Innovation: NPR’s Transformation Provides Lessons For Newsrooms

(photo by Fast Company)
Forget all the stodgy images you have of National Public Radio. Once considered a sleepy source of news and entertainment for the middle-aged, NPR is suddenly at the forefront of transforming its newsroom for the digital age. And the changes have been so far reaching, that NPR is getting the kind of recognition and praise for a media company that you rarely hear these days.

In Fast Company’s recent list of the world’s 50 most innovative companies, they ranked NPR at number 28:

“NPR now reaches more than 30 million Americans each week–more than CNN or USA Today. When other news organizations were closing foreign bureaus, they were opening them; they now gather and produce content from some 36 locations around the world, not to mention over 800 member stations that handle local news.
How does the nonprofit pay for it all? Of course, people like you, along with revenues from corporate sponsorship (doubled in the past decade), and a $200 million bequest from Joan Kroc (widow of McDonald’s founder Ray), the largest ever to an American cultural institution. They haven’t been immune to economic storms, but their endowment should buffer them through a winter that’s been much harsher for most other major media organizations. Now NPR has some of their top talent too–in the past few months Vivian Schiller has joined from New York Times Digital as the new CEO and Kinsey Wilson from USA Today as head of digital media.”

In a companion piece called, “Will NPR Save The News?”, Fast Company digs deeper into the changes at NPR. The piece begins with a look at NPR’s success in covering the inauguration, meshing traditional reporting, social media and community contributed content:

“And National Public Radio proved once again that it’s the country’s brainiest, brawniest news-gathering giant, as several million people tuned in and more than 40,000 sent in updates from across the Mall and around the world by YouTube, SMS, Twitter, Flickr, and iPhone.
Yes, it’s true: In one of the great under-told media success stories of the past decade, NPR has emerged not as the bespectacled schoolmarm of our imagination but as a massive news machine poised for what Dick Meyer, editorial director for digital media, half-jokingly calls “world domination.” NPR’s listenership has nearly doubled since 1999, even as newspaper circulation dropped off a cliff. Its programming now reaches 26.4 million listeners weekly — far more than USA Today’s 2.3 million daily circ or Fox News’ 2.8 million prime-time audience. When newspapers were closing bureaus, NPR was opening them, and now runs 38 around the world, better than CNN. It has 860 member stations — “boots on the ground in every town” that no newspaper or TV network can claim. It has moved boldly into new media as well: 14 million monthly podcast downloads, 8 million Web visitors, NPR Mobile, an open platform, a social network, even crowdsourcing. And although the nonprofit has been hit by the downturn like everyone else, its multiple revenue streams look far healthier long term than the ad-driven model of commercial media.”

Wow. So what’s going on here?

A profile in AJR last fall, called, “The Transformation of NPR,” hinted at some of the changes underway:

“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.”

So there’s some radical notions right there: Invest in the business. Invest in training. Make it an organizational mandate.

If you read the whole AJR piece, you can see that NPR has gone through many of the same cultural struggles between the old and the new media that have been felt in other newsrooms. That’s natural and healthy. You want to make sure to preserve the best of what you’re doing as you embrace the new. But NPR management has also made it clear that this is the direction the organization is heading.

Like the Associated Press, this charge into new media creates structural tensions between NPR and its member stations. Member stations pay for a lot of the content, and depend on it for their audiences. So NPR is having to experiment with what it makes available online, and when. But one interesting trend that comes to light is that local stations have largely ceded program creation to NPR, leaving them with less and less local programming. Hopefully this moment will push more of them to get back to creating local programming, though that can be expensive and easier said than done.

NPR officials also credit the personal nature of their work, the fact that people connect with the voices of its reporters and personalities. That’s another lesson for newspapers: People like voice, and attitude. I think that’s been flushed out of a lot of newspaper writing which has become increasingly bland.

The organization has also re-committed itself to quality, something that also tends to get lost. You can use all the social media in the world to build an audience and a community, but it won’t matter if you push content out to them that isn’t any good.

My other takeaway from NPR’s success: Radio still matters. That hardly seems earth shattering. But all the talk we hear these days is about what newspapers should be doing online. Yet where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the greatest consumption point of media occurs in people’s cars. For me, this points to why newsrooms need to be thinking about how to become “multi-platform” rather than just “online-first.” Newsrooms need to get their content to wherever their community is consuming news and information, in a form that fits their behavior.

In the Fast Company profile, NPR board chair and Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson is quoted as saying:

“As commutes lengthen, the importance of drive-time radio has grown. People don’t have 15 minutes to sit at home and read the newspaper, but you can get accurate, in-depth reporting as you sit in traffic,” or make dinner, or clean out the garage. It’s a screen-free complement to online browsing.

This transformation is in the early stages. But the initial results are more than just positive. Last Month, The Washington Post reported, “Consider This: NPR Achieves Record Ratings”:

The weekly audience for all the programming fed by Washington-based NPR — including talk shows and music — also reached a record last year, with 23.6 million people tuning in each week, an 8.7 percent increase over 2007.

Changes will not doubt be ongoing at NPR. But it seems they’ve gotten off to an awfully strong start. Let’s hope other newsrooms take notice.

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3 Responses

  1. I liked the part about “people connect with the voices of its reporters and personalities.” I count this as one of the most important elements. Even during a transition (when coverage tends to have more mistakes because of trying something new) people will be more likely to stick around because of the personality.However, I think you have to be careful with voices and personalities. It’s important to understand that you can have voice and personality, and still stay unbiased.Great post. Thanks!

  2. Re the revenue stream – it would be a three way split, between NPR, the local station, and the news-on-paper organizer.

  3. Chris,Do you have any thoughts about the idea that one revenue path for local stations, which have to buy content from NPR, might be to publish some of the content in a short – say 20page – news-on-paper versioned and hyperlocal ?Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it would take no additional resources for the local station. Consider transcripts of the national brodcast curated and assembled to be most relevant for the local audiences. With links to the website and call letters of the local NPR station.Let’s say that an outside organization could organize :doing the transcripts locally – creating some local paying jobs. The design and document would also be done by locally. The comp could be a revenue share between the station and the organization doing the production. The advertising would be limited to government, local non profits and social awareness campaigns or perhaps as an added benefit of public underwriting by sponsors.

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