NPR’s news chief announces unexpected departure after four years

The top news executive at NPR announced Friday that she is leaving the organization, an unexpected departure that has coincided with an uproar in the management structure of the nonprofit media giant.

Nancy Barnes, who took over from NPR in 2018 as senior vice president and editor-in-chief of the broadcasting and digital news operation, said she will leave the organization later this fall. She did not disclose any new plans, but said in a note to staff on Friday that she will “pursue other journalistic efforts”.

Her decision came just hours after NPR CEO John Lansing announced the creation of a new position that will oversee all of NPR’s programming — trademarked 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 layer of management above Barnes, who previously reported directly to Lansing.

Barnes and Lansing did not respond to requests for comment.

Barnes, a highly regarded newspaper editor at the Houston Chronicle and Minneapolis Star Tribune, took over NPR’s newsgathering business from an interim executive after Michael Oreskes resigned in 2017 amid multiple sexual harassment allegations.

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

She is leaving at a time of increasing financial pressure on NPR, a non-profit organization funded primarily through fees from non-commercial radio stations and corporate sponsorship.

For fiscal 2021, NPR had revenue-after-expenses of $16.9 million — up from a deficit of $14.1 million the year before. Officials have indicated that the organization was hit hard by the pandemic, with daily listening and business support declining as fewer people listened to news stories while working from home. At some point in mid-2020, NPR imposed a week-long unpaid leave of absence from most of its editorial staff.

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

She wrote in an internal memo that there is “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 department employs 183 additional people.

Barnes oversaw NPR’s coverage of the 2020 presidential election, the pandemic, social unrest following the assassination of George Floyd, and the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. She also created a climate agency, a disinformation team, and a breaking news investigative team. She said she would remain in office until the 2022 midterm elections.

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

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