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From AJR,   October/November 2008  issue

The Transformation of NPR   

Long defined by its radio programming, National Public Radio is reinventing itself as a multiplatform force.


By Jennifer Dorroh
Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's managing editor.     

Clarification appended

When the National Public Radio program "Tell Me More" aired from the UNITY: Journalists of Color conference in Chicago in July, host Michel Martin interviewed a veteran community organizer who works on the city's South Side.

From a studio, the organizer told the host and listeners about his life's work and how youth violence plagues some South Side communities. But "Tell Me More" Associate Producer and blogger Lee R. Hill wanted to do more than tell listeners the story; he wanted to show them the neighborhoods that organizers sought to empower.

So he and fellow producer Jasmine Garsd hit the streets. There, they profiled a nurse whose 15-year-old nephew had been gunned down at her home the previous day. They interviewed the community organizers struggling to prevent retribution killings.

But Hill and Garsd's story couldn't be heard on "Tell Me More." In fact, they didn't produce a radio piece at all. Instead, they created an audio slide show that appeared only on NPR's Web site, NPR.org.

Six months ago, Hill says, he wouldn't have even considered approaching the story this way. "I think I would have thought about the story visually, but I would not have incorporated it into my work. Nor would I have thought that I would have had the license to do that here," he says.

That changed in the spring, when NPR put Hill through an intense, seven-week training course in multimedia journalism that encouraged him to expand his repertoire of reporting and storytelling skills.

Before, "If we could put a picture up that captured something the host mentioned, or something the guest mentioned, that was the extent of it," Hill says. "Now we can show you something online that we may not be able to tell you about on the radio. Not just about the movers and the shakers, but also the moved and the shaken, the people who may not be able to come to a studio or may not be suitable for radio."

"Pictures," he says, "can sometimes say what we can't say."

The course also schooled Hill's training group in social media, a concept new to many NPR programs, but not to "Tell Me More." When the show launched in December 2006, NPR piloted it online before offering it to even a single member station.

"We would put interviews on the air that were roughly cut, that were not completely tweaked for NPR, and just kind of throw them out to the audience and into the blogosphere and ask them to chime in," Hill says.

"We want to bring listeners into the mix in unprecedented ways, to go beyond the typical Friday letters segment," he says. "We want to engage listeners into actually being part of the editorial and production process."

Hill's shift, and NPR's, are dramatic at a news outlet whose raison d'etre has been radio storytelling, and for an organization structured to deliver its signature style of audio reporting to member stations across the country. (NPR Programming's audience is about 26.4 million in a typical week.)

This year and next, NPR is tackling an ambitious and comprehensive plan to transform itself into a multimedia force: The organization is asking all of its journalists to rethink their storytelling and audience interaction the way Hill has. Most news organizations are at least paying lip service to this multiplatform goal, but NPR is putting its money (and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's) where its mouth is: The foundation gave NPR $1.5 million to train its 450 editorial employees in digital storytelling skills and to pay for substitutes to fill in for them while they learn. NPR is putting an additional $1 million into the training.

What's more, NPR News has nearly doubled its digital staffers to 30 in the past year. The hires include two videographers. NPR aims to overhaul its Web site by early next year; it is expanding the offerings on its year-old mobile site; and in the last three months, it launched a suite of social media tools and an open application programming interface that allows independent Web publishers to use NPR content on their own sites.

Says NPR Vice President for News Ellen Weiss, "We're going to get our stories and our storytelling and our journalism out to people wherever they are and in whatever form they want to experience it."

To put NPR's journalism in front of its audience - whether they're listening to the radio or a podcast, surfing the Web or scanning the screen of a mobile phone - requires not just new training but also a fundamental cultural shift, says Dick Meyer, NPR Digital Media's editorial director.

"What we really want to do first is to build a culture that is respectful of the modern news consumer, knowing that the modern news consumer wants news on demand, wants it to be timely, wants it to be authentic and wants it to be noncommercial from us," Meyer says.

Traditionally, customers have found NPR's content through its member stations. Today, it must also serve audiences using digital devices that are station-agnostic.

"Back in the days that there was just radio, your station was the only point of entry to all this content," says Robert Spier, director of content development for NPR Digital Media. "You couldn't get NPR except through your station because it was only available on radio, and radio was time and geographically bound." Today, of course, "the user expects to be in control of his or her experience."

That has NPR rethinking how it operates. "NPR has essentially one partner when it comes to radio: our public radio stations," Weiss says. "The Web is about multiple partnerships. It's a very different business model. It's about a direct relationship with the customer, and that presents all sorts of new models for our relationships with our member stations."

In navigating this evolving relationship, NPR works with an advisory group of member stations, whose interests it protects in myriad ways in the digital space. For example, the first feed of "Morning Edition" is available at 5 a.m., but NPR won't post the audio online until 9 a.m., to give member stations the chance to air it first. It also doesn't include the full content of the major newsmagazines - "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and their weekend counterparts - in NPR podcasts.

"The newsmagazines remain the daily bread and butter for our member stations on the air," Spier says. "They pay for that content, so we have to make sure we don't bypass them inappropriately."

Some member stations fear the transformation of NPR could result in fewer listeners for them, and subsequently fewer donations from the public. "In a way NPR is showing good leadership by moving to these other platforms, and in a way they've created a bypass that frightens a lot of member stations," says Richard Towne, general manager of KUNM Public Radio in Albuquerque.

In the 1990s, there was a trend away from locally produced programs and toward NPR content. Although his station creates 75 percent of its own material, many stations tilt more toward NPR-produced shows, Towne says. "Those are the ones at the greatest risk. They abandoned community broadcasting, and rebuilding something like that is very difficult and expensive."

Member stations' public service mission could be threatened if listeners turn away from them, says Dick Kunkel, president and general manager of Spokane Public Radio. "Local people could begin to lose local, free service. Then the original mandate of Congress for establishing public radio in the first place stops being met," he says.

"These aren't things anyone had to worry about 20 years ago, so it's a challenge," Spier says. "It's the wrong answer to say that we can do everything without taking them all into consideration. We are a membership organization. They rely on us. It's also the wrong answer to say that we shouldn't be on any of these platforms and defer solely to the stations, because in the end we all lose in that scenario. We are leaving audience and visibility and public service and revenue all on the table. Those are both the wrong answer. What's the right answer? That's harder to figure out."

NPR must also think through its partnerships with its acquired programs, such as "Fresh Air" and "Car Talk," which it distributes under its brand but doesn't produce.

"Once upon a time, that was only a radio deal," Spier says. "The radio deal is still there of course, but increasingly it's on the digital side that there are new opportunities." That's especially true in the case of shows housed on the NPR site. "Fresh Air," for example, has no separate site at its home station, WHYY in Philadelphia. "We can leverage the visibility and strengths of NPR.org and give them more visibility than they might otherwise have. All things being equal, we'd rather have them here, because to the extent that people identify these as NPR programs, they come to NPR looking for them."

How people find what they're looking for on NPR.org is a major focus of the redesign of the site, where about a quarter of the visits come from search. (Although Google and Yahoo! don't search audio, NPR feeds the search engines its scripts.) What they find now is great content that often isn't organized well.

"The same shows and the same content appear in multiple places on the site and are not connected together very well," says Darren Mauro, who heads a team that examines how listeners and visitors use the NPR Web site, then guides the design process based on that understanding. "That's what we're trying to fix."

"If you're interested in 'Fresh Air,' do you want to stream it? Do you want to download it? Do you want to read articles that are written out? There are a lot of options. To present all those together is the goal," he says. He also hopes to entice more of NPR's podcast listeners to download directly from the site. Right now, most do their podcast shopping - totaling 11 million to 12 million downloads per month - at the iTunes Store. NPR works closely with iTunes, sending weekly selections of which programs to promote. "They listen carefully to what we want, but it's their experience in the end," he says.

Traffic growth, as at most news organizations, is another major goal of the redesign.

"We're up over 8 million [unique visitors a month] and we started the year at 6 million," Weiss says. "Ideally with our new Web site, I wouldn't be surprised if our goal was to double our audience." She also hopes to keep more people coming back to the site. "Our repeat visitation is really bad. It's like 1.8 times a month. A normal news organization has seven to 15."

The site should also be a better home for multimedia work, created by both the Web site staff and the organization's radio journalists, says Jeffrey Katz, senior supervising producer for digital news at NPR. That should entail "a wider, cleaner design, a simpler-to-navigate design, one that is easier for us to process," he says. "I'm hoping this is one that also shows that audio is simply one aspect of what people look for from us on the Web.

"I hope it will show that our primary focus is not just being a radio companion, not just being an aggregator of what you hear on the air, but taking the best of what NPR has to offer across the spectrum: news, features, music, and designing it for a Web audience and having a visual component as part of that."

In redesigning the site and in adding more multimedia elements, NPR is focusing on how to translate its signature sound into the visual. "We know how NPR sounds. It's conversational, and is best at analysis, in-depth reporting and allowing subjects to tell the story," says Keith Jenkins, supervising senior producer for multimedia at NPR. "What kind of photo stories, for example, have a similar bent? Maybe we don't emphasize coverage of a flood, but spend time with a community recovering from a flood."

NPR's mobile site, launched last year, is growing quickly, and included partnerships with 44 stations as of August. Each local site offers a blend of local news from member stations and national content from NPR.

About half of NPR's mobile visitors (about 700,000 to 800,000 per month) use iPhones, the major driver of the site's growth. The presentation on many other handsets is "clunky, text-heavy, so you're encouraged not to present lots of good stuff or much content. In the iPhone experience, there's a whole lot more you can do," Mauro says [see "Handheld Headlines," August/September]. "So we're thinking ahead to certain kinds of experiences we would design specifically for iPhone users."

They're distributing their content in another ambitious way: This summer, NPR launched an open application program interface (API), a set of programming tools that lets Web sites more easily interact and share content. The API will also let member stations choose NPR content focused on their regions and display it alongside their own local reporting. In the future, stations will be able to make their own content available to other sites using the API.

Web developers have already used the API to create widgets that showcase NPR content, including an NPR podcast player on Facebook and an interactive world map that links to NPR stories.

"Really, the trend is about disaggregation," Mauro says. "We've already begun to see people generate very interesting applications, things that are generated from our content, but that we didn't put in the work to develop. The users did it because they're passionate about NPR content. That's really exciting to see because it goes beyond what we can do ourselves, and it opens up an entire new area of creativity."

I'm a runner, a law school nerd, an NPR lover, a Democrat, a vintage store shopper, and just generally cool in my own way.... - 28-year-old woman in Washington, D.C.

Favorite stuff: salsa & waltz dancing, fine dining, glamour photography, cooking, NPR... - 30-year-old man in Los Angeles

I also enjoy live music-Jazz, Blues, and NPR news, LOL, camping, the ocean, BBQing and wine tasting.... - 38-year-old man in Portland

Red wine by the fire, long walks on the beach and...NPR. Listeners like those above, who used NPR in craigslist personal ads to describe themselves, are the target of the organization's new social media strategy.

"Folks who listen to NPR think of themselves as NPR people," Meyer says. These devotees, whom Meyer dubs "NPRistas," can find one another using a new suite of social media tools launching this fall. "The biggest goal that I have personally for the next six to 18 months is to really create a community for NPR people that hasn't existed before."

Some NPR listeners already gravitate to conversation sites like Gather.com. A few individual shows, such as WBUR in Boston's "On Point" and member stations such as Washington, D.C.'s WAMU, have launched their own social media sites.

"We want to create an environment where NPRistas can comment on stories, can share stories with each other easily, where they can ask questions of the reporters and producers who work on the story, where they can talk and have an honest conversation with those people and where they can talk amongst themselves," Meyer says. "We want to do it in a way where the smartest, the most civil, the most enthusiastic commenting floats to the top. And where it's easy to be seen by the rest of the user community."

He acknowledges that NPR is playing catch-up here, since tools such as user comments are already common on news sites. Still, NPR is leapfrogging many news sites by encouraging visitors and staffers to create their own profiles and even add other users to friend lists as they can on social networking sites.

"One of the things that people really love about the radio is that because it's a human voice, it's a very intimate personal interaction," Mauro says. "The Web can be very impersonal, and we're looking for ways to bring the humanity back into that environment and for people to feel a personal connection and investment."

As NPR's management reimagines the company, its journalists are learning to reimagine their stories. As of October, NPR will have started or completed the training of about 40 editorial staffers in three groups, and aims to bring the other 410 up to speed in multimedia by next fall.

Their course begins with a trial by fire. "We do a story in three days," says Kim Perry, who directs the training. "The first day they learn to pick up a camera and they learn about Web-centric storytelling, and then they actually go out and do their story that day. The second day they learn programs, and the third day they put their story together. So it's basically throwing them in the deep end.

"Most people, after they get out of the three days, are pretty frustrated, but we expect that," she says. "And the idea is just to get them really out of their comfort zone and also thinking in a nonlinear way."

Lee Hill can attest to that. Of the initial immersion, he says, "Each day seemed like a week. Most of us pretty much were comfortable in our jobs. We know what we're doing. We know how to produce radio conversations, and we know what we're used to hearing from NPR about storytelling. So it was a little overwhelming to be confronted with so many new tools and told, 'These are things you need to learn. These are ways you need to expand what you do know.'"

After the third day, Perry says, "We come back and say, 'Well, let's get back to the basics and try and really build up your skills and introduce you to these things a little bit more slowly.'"

The curriculum evolved over the course of the first three sessions and is still a work in progress. The first group learned to use Flash multimedia software and the Premiere video editing program, studied Photography 101 and Videography 101, and created one multimedia project per week. For the second group, Perry added sessions on Seamus, NPR's content management system, and search engine optimization, and brought in more staffers to teach colleagues about their specialties.

Katz taught Web-centric writing. "These are a group of really talented reporters in many ways, but they're used to writing for radio and may not have the same background in the inverted pyramid lead because they're used to writing in a more conversational, more linear fashion," says Katz, a former newspaper reporter.

Arts and culture reporter Neda Ulaby describes the training both as "transformative" and "scary." Like Hill, she's embraced the tools and mentality she learned in the course, and says both have changed how she does her job.

"Learning how to write for the Web was probably the single most significant piece of training that I received," she says. Before the training, she would simply "throw off" her scripts to the online team, which would rewrite them for the site. She was frequently unhappy with the results. "When you're reading a radio script, it doesn't read the way it sounds. An emphasis that might be clear from someone's tone of voice just isn't clear on a radio script," she says. Now that she writes her own Web text, she can put the emphasis where she wants it.

Writing also gives her more room for creativity. "We have to move really quickly on the radio," Ulaby says. "You have to hit an image, move on, hit an image, move on. It's kind of a truism that there's a thought a minute, or that every line has to build on something else. There's not a lot of time to sort of relax. We've got a little room to play in the Web text."

Ulaby often takes a camera along when she's reporting. "I don't think we're going to replace professional photographers," she says. "But especially in the really splashy stories that we're going to pay a lot of attention to, it's just not going to hurt to take some photos that reflect a little bit of knowledge: being able to use light, being able to take close-ups, knowing what we need to focus on in order to enhance the story."

She also says her multimedia training helps her set priorities, to consider "which stories are worth a lot of energy. Not every story I do is going to get the full extravaganza online. Some stories are worthy and some aren't, and it's partly about learning how to conserve resources." When reporting for the Web, she's learned to devote more energy to stories with strong visual components.

Ulaby is glad her bosses are getting the training, too. "It helps them realize how much time the assignment is going to take," she says. If they want a picture, "they've got to know that it will take me an hour because I'm still not a trained photographer. I'm now a radio person who can take a picture better than your average schlump."

She is still expected to file the same number of radio stories. "I think it's just about managing my time," she says. "I used to be walking to work and listening to the radio script in my head. Now I'm writing Web text in my head."

She insists that using her creative juices and time for the site doesn't detract from her radio reporting. "The days of being a purist are kind of over. I don't think it's helpful to think, 'I do this one thing.' Creatively, I think it's a fabulous challenge," she says.

Art Silverman, a former newspaper reporter and photographer whose hobby is video, enjoyed the training and "loves the tools," but is skeptical about whether he'll actually have a chance to use them in his work.

"Reality seems to be the biggest conflict," says Silverman, a senior producer for "All Things Considered." "The Knight training stuff, it just feels like running away from my job. Most people feel as if the radio show must come first, and I'm only being half a producer if I spend half the time dragging a camera around. The upper management is pushing for multimedia, but the middle management people have a radio show to do.

"For this to work, it must be clear how the time is supposed to be spent," he says. "It's not really clear now. People get praised for creating multimedia. If Miss X did a slide show or if someone else did a written story for the Web, they get a lot of praise. But when you drill down, and ask, 'How did you fit that in?' they say, 'Oh, I did it on my own time and stayed up late at night finishing it.' In order to get the attention one must tear oneself out of the day and do extra work. Time is often not allotted to do these things."

Logistics could prove difficult, too, Silverman thinks. "There are only so many things I can hold in my hands at once," he says. "And some producers complain that you can hear the clicking of the camera on tape."

He thinks NPR will need to restructure how it assigns work if it is to become successful at multimedia. Management shares that goal. "My first several months are going to be tied into creating an infrastructure to support everyone working in multiple platforms," Jenkins said soon after joining NPR. Web journalists at NPR are already more integrated with the staff at large than they are at many organizations. They work in the same building and belong to the same union. Web supervisors participate in daily meetings during which NPR-wide coverage is coordinated.

Upper management's hope is that most reporters will become comfortable with contributing visual and written elements to their stories, but say it's not a requirement.

"Some people aren't interested at all, and that's fine. We're not insisting that everybody become a multimedia artist. We want to make it available to those who are interested," Meyer says. "There's some apprehension over whether we as radio reporters can do proper online journalism, and I think that's a natural human qualm."

NPR and the Knight Foundation weren't expecting this to be easy. "It's a difficult transition. You take people through this five-week, intensive, open-your-mind course. But when they come out, they're coming back to the same job, to a very similar work environment," Perry says. "You train certain people and then they go out and they try and do it and they push and they push and they push, and that's how NPR figures out what it is going to be and how it's going to do this and incorporate it."

Hill, whose program's motto is "The Conversations Never End," is one of the people pushing. "When we launched on our blog before we even went to the radio, we had a number of people who were really engaging with the audience," he says. "Then we went to the radio, though, and so much goes into the radio production process. I'm trying to turn the wheel of the attention of some of the people I work with back to engaging with people outside the show."

"I think NPR is still learning how to welcome us back into the fold, especially with this wealth of skills. And on the other hand, we are also learning how to think differently," he says. "We are learning how to think differently about our contributions to the programs that we serve. Our role is to think more Web first and not radio first."

The transition doesn't have a specific endpoint, Spier says. "We keep evaluating and keep thinking about our strategy and learning from our experiments, and I think our biggest challenge right now is how to manage that evolution in a thoughtful way and allow for experimentation and creativity, and acknowledge we don't know all the answers yet," he says.

"That's an ongoing, multiyear process that is a challenge," he says. "There's no template for it."

Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's managing editor.

Clarification: When speaking to AJR in August, 2008, for this article, Art Silverman, a senior producer for "All Things Considered," said he had not been compensated for overtime when he coordinated his program's blog from Chengdu, China. He was quoted to that effect in the article. He confirmed this with an AJR fact-checker September 19, 2008. After publication, Silverman said he misspoke and that he had been compensated for the overtime.