Schiller: ‘No reason for NPR to go it alone’ on the Web

Key leaders back national-local web strategy

By Karen Everhart

An often touted and tabled proposal to recast public radio’s web presence as a combination of content from NPR and its member stations is gaining traction among leaders in the field.

With strong support from its new president, Vivian Schiller, NPR is beginning to plan a pilot project that would demonstrate how stations’ local news efforts could be integrated with NPR content.

By pulling local coverage from a “constellation” of stations, Schiller says, NPR.org can become the national-local news source that major sites aspire to be. (Photo © 2009 NPR, by Stephen Voss.)

Creation of a news portal that integrates pubradio’s world, national and local news coverage will also be endorsed by Grow the Audience, a research and consultation project managed by the Maryland-based Station Resource Group and funded by CPB.

The recommendation in the Grow the Audience report, which has yet to be released, was developed in consultation with web strategists who described the online service opportunity that public radio could seize, said Tom Thomas, SRG co-chief executive.

The report will call for pubradio to build a collaboratively managed “world-class public-service media news portal” that integrates international, national and local content. To succeed, Thomas said, the portal will need content from “multiple public radio media brands.”

The strategy attempts to answer key questions about public radio’s growth, Thomas says: “How do we make it easier for users to get to our content, and what’s our best bet for having an online presence like the one that we . . . have been able to build in broadcast?’”

Three years ago, Mark Fuerst, executive director of public broadcasting’s Integrated Media Association, called for public radio to develop a collaborative approach to web publishing. At IMA’s 2006 conference and in Current, Fuerst pointed to Major League Baseball’s MLB.com, with its interconnected team and league sites, as a model for combining national and local content to create a more powerful web service.

The Digital Distribution Consortium, a working group appointed by NPR, later tried to work out a plan to consolidate the stations’ back-end web operations, but talks stalled.

Interest in the subject has renewed, however, with a new leadership team of digital media execs at NPR and a growing acknowledgement that public radio must strengthen its web presence to compete with other providers of online news. In addition, the accelerating decline of daily newspapers has diminished local news coverage in many markets, creating an opening for public radio stations.

Since NPR hired her in November, Schiller has been talking up public radio’s unique advantages in creating a web service combining national and local news — a challenge that her previous employer, NYTimes.com, and other major news sites have yet to crack (Current, Nov. 24).

During her first big meeting with station execs Feb. 5, Schiller told attendees at the Public Radio in Mid America conference in San Antonio, Texas, that she doesn’t see NPR.org bypassing stations and competing for the loyalties of local listeners. “The notion that we should be this monolithic NPR.org and a series of individual station websites, some of which are big and some are tiny, is insane,” she said during an interview with Current.

When asked whether NPR has the financial wherewithal to overhaul its web service, Schiller said: “This has to be done. This is the most important thing we can be doing.”

“We have to take a very disciplined look at all the activities we’re doing and decide what we can stop working on,” she said. “We cannot retrench. We have to regroup.”

Schiller envisions a network in which NPR is the “enabler” in helping stations create robust websites that are customizable to their markets. Local sites would be hubs for “community content that is distributed to people wherever they want to consume it” and NPR.org the “summation of this constellation” of websites, she said.  “There is no reason we should go it alone.”

The pilot project under discussion at NPR would be a targeted and relatively quick experiment in “creating audience and interest around very specific topics” that have potential to be widely shared, said Kinsey Wilson, senior v.p. of NPR Digital Media. Coverage of Detroit’s auto industry would be one such topic, he said, but NPR has yet to define subject matter for the pilot. “We are literally in the early stages of sounding people out on this,” he said. Funding sources and a process for choosing pilot stations also have yet to be defined.

The content would be conceived for the Web first, instead of produced first for radio and then adapted for the Web. “It’s really about conceiving what will be a compelling source of information on the Web for local audiences, tapping that vein and seeing how that plays into radio and television coverage,” Wilson said.

Prior to joining NPR last fall, Wilson was executive editor of USA Today and its website and helped lead their integration.

“The ultimate goal is to figure out how NPR as a national news organization could work most efficiently with local stations and overcome whatever difficulties there have been in the past,” Wilson said. With the decline of local news organizations, public radio has an opportunity to “step into that space,” he said.

Upgrade those skill sets

On a separate but parallel track, SRG’s Grow the Audience project is completing its report on strategies for pubradio audience expansion and will make two recommendations for system investments in digital media, Thomas told Current.

First is the news portal interface, “a relatively thin [application] moving people through to content from a variety of sources,” Thomas said. The second is for training to build digital-media skill sets at all levels of pubradio’s workforce.

Skip Pizzi, a former NPR engineer and technical director who spent 11 years at Microsoft before launching his own media-technology consultancy, led the working group of web strategists who advised Grow the Audience on new-media strategies. “We had a large number of leading lights in the digital domain inside public radio and a few outside of it.” Thomas said.

When Thomas summarized the project’s recommendations at PRIMA Feb. 5, attendees’ reactions were somewhat guarded, he told Current. “It was not a setting for a full-fleshed discussion of it,” he said. “The character of the conversation there was: ‘This probably makes sense, but getting there, given the complexity of our system, is going to be a hard thing.’”

“Clearly, in any solution for public radio, how NPR chooses to play is a huge factor,” Thomas said. Two key players at NPR — Schiller and Wilson — “come with substantial experience and ideas in digital media.

“Everybody needs to take a deep breath and fresh look and think about where we are now,” Thomas said.

One advocate for integration of pubradio’s web service warned that the system’s deepening financial problems could hinder progress online. As stations cut budgets, spending on new media becomes increasingly vulnerable, said Jon Schwartz, g.m. of Wyoming Public Radio. Schwartz has been pushing for a new web service modeled on MLB.com as a board member for Western States Public Radio (WSPR).

“New media everywhere is a drain, a net loss” in pubradio budgets, Schwartz said. Either out of emotion or short-sighted fiscal discipline, “people are looking at it and saying, ‘Why are we doing this?’”

WSPR’s objective in promoting a web overhaul has been to build support for making a “bigger public-service impact” on the Web, Schwartz said. “It is the status quo that has failed, and how long do we want to consider the status quo before trying a new way?”

LINKS

Western States Public Radio published a white paper about Internet services calling for a “major alteration” in the public radio’s web strategies and services. “Our concern is that after 10 years or more online, we do not come close to matching on the Internet the public service impact on the nation which we achieve over the air.”

Reports and commentaries from Station Resource Group’s Grow the Audience Project.

Questions, comments, tips? karen@current.org

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