How does NPF decide which topics to pursue?
As journalists, we’re always curious about topics in the news or of interest to readers and viewers. We follow a trail of stories in a paper or on TV, and say, “hey, that might make an interesting program!” Once an idea pops up we’ll do some reporting on it – will it be of interest to journalists around the country, or just in Washington? Is there a time-element involved with the subject – will its timeliness evaporate at a certain point? Are journalists more interested in the subject than non-journalists? Have we done this topic before? Etc.
The program director and her assistant pursue the answers to these and other questions and then seek to overcome a second set of hurdles: are any other journalism groups doing major training programs on these issues? We don’t want to step on the toes of our colleagues in membership or special interest groups, but we do want to fulfill our mandate to provide no-cost, all-expenses paid educational programs for American and international journalists.
If there seems to be space for us to do such a program we will take the idea first to our programs committee (made up largely of NPF board members) and then to the full board itself. If all are in basic agreement that such and such is a good topic for us, we will seek to determine which of our program formats might be most appropriate for the topic.
That’s it? You just come up with an idea, get the OK, and money flows in?
If life were only that simple! Once we have an idea, we develop a program outline, putting down on paper all the elements we think will work. Usually at this stage it’s just topics, without speakers. It’s also true that no outside organization – non-profit or for-profit – has ever suggested an idea to us that we haven’t already considered, to a greater or lesser extent. And with any good idea, we also consider what the right format for it would be.
What are the NPF formats?
They range in length from a one-hour webinar to a 10-day international trip. NPF conducted its first program in 1976 and in 1993 we embraced the Washington Journalism Center, whose programs had been started in 1965. In that time we have done half-day programs, full day programs, and programs ranging up to a week or more in length. We have done programs that lead directly into major international conferences, collaborative programs, on-line programs, programs in Washington, programs around the U.S. and in other cities.
How do you determine which format to use?
We have to look at the topic and its urgency and make a judgement about whether journalists would be willing to travel to Washington to learn about it.
For example, retirement is a topic that we have focused on with an annual four-day program for the past five years. Retirement is a big issue any way you look at it – from the financial aspect to the social or political aspect. It’s important, but immediate knowledge of it is not of an emergency nature. So we could say that it’s something that journalists would need to know about, but we can plan the date well in advance.
Sometimes a topic is more urgent. For example, President George W. Bush sought to reshape Social Security. There was a great deal of vocal political opposition, and also a great deal of vocal support. So we organized a series of half-day briefings around the country, held in cities with large older populations that would be particularly affected by changes to the Social Security system. The program consisted of a panel of economists who outlined where the system was today and where it might be in the future, if no changes were made. Then we had a point-counterpoint debate between those supporting the president’s position and those opposing it.
Two elements of our programs that never change, regardless of format, are that the programs are on the record, and there is plenty of time for question and answer with attending journalists.
What platforms do you specialize in?
What seem to work best for us now are the half-day or four-day programs. The half-day programs are for journalists in that city or region, especially Washington. The four-day programs are open to journalists from around the country (and often, from around the world).
We are a non-membership organization, and it’s our experience that it’s almost impossible to get a reporter to fly to Washington for a short (one- or two-day) program. The way the airlines have created regional hubs with short-hop routes means you have to spend a full day each way just getting to or from Washington. We want the experience to be meaningful, not exhausting.
How are speakers selected?
We figure out who the best researchers or advocates on a topic are and contact them. We don’t pay our speakers, so someone has to be willing to engage with journalists for 90 minutes without pay. Then we try to accommodate the potential speaker to our program agenda. If we really need someone who is out of town, we will fly him or her into our program location.
How is NPF funded?
NPF has multiple streams of funding. Our general operational costs are usually covered by net revenue from our annual awards dinner, held in February or March. We have approximately $1 million in an unrestricted investment fund and withdraw 5% annually – or about $50,000 a year – for use as we need it. We have another $1million in restricted funds, mainly restricted to specific awards. We have $1 million from a bequest from the Lawrence B. Taishoff Foundation to use for the education and training of broadcast journalists.
Finally we apply for and often receive program-specific grants from for-profit and non-profit organizations. These have come from organizations such as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Gannett Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pfizer Inc., Prudential Financial, the Merck Foundation, Allstate, the Kiplinger Foundation, etc.
What influence does a funder have on a program?
None. We have a strict set of guidelines that has been in place for more than a decade, and has always been on our website. It can be found elsewhere on this page.
Have you ever turned down a grant because there were strings attached?
Yes. Quite often a potential funder will be upfront about his intentions. Usually it is to promote a concept, or a better kind of widget. Those conversations are brief, especially when we refer them to the part of our “Information for Funders” that says “all sides shall be represented.”
Are these corporations, non-profits, or individuals?
These are organizations that want to tilt the scale in their favor; their tax status doesn’t matter. Once we spoke with a non-profit about a certain kind of program. Things went well until we started talking about “all sides” and “balanced presentations.” The conversation ended cordially, and never resumed.
Do you take U.S. government money?
No. We wholeheartedly support the idea that news organizations need to be totally independent of government of any kind. As a journalism training organization we parallel that position.
Do outsiders ever contact you with ideas?
Rarely. We are not a membership organization, so there is no natural method of feedback from journalists. We do survey every journalist who attends one of our programs to learn their interests. We’ve modified our content in response to those practical, on-the-ground suggestions.
What happens to all the information presented at your programs?
We post as much of it as possible on the website, as quickly as possible. We keep it there in perpetuity. That includes video or audio tapes, Power Points, etc. Information can be found by posting key words in search boxes throughout the site.
In a program, what if a speaker wants to go off the record?
It won’t happen. We don’t want to get into that “an expert said” business. We tell that to all speakers and our program staff maintains that position religiously.
I have questions that aren’t answered here. What should I do?
Email an inquiry to email@example.com. Your question will be forwarded to the most knowledgeable staffer who will respond as soon as possible.