Being Digital at NPR
For Tracy Wahl (Comm’90), keeping up with changes in digital media is more than a pastime. It’s part of her job.
A former executive producer of “Morning Edition,” NPR’s flagship morning news program, Wahl is now the public broadcaster’s executive producer of new editorial franchises. She’s responsible for developing a broad variety of cross-media projects and for using social media platforms to reach new audiences and tell stories in new ways.
Wahl started at NPR as a production assistant in 1997, after six years in a political science doctoral program and a stint with WORT 89.9 radio in Madison, Wis. From 2008 to 2010, she worked the midnight shift and set up “Morning Edition’s” first Twitter account.
“I don’t think any of us could have imagined just how diversified the social market would become,” she says during an interview at NPR’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. “Every news conversation that happens around here now asks the question, ‘What are we doing on social?’”
NPR was quicker than many news organizations to push its journalists to develop a presence on social media, she says, and now makes regular use of Snapchat, Instagram and Tumblr in addition to Facebook and Twitter.
“Engagement was something we were going to need to do in order to compete,” says Wahl, who was part of a NPR team that won a 2014 Peabody Award. “People need to feel like they’re not just a passive recipient of information.”
A major way she and colleagues find material is through crowdsourcing — using social media platforms to identify interesting people and stories they might not otherwise know about.
“Crowdsourcing is a great way to acquire people’s individual stories and individual experiences,” says Wahl, who grew up in Cheyenne, Wyo., and lives in Washington, where she commutes between home and work by bicycle.
One of the challenges of intense digital engagement, though, is finding a way to leave work at work, she says. Missing an email, even by a few hours, might mean missing a big story.
“It can become a super obsessive activity,” she says. “When we first started with social media I could spend all of my off hours just checking Facebook and Twitter.”
Succeeding at NPR has required more than social media savvy: It requires a flexible, adaptable, open mind.
“CU helped me to think about obvious things in a non-obvious way,” says Wahl, who was a Boettcher Scholar, served as a tri executive in student government and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
“The fact that I went to a public university is something I always brag about,” she says. “I think their commitment to public engagement and public conversation and just the public generally is something that’s really important to me and how I found a natural home at NPR.”
Photo by Jarrod Jackson/NPR