AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Tying It All Together   

NPR’s new leadership team places a heavy emphasis on a multiplatform approach. Weds., March 14, 2012.

By Romy Zipken
Romy Zipken (rzipken@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

While that "R" in NPR still stands for radio, the network has made huge strides in transforming itself into a multiplatform operation in recent years.

So it seemed like the right time to have one person overseeing both the gathering of the news and getting it out there to the audience, whether via radio, computer, tablet, smartphone or anything else that comes along.

Enter Kinsey Wilson, NPR's first chief content officer.

Wilson, 56, had been at NPR's general manager of digital media since 2008. He oversaw the music and online news staffs as well as the overall Web operation and mobile application development.

"I think now that content and distribution in many ways are merging, and it's very hard to divide really what is content and what is distribution in some ways," says Gary Knell, NPR president and CEO, who created the new position and picked Wilson to fill it in February. "It was really important to connect those structurally at NPR, and we just happen to have a unique person that is capable of leading that effort."

Knell thought Wilson was right for the job because of his digital expertise and track record. Wilson "led the digital team in really upgrading all of our work, not only at NPR, but with the stations," says Knell, former chief executive at Sesame Workshop, the producer of "Sesame Street."

And NPR's member stations are a "critical part of the value of public radio," says Knell, who assumed his position in December. Among Wilson's missions is to ensure that NPR's affiliates are on board with its new endeavors.

Wilson, who is also NPR's executive vice president, is in the process of creating a team led by Margaret Low Smith, senior vice president for news. The rest of the unit will be made up of people who will "drive more coordination and cooperation between different content and distribution vehicles," Knell says.

With Knell, Wilson and Smith in place, NPR has completed its new top leadership structure. The opening at the very top occurred in March 2011 when CEO Vivian Schiller left in the wake of a couple of high-profile public relations fiascos. Ellen Weiss, who had been the network's senior vice president for news, was a casualty of one of those episodes, the ouster of commentator Juan Williams.

Wilson, the man overseeing all of this coordinating and cooperating, graduated from the University of Chicago in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in political science. He then went to work at Chicago's City News Bureau, whose illustrious alumni include investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko, longtime Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Lawrence Block, aka Herblock, and Politico columnist Roger Simon.

"It was literally a kind of boot camp for aspiring journalists straight out of school," Wilson says. "You got a very quick education in a sort of gritty, boots on the ground neighborhood reporting."

Wilson covered homicides, fires and plane crashes. Almost every morning he would visit the morgue to tally the number of people who had died in the city overnight. "You got as close of a look at the underside of city life as you can," says Wilson, adding that he recalls being asked to stand in police lineups whenever the police needed extras.

After a year, Wilson went on to work at the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, a legal trade publication. His first daily newspaper experience came at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. From 1982 to 1988 Wilson covered county government and education, and tried his hand at investigative and enterprise reporting. In 1988, he moved to Newsday and worked at the Long Island tabloid as a reporter for seven years.

It was in 1995 that Wilson made a career-defining move when he left Newsday to become managing editor at Congressional Quarterly. At CQ he made the transition to the digital world, helping to plot the company's online strategy. "That was where I really cut my teeth on the Web," he says.

After getting CQ.com up and running, Wilson merged the online service with the daily newsletter. "It was my first experience not only developing the digital property but beginning to integrate it with the established news operation," he says.

In 2000, continuing his exploration of the digital world, Wilson became editor-in-chief of usatoday.com. Five years later, after the news outlet merged its digital and print operations, Wilson became one of its two executive editors.

Wilson's stint at USA Today was filled with extraordinary news events, from 9/11 and the war in Iraq to Hurricane Katrina and the D.C. sniper saga. Wilson learned how to juggle multiple platforms at a time when the Web was "coming into its own as a medium of first resort for breaking news.

"We learned an enormous amount in that time," he says. "These were momentous events, and they taxed our ability to cover the story and to stay with it in real time. And we learned an enormous amount about what it takes to really be a full-fledged news organization that publishes in real time to the Web."

As a consumer of NPR programming of over 30 years, Wilson had enjoyed the radio powerhouse long before he went on its payroll. He sees radio as a continuously growing medium, one that has prospered in the wake of what he calls the "digital disruption." Since the 1990s Internet explosion, NPR's radio audience has doubled.

"Unlike newspapers and television, which have seen falloff in audience and have been particularly challenged economically by some of the digital disruption, public radio has thrived in that period," Wilson says. "We're operating from a position of tremendous strength as we adapt to these technology changes."

NPR has tried to stay current. For example, in January it launched a smartphone app that gives drivers of Internet-enabled Fords on-demand access to NPR programming. As other automakers make Internet-enabled vehicles, NPR will work with them to provide similar services.

Because of NPR's enthusiastic embrace of the digital world, Wilson sees "a real opportunity to be able to build on the amazing institution that's been built up over the last 40 years. In the last four or five years I would say we have established a very robust and very credible digital presence. Digital is part of NPR's DNA at this point."

Though its main focus remains radio, with 26.8 million listeners each week, it now receives over 20 million unique visitors on the Web per month. That increase was helped along in 2008 when the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation granted NPR $1.5 million to train its entire staff in digital storytelling.

"It was as much about deepening [the staff's] understanding of what's possible as it was about specific craft training in photography or multimedia or even writing," Wilson says. "That was enormously valuable in helping to build bridges across different parts of the newsroom."

The Knight Foundation has followed up with another grant. This time, $1 million will be used to work with NPR's 944 member stations and the other half million will be used within the NPR newsroom.

In his new post, Wilson will closely monitor how the habits of NPR listeners are evolving. The goal is to make sure NPR is providing high-quality coverage wherever and however the audience wants to access it.

And his boss is sure he has the right man to make that happen. The pick "was really, in many ways, a no-brainer," Knell says. "I am really confident in his ability to lead those efforts in probably the most important thing that we do here at National Public Radio."