NPR CEO Jarl Mohn has named Nancy Barnes, a veteran newspaper editor, as the network’s permanent chief news executive, NPR announced Tuesday. Barnes fills a nearly yearlong vacancy that was triggered by the firing of Michael Oreskes, NPR’s former news head, over allegations of sexual harassment.
Barnes is currently the executive editor at the Houston Chronicle and also leads newsrooms at the Hearst Corp.’s other Texas newspapers. She will take over as NPR’s senior vice president for news and editorial director on Nov. 28. She previously led the Minneapolis Star Tribune, earning acclaim and national awards for and at each paper.
Barnes, 57, will fill the job once held by Oreskes, the former New York Times and Associated Press newsroom executive whom Mohn ousted in November 2017 after accusations surfaced against Oreskes of past sexual harassment. Two female journalists at NPR had filed complaints of sexual harassment against Oreskes. Their allegations became public after two additional female journalists alleged Oreskes sexually harassed them when they were exploring job prospects at the The New York Times when Oreskes was a top editor there two decades ago.
The complaints that led to Oreskes’ departure came amid a national outcry and a media crisis over sexual harassment by male figures in the industry. Among the figures who have been forced out of their jobs are some of the most prominent men in media: the heads of Fox News and CBS Corp., and numerous TV news stars including Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. Oreskes issued a statement offering a general public apology for his conduct.
Oreskes’ departure kicked off a period of external reviews, internal reforms and the departure of two other male journalists at NPR, allowing for long-simmering workplace concerns to be aired and acknowledged.
In an interview, Mohn described Barnes as a proven leader with sound editorial judgment and an equally skilled management style. He said Barnes had elevated both papers she led, raising the journalistic bar in Houston and rebuilding the newsroom in Minneapolis after the Star Tribune went bankrupt nine years ago. The Star Tribune emerged under new ownership and won two Pulitzer Prizes with a much smaller staff.
“I think one of the things we need is great newsroom leadership, and I think she’s demonstrated that in the past two places she’s worked,” Mohn said. “She’s hopeful, ambitious. I’m very excited. I can’t wait for her to start.”
Barnes will be the 14th person to lead NPR’s news division since 1979, when the job was first created, according to the network (although the position’s title has evolved in the intervening years).
Longtime producer and news executive Christopher Turpin, who is currently on his second round as acting news chief, has accepted a new role with NPR as vice president for editorial innovation and newsroom development. In the new role, Turpin is to assess “the kind of content and programming we need to be a successful news organization in the future and how we can develop both our newsroom and talent to deliver it,” according to a note Mohn sent to NPR staff late Tuesday morning announcing Barnes’ appointment.
NPR employs nearly 400 journalists and maintains 17 bureaus around the nation and another 17 international bureaus around the world.
Barnes said every member of the search committee asked her about her commitment to those foreign bureaus and she said she recognized they were among the network’s “crown jewels” — to be cut only in a period of dire economic circumstances. Barnes also said she would like to further elevate the reportorial ambitions of the 48-year-old network in enterprise and investigative reporting.
Barnes said she took inspiration from projects by her staffers in Houston on the denial of qualified teachers and facilities for special needs students in Texas as a result of arbitrary decisions made by state officials. The paper’s stories helped to spur reforms at the state and federal levels. She also noted the Chronicle‘s coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
“Beyond leading the newsroom, what I contribute most and always have is the ability to help develop exclusive content and enterprise journalism,” Barnes said, “and in particular, journalism that makes a difference in the lives of specific individuals.
“You clear the path and you make sure reporters have all the time and resources that they need, and extra time if they need it, until the job is done,” she said.
Barnes said she was mindful of the unsettled environment that she was about to enter and would reserve judgment for the first 90 days or so.
“I don’t come in with any agenda,” Barnes said. “I don’t want to change anything right away. I want to come in and study and listen to people and hear from the organization before I make any decisions.”
“I love what NPR stands for,” Barnes told me in an interview. “I was very attracted to the work that you do, the history that you have, and the ability you have to touch the millions of listeners that you have.”
Barnes received a degree in international relations from the University of Virginia and started professionally as a reporter for newspapers in Massachusetts and Virginia; she became an editor at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and earned an M.B.A. at the nearby University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Barnes has held leadership positions in major professional organizations; she is currently president of the American Society of News Editors and is on the board of the Pulitzer Prize.
Under Barnes, the Chronicle won a Pulitzer for news columns on grand jury abuses and the Star Tribune won one for its investigation of the deaths of infants at poorly regulated day care centers, according to the prize organization, which is part of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
And Barnes said she was also highly aware of her background in newspapers, as opposed to broadcast news.
But she also said that convergence in media demonstrates there are no clear lines truly separating journalistic categories anymore. The New York Times now has a daily news podcast, NBC posts text stories, and NPR creates videos and newsletters.
“I don’t think this [appointment] is as radical as it would have been 18 years ago,” Barnes said.
Disclosure: This story was written and reported by David Folkenflik and edited by Managing Editor Gerry Holmes. Neither participated in the selection or had advance knowledge of the appointment other than in a journalistic role. Under the network’s protocol for reporting on NPR, no other NPR news executive or corporate official reviewed this story before it became public.