MPR finalizes doc-unit cuts; Chris Farrell leaves ‘Morning Edition’

A couple of weeks ago, I talked to Minnesota Public Radio CEO Bill Kling about his June 2011 departure, and he mentioned that his network’s solid content could be stronger. “We don’t win Pulitzers,” he noted.

As a broadcast entity, MPR isn’t eligible for a Pulitzer; the equivalent is a DuPont Columbia University Award. This year, MPR’s American Radio Works unit took one home for “What Killed Sergeant Gray?” a look at a soldier who killed himself after abusing Iraqi prisoners, most likely under orders.

In May, MPR’s national programming arm American Public Media announced major ARW cutbacks, and this week, the details emerged. Some very good journalists who might produce the next DuPont-level story are leaving, others will stay but won’t be doing journalism, and one nationally known personality faces a substantially reduced role.

The two departures include one name that longtime MPR listeners may remember: Catherine Winter, who once did terrific news features about non-metro Minnesota. Kate Ellis, an ARW producer who focused on race relations (including “Say it Plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches”).

The name that will get the most attention is national economics editor Chris Farrell, who is not only leaving ARW (where he worked on poverty initiatives) but his regular commenting job on “Morning Edition.” In a staff memo, MPR news boss Chris Worthington says Farrell’s “last day on our air will be Nov. 1”

MPR says he will still appear on “Marketplace Morning Report” and “Marketplace Money.” MPR|APM has built Farrell into a national brand. He has been one of its highest-paid employees, and Worthington says some business-segment money will be redeployed “elsewhere, a decision with great care and an eye on our priorities.”

It’s certainly possible the money could be better spent — MPR said last spring one motivation was to focus on regional, as opposed to national, news. But for Farrell, this represents a major cutback and I think his MPR|APM future is in flux.

Another documentarian, Laurie Stern, will be moving to Community Relations, of all things, while editor Ochen Kaylan and producer Ellen Guettler will work on digital and other new content.

ARW’s Stephen Smith and Emily Hanford will still produce work, though their documentaries and reports will be limited to education issues.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/02/2010 - 10:31 am.

    I don’t wish hardship on anyone but MPR/NPRs economic coverage has always been a joke and is one reason I stopped listening. Farrel is not an economist but that’s not his fault. MPR/NPRs habit of treating the stock market as the only important economy story creates a financial market-centric orientation that’s always been skewed and pretty much useless. Unemployment for instance is never discussed in terms of the hardship it’s causing on human beings, ( realize they do stories on unemployed people, but those stories typically don’t come out of the economic department) it’s only discussed in terms of how they think the numbers will affect the “markets”.

    Much like the coverage of the run up to the Iraq war NPR/MPR completely missed the run up to the great recession. Coverage was smothered in nearly pathological optimism and false predictions of recovery. In fact, I’d characterize MPR/NPRs recession coverage as outright denial right up until very last minute, and then it was: “Oooops, I guess we’ve been in a recession for a year now already”.

    Worse than denying the recession however was the raft of bad financial advice MPR/NPR promoted throughout the crises, and as far as I know continues. They had one “advisor” after another “explaining” that the markets are long term investments that will pay off, just leave your money there, stick to your strategy, etc. etc. This was all straight up schilling for the financial industry as far as I’m concerned and anyone who followed this advice lost a lot of money. By contrast they could have explained how to move money into less risky investments. The fact that financial advisers don’t actually work for the people they’re supposed to be advising has likewise gotten very short shrift on NPR/MPR. I heard one adviser on Midmorning actually lie about considering herself liable for customers losses one morning, that was it, I actually haven’t listened to MPR since then, that was almost two years ago now. Well, I do listen so Science Friday and Click and Clack and occasion.

    I’m not blaming Farrel for MPR/NPRs atrocious economic coverage, but I hope this shake-up indicates a change in emphasis and orientation. The fact is that the financial markets themselves are boring and only make up segment of the economy. This business of reporting the stock market every half hour even if nothing has happened has always been daft and I’ve always suspected a waste of time for listeners. It would be nice if MPRs economic coverage actually looked at news normal human beings would find interesting and useful.

    NPR had a chance with both the Iraq war and the recession to be ahead of the curve and missed it because they were relying on the wrong experts, focusing on the wrong issues, and covering the story from the wrong perspective. If they make some actual changes I’ll consider listening again.

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