Alisa Barba, an editor, collaborator and mentor to public media journalists for more than 25 years, has been named PMJA’s 2024 Leo C. Lee award recipient.
Barba has been elevating the work of local public radio journalists since becoming a NPR Western Bureau Chief in 1999. For almost 12 years, she helped reporters transform important local news into stories for a national audience.
She said the Bureau Chief job, which she tag-teamed for almost 12 years with Kate Concannon, involved more than finessing a feature. She said it made her an advocate for local reporters.
“On the one hand, you're mentoring and training reporters and editing them. But on the other hand, you have to sell” their stories every day to network shows, she said.
In 2011, Barba shifted her attention to leading local journalism collaborations, creating a template for creating strong, focused journalism that can simultaneously serve multiple stations.
She led in the early days of Fronteras: The Changing America Desk (2011-2014). There, reporters from seven different stations focused on the border, immigration and demographic change in the Southwest. Later, she oversaw Inside Energy, another multi-station, multiplatform effort that investigated energy issues in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota (2014-2018).
“I think that all of these collaborations were about building capacity at the stations, and providing great content that they could share,” she said. “And I think that that happened all across the board.”
More recently, Barba has been the glue that has carried three iterations of the nationwide community engagement collaborative known as America Amplified, as its Senior Editor and Managing Editor. Journalists participating in the project that started in early 2020 say her relentless efforts to keep community members central to our storytelling is helping shift the paradigm of election coverage.
“Alisa is doing as much or more right now than any of us to strengthen our national network and increase civic health through strong local journalism,” said Sarah Neal-Estes, news director at WFYI in Indianapolis, the host station for America Amplified.
“Working with her through America Amplified I see firsthand how engagement journalism fills news gaps, strengthens reporting, increases impact and builds trust and community confidence. Her work to help all of us do more of that is lifting all boats.”
Barba’s professional journalism career started in television, including working as a TV producer for ABC in Beijing, China during the 1989 student uprisings in Tiananmen Square. She also spent six years with the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, the predecessor to the PBS News Hour.
Barba’s shared her knowledge and experience to mentor individual newsroom leaders as a coach during the first round of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Editorial Integrity and Editorial Leadership Initiative (EILI). In 2019 and 2020, she trained news directors, editors and others to find ways to improve professionally. And she’s continued to nurture their careers since.
She said her most recent work is helping her change some of her own preconceptions about being a journalist. Editors should have “ultimate confidence” in their point of view of how and where a story should go. Understanding your own personal bias is also critical, she said.
“I need to recognize that my instincts are as biased and as flawed as any individual,” she said. “And having the humility to be able to listen and learn.”
She said she’s inspired most by young reporters who are just coming into this industry and have new ideas about how to communicate the stories. Their passion about journalism, she said, is changing how we do it in front of our eyes.
“I am incredibly humbled and enthusiastic about the people who are coming into this profession with their eyes clear about where we are, and focused on where we need to go,” she said.
The Leo C. Lee Award has been given annually since 1993, to celebrate individuals or organizations that make significant contributions to public radio journalism. Barba joins a long list of notable winners, including Michel Martin, David Isay, Keith Woods, George Bodarky and the inaugural winner, Leo C. Lee, the founder of Western Public Radio.
Barba will be presented with the award at the PMJA 2024 in June in Washington D.C.
About WFYI Public Media
Since 1970, WFYI Public Media has served Central Indiana with its nonprofit public radio and TV stations, digital content and community engagement activities. With a mission to provide trusted journalism, inspiring stories and lifelong learning to Hoosiers of all ages and walks of life, WFYI broadcasts original content, as well as PBS and NPR programs, on three television channels, five radio services – including WBAA – and online. Metropolitan Indianapolis Public Media (MIPM) is the parent organization of WFYI Public Media. Learn more at wfyi.org and follow WFYI online on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and X/Twitter.