on the protests in late May and very little in early June.)

The number of “Likes” for other VOA English news reports is even smaller, often in single digits. 18 Facebook “Likes” was a good number for VOA English reports on Turkey. Many others had far less (Between five and eight.)

These numbers are not an aberration. One can look at any day or any VOA English report: Al Jazeera, Russia Today, clobber VOA in the number of readers, Tweets, Facebook “Likes,” and popularity of programs every day. Al Jazeera and Russia Today have far more Facebook fans than VOA English. They beat VOA in all media platforms.

Voice of America English is not a major digital new media and social media player as VOA Director David Ensor and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Richard Lobo are telling members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), their oversight board, and members of Congress who pay for their salaries and for the programs with U.S. taxpayers’ money.

As our UK based author explains, VOA English is not an Internet and new media player because to a large degree it stopped originating news. The author also correctly points out that VOA radio had been a originator of great original news coverage and could have been a great source of news content for the web. Think of NPR.

But VOA and IBB executives have destroyed VOA English radio and any other form of substantive news origination. They now claim that they are champions of new digital media. They are not. They are champions of bad management and bureaucracy. How else could one explain Director Ensor’s lame defense of his decision not to send VOA staff correspondents or video journalists to cover the anti-government protests in Turkey? There is no justification for such a decision. “To report accurately, it helps to be there,” Mr. Ensor. That’s why your coverage of Turkey was one-sided. Not through the fault of any VOA journalists, but because there was no one on the ground to provide balance. We all know that official government sources always have an advantage in getting media coverage, including coverage from wire services. Turkish protesters could not reach out to you. You had an obligation to reach out to them to offer balanced coverage.

This Letter from the UK explains what went wrong.

This article (VOA English has a staff reporter in Istanbul, finally) documents so well how reportage of world events by VOA English has declined in recent years. I started listening to VOA English in the 1980s which in retrospect seems like a golden era – and can’t imagine that VOA back then would have covered this story so late in the day, and with such a lack of direct reportage.

VOA had a series of print adverts in the 1980s published in its ‘Voice’ magazine and elsewhere, showcasing its global network of correspondents with the strapline “To report accurately, it helps to be there”. That slogan should be repeated to current IBB/VOA management until the message sinks in – you can’t cover major news events from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. I can remember Al Pessin’s extraordinary updates from Tiananmen Square in 1989, Gill Butler’s reports from a Kuwait just liberated from Saddam Hussein, Jolyon Negele’s expert analysis from various Eastern European capitals during the fall of Communism – what gave these reports their impact was the expertise of the correspondents, but also the fact that they were reporting from the scene. Cobbled together wire service copy is no substitute.

One major problem today compared with the 1980s is that back then VOA had three live hour long news analysis programs, “Asia Report”, “World Report” and “Report to the Americas”, which provided a platform for correspondents to report and analyse the news in significant depth including live two-way interviews between the anchor and correspondents in the bureaus. Today, VOA English has no equivalent of these three news analysis programs, with the longest news analysis shows being half an hour at most, and live two-way interviews with correspondents very rare (Reporters’ Notebook on Fridays being a once-a-week exception). I always felt that the quality of correspondents’ analysis on the “Report” programs had much in common with in-depth newspaper reports – so the irony is, the reports on these programs would have been, in text form, excellent analysis & background pieces for the VOA website today, if the radio shows were still on air.

VOA English also had its 20 minute “Newsline” and “Morning Newsline” live programs throughout the day – 14 live editions I think – which meant that listeners were never far away from a constantly updated stream of correspondent reports from the worldwide bureaus. Again, this constant flow of reports throughout the day would today be a great driver for the internet site today, and I can’t help thinking that one reason the English news website is so poor, and over-reliant on re-written Reuters & AP copy, is because VOA no longer has the radio news shows to bring in a constant stream of updated correspondent reports throughout the day, which could then go on the website.

Today’s news analysis programs such as “International Edition” and “Crossroads Asia” usually sound pre-recorded – as a result VOA English has lost its feeling of immediacy, and is no longer a radio station I go to for live coverage of breaking news. I tried VOA during the Boston bombings and their aftermath, but VOA’s coverage of that news story was also, in my view, poor, again mainly through a lack of on the scene reporting, and a lack of immediacy. (Sorry to hark on about the 1980s golden era again, but back then, VOA had a news bureau in Boston providing an interesting window on New England for international listeners. VOA English news coverage really was of extraordinary high quality in those days, and it saddens me to read & hear what a pale shadow today’s VOA is in comparison).

Sorry for the long comment – your article really got me thinking it doesn’t have to be this way, VOA can do so much better, it just has to be allowed to connect back with itself, its own history, and its own Charter. Maybe Richard W. Carlson should be made BBG Chairman, with re-building VOA news & English broadcasts a top priority.

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