NPR’s news chief announces unexpected departure after four years

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The top news executive at NPR announced Friday that she is leaving the organization, an unexpected departure that coincides with a shakeup of the nonprofit media giant’s management structure.

Nancy Barnes, who took over NPR’s newsroom in 2018 as senior vice president and managing editor of broadcasting and digital news, said she will leave the organization later this fall. She did not announce new plans, but said in a memo to staff Friday that she will “pursue other journalistic endeavors.”

Her decision came hours after NPR CEO John Lansing announced the creation of a new position that will oversee all of NPR’s programming — trademark news programs such as “All Things Considered” as well as podcasts and non-news programs such as “Wait” . Wait… Don’t tell me.” The new chief content officer position would have effectively created another level of management over Barnes, who previously reported directly to Lansing.

Barnes and Lansing did not respond to requests for comment.

A highly regarded newspaper editor at the Houston Chronicle and Minneapolis Star Tribune, Barnes took over NPR’s newsgathering operations from an interim manager following the resignation of Michael Oreske in 2017 amid multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

NPR said it would search for Barnes’ successor, who will become the fourth person to lead NPR’s news operations in the past five years.

Her departure comes at a time of increasing financial pressure on NPR, a nonprofit organization funded primarily by fees from non-commercial radio stations and corporate sponsorships.

For the 2021 fiscal year, NPR had revenues after expenses of $16.9 million — a swing from a $14.1 million deficit the year before. Officials have indicated that the organization was hit hard by the pandemic, with daily listening and business support falling as fewer people listened to news reports while working from home. At some point in mid-2020, NPR placed unpaid, week-long furloughs on most of its newsroom staff.

Lansing announced the new chief content officer position in a staff memo Friday morning. Barnes announced his resignation that afternoon.

She wrote in an internal memo that there is “an increasing overlap between the news and [non-news] programming divisions,” and that she supported Lansing’s decision to add a new chief content officer. She called her departure “bittersweet.”

NPR’s news department currently employs 481 people. The programming division employs a further 183.

Barnes oversaw NPR’s coverage of the 2020 presidential election, the pandemic, social unrest following the murder of George Floyd and the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. She also created a climate desk, a disinformation team and an investigative team for breaking news. She said she would remain on the job through the 2022 midterm elections.

NPR won its first Pulitzer Prize under Barnes last year, in audio reporting, for one investigative podcast series called “No Compromise” about gun rights activists. Another NPR-produced series, “Review: Soleimani’s Iran,” about the assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, was a finalist for a Pulitzer last year.

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