Schiller: As newspapers die, it’s pubradio’s responsibility to fill the gap in journalism

Excerpt from NPR President Vivian Schiller's report to the NPR Board, Feb. 19, 2009.

The last 6 weeks some of the most exhilarating in life, and I can say this assuredly, I have learned more in the past 6 weeks than I have in any other Vivian Schiller reports to NPR Boardperiod of my life. It’s been a fantastic experience so far, and despite the economic crisis there is no place I’d rather be...

But as Rahm Emanuel is fond of repeating from whomever he stole the line from, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” and we do not want to waste this one.

This is really an opportunity for us to take stock of what is important to us — to look to our mission for guidance on the very special responsibility we have in this country to preserve the level of quality of news and information and cultural programming to the millions and millions of people who depend on us.

As I told some of the board members, I’ve been working on a couple of speeches, and I went back to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 to try to understand what were the conditions at the time, how they were they addressed, and is this the time to try to sort of re-think the mission. But amazingly I found this line, spoken by Lyndon Johnson but apparently written by Bill Moyers:

“I think we must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge, not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.”

[Additional quote at right.]

And I thought, “Wow, there it is – they anticipated everything.” Because that is very prescient, very much about our continuing mission. It speaks to our need, our absolute requirement, and our mandate, and our passion to continue to strengthen our core medium of radio, but also to embrace as part of our mission the way that people use media today, which is not the same as it was in 1967. and we cannot abandon our audiences the way that they would like to embrace us and consume us.

Especially as other news organizations die off, especially on the local level — we know what is happening in the newspaper industry — it is our special responsibility now.

But the only way that we can do this is if we all come together as a system. NPR must once again become the champion for public radio. You know I made a distinction yesterday between where I think maybe NPR was going before, which was the champion of public radio. Now I think it’s the champion for public radio...

To be here in service of all of public radio, we need to become a system-centric organization. ... So as examples of that, I just want to tick off a few things we’re moving on.

  1. We are going to be launching this year online a very nimble, effective online fundraising program with all of the money — all of the proceeds — going to stations.
  2. We have a plan to launch a Morning Edition podcast with only the local feeds.
  3. We are going to strengthen and bolster our representation to Congress and to other entities that can help fund all of us.
  4. We are working on a pilot — launching soon with some stations — to begin to build out this vision that many of us have about public radio stations with NPR becoming one large digital network to serve communities on a local level so that becomes how they will consume NPR and public radio on a digital level.
  5. I want to make sure that every single part of NPR is in service of the stations … that everyone inside NPR feels that responsibility to stations and we will align accordingly. 

….I really do believe strongly that we are looking at many ways that we really can help support public radio overall.

So where does that take us? I’ve been here for 6 weeks, so I can’t give you a road map for the next 5 years telling you what we are going to do.

I do know where we want to be five years from now. Five years from now, I would like us to be looking back and saying since that time we’ve become a much stronger news organization on an international, national and a local level; that we will have filled the gap left by dying newspapers particularly in areas such as investigative and explanatory journalism. It is our special responsibility as other media organizations die, that we hold public institutions and individuals to account. If we don’t do it, no one else is going to.

We want to look back and say that we vigorously sought to constantly improve our radio programs, we listened to our audience, we understood what they like, we understand what they need, and because our programs have gotten better they will rewarded us with still more loyalty and more listening.

We will look back and say we are now a robust national and local level web service. That NPR.org is more a giant network that competes amongst the top of 5 of all news and information sites. We can count all of our audience across the entire nation. And we can not only be proud of the ways that we are serving the country on the local level but we can also bring more sponsorship dollars in. Let’s face it, we need to do that.

And that, at the end, we will no longer be arguing about how we split money about fundraising, because we will have brought so much more into the system through the combined benefit of the trust that the stations have on their local level and the power of the NPR brand.

And I want to thank in closing the board for their support. We’ve been having very difficult conversations the last couple days in terms of our financial situation, it’s not easy. It’s going to be a tough 18 months or so, but we are going to begin planning now, irrespective of a financial recovery, towards a very robust and financially secure future.

Just finally, I want a reminder that we have incredible strengths that are the foundation of why we will not only survive, but will continue to thrive.

We have an incredible audience, 25 million strong, who care about us, not just on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level — we are part of their lives. No other media company has that.

We have extraordinary passionate people, in great numbers, throughout the system. At NPR, at every station, at the other networks that provide programming to public radio, at the organizations that support the entire system. And that is an extraordinary army of very dedicated people who are going to fight tooth and nail to help keep us as strong as we can be.

And we have a — unique in the world of media — national and local system that is our secret sauce for why we are in such great shape.

So let us please build from those strengths and not shrink from our aspirations, our audience depends on us too much.

Thank you. 

Transcribed and excerpted by NPR. Photo by Current.

Web page posted Feb. 27, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Current LLC

Is this a visionary recognition of destiny? Severe overreaching?
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Five years from now,
I would like us
to be looking back
and saying we ... have filled the gap
left by dying newspapers,
particularly in areas
such as investigative
and explanatory journalism.

Wherein LBJ invents the Internet

Schiller refers to LBJ's remarks Nov. 7, 1967, when he signed the Public Broadcasting Act. In 2005, Brooke Gladstone aired a snippet of the speech, "the part where Lyndon Baines Johnson, in his perfervid imagination, invents the Internet," as Gladstone called it."

This part:

"The country doctor getting help from a distant laboratory or a teaching hospital; a scholar in Atlanta might draw instantly on a library in New York; a famous teacher could reach with ideas and inspiration into some far-off classroom, so that no child need be neglected.

"Eventually, I think this electronic knowledge bank could be as valuable as the Federal Reserve Bank, and such a system could involve other nations. It could involve them in a partnership to share knowledge and to thus enrich all mankind.

"A wild and visionary idea? Not at all. Yesterday's strangest dreams are today's headlines, and change is getting swifter every moment."

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