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From AJR,   June/July 2011  issue

The Reemergence of Vivian Schiller   

The ousted NPR chief reflects on her turbulent tenure there as she gets ready to take over NBC’s digital operations. Wed. June 22, 2011


By Michaelle Bond
Michaelle Bond (mbond@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Finding herself unemployed after her March resignation under fire as president and CEO of NPR, Vivian Schiller decided to take an optimistic approach to a bad situation. And that was her M.O. as she plotted her future over the next several months.

"Even though the circumstances leading up to it were unfortunate, it was really a great time for me," she says. Those months were, in fact, a time of self-discovery.

"Prior to March, I'd worked nonstop for almost 25 years," Schiller, 49, says. "I honestly didn't remember what it was like to have the time to think, to read, to discuss, and to just be, without the pressure of a deadline or a lot of people depending on me. After a stressful last few months at NPR, I rediscovered what is important to me–––and what is just a lot of noise."

A few diverse job opportunities presented themselves, Schiller says, and she had time to consider what she really wanted to do next. In July, she will join NBC to manage its Web and mobile platforms in a newly created position.

"This was, to me, the most compelling thing I could think to do next," she says.

Schiller resigned from NPR after the controversial firing of contributor Juan Williams in October and the emergence in March of a tape in which an NPR fundraiser called the tea party movement racist. The moves infuriated many conservatives, who have long accused NPR of being liberal and politically correct, and invigorated a drive to end federal funding for public broadcasting. While few disputed NPR's right to dismiss Williams, whose views are relatively conservative, Schiller was heavily criticized for the ham-handed way the ouster was carried out. After the second incident, the NPR board quickly pressured Schiller to leave.

"Even that was really a learning experience for me," Schiller says. "Late last year, I heard from friends who are CEOs or heads of large organizations who told me that they didn't come into their own as leaders until they went through a crisis. I understand what that means now. You develop a certain toughness and clarity of thinking about what matters and what is just a lot of noise. It would have been easy for me to get distracted, but too many people were depending on me for leadership. And so I discovered a strength I didn't even know I had."

Despite the punishing endgame, Schiller says that overall she had a great time at NPR, where she was widely credited with dramatically upgrading the network's digital acumen.

"I made a few mistakes back in October, which I've publicly acknowledged many times," she says. "But beyond that, I'm proud of what my colleagues and I accomplished while I was with NPR. There's not much I would change."

In just over two years, she says, NPR's digital presence became more prominent and its Web traffic doubled. And NPR's total revenue from donations doubled too, she adds.

NPR is now campaigning to take over more of its members' online operations, which it says will allow stations to focus on producing local content and help improve fundraising. Schiller says she is proud she helped develop a new digital infrastructure for NPR's member stations "that will create a foundation for the system for years to come."

As any job in digital media demands, Schiller is looking to the future rather than dwelling on past controversies. "I don't suffer over things," she says. "I think, 'What can I learn from this?' To be a better person, a better executive, a better manager."

Part of her new job as NBC News' chief digital officer will be to manage the network's digital platforms and to oversee NBC's nascent specialized news Web sites, such as EducationNation.com.

"My background is in television news, so in many ways I feel like I'm coming home," she says. Schiller's media career began in the late 1980s at Turner Broadcasting, where she spent 14 years. She then served as senior vice president and general manager of the former Discovery Times Channel before becoming senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com, where she worked with the newsroom as well as the software development, marketing and sales departments–"You name it."

"There's no question that my experiences there impacted my approach to digital media at NPR and certainly will at NBC as well," she says.

Schiller's passion and "relentless energy" will help her fit right in to her new role, says Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor of the Associated Press and former Discovery Times Channel board member. "She understands how to nurture great journalism, while also addressing the business needs of the organization," he says.

During Oreskes' time as the deputy managing editor of the New York Times, he often worked with Schiller, he says. "She's got drive and energy and vision," he says. "I think the people at NBC will find her to be both a whirlwind of energy and a terrific partner."

Schiller exhibited an "interesting combination of being very businesslike and professional and very approachable" at NPR, says Alicia C. Shepard, who was NPR's ombudsman until the end of May.

"She has a leadership style that is very open to suggestions and keeping employees informed," says Shepard, a former AJR senior writer, adding that NBC is lucky to have her.

Schiller says she's familiar with NBC News because the network at times collaborated with NYTimes.com. After her resignation from NPR, Schiller and NBC News started talking about a possible position for her. "And we both mutually agreed that this would be a really good fit," she adds.

"Vivian's talents turned the New York Times and NPR into brilliant multiplatform organizations," NBC News said in a statement to AJR. "That's why NBC News is bringing her on board. We have a lot going on in the digital space and a great team doing really innovative things, and Vivian's job will be to pull it all together."

Schiller is effective at bringing together people from different parts of an organization, says Kinsey Wilson, NPR's senior vice president and general manager of digital media. There was always a question about the state of the relationship between NPR and member stations heading into the digital future, he says. Schiller helped overcome the tensions and improved NPR's relationship with the stations, strengthening its local-national news network, according to Wilson.

Wilson calls Schiller a visionary. "She was a champion and a supporter who gave us resources and the running room to be among the first movers in the digital space and have a great presence online," he says. At NPR, Schiller was passionate about digital platforms and understood where they could take the company, he adds.

"I see what she's being asked to do at NBC," Wilson says. "I think she has the potential to be transformative there... It sounds like a job that's ideally made for her."

In her new position, Schiller hopes to help nurture what she sees as NBC News' commitment to innovation and to finding new ways to reach audiences wherever they are – in her words, "to skate where the puck is going."

And NBC News understands this, Schiller says. "I don't feel like I need to go in there and persuade people."

At NPR, Schiller stressed the need for the organization's content to be available on all platforms, so she invested heavily in digital media, says former NPR ombudsman Shepard. This digital emphasis, in addition to working to get NPR "back on sound financial footing," was one of the great things Schiller brought to NPR, Shepard says. But Schiller's digital approach didn't go over well with some employees, who didn't embrace the change at a company so defined by radio.

"There were many people who were big fans and some who thought she didn't understand NPR and the culture there," Shepard says.

Schiller says her first step when she starts at NBC on July 11 will be to try to better understand the organization and all of its "many moving parts." She considers herself responsible for making NBC News' digital platforms as successful as its television shows, she says.

"I'm usually not the person who comes up with the best ideas in the room," she says. "What I feel like I'm good at is cutting through the process problems and making things happen."