Vivian Schiller is known for her directness; as one NPR board member put it in a recent CJR profile of the CEO, “she has a way of dealing with people openly, honestly, and candidly.” It’s a quality that is all but required of the person at the helm of NPR, an organization defined by its complexity: Particularly now, as the outlet navigates between old forms and new — and between its broadcast identity and its digital one — communication among the many different news organizations that comprise and contribute to NPR is essential.
Schiller visited us here at the Nieman Foundation on Friday (she was here to speak at our annual Georges Conference), and she took a few moments to speak with me about NPR’s navigation strategy and its moves toward innovation — in particular, its double-down on networked journalism (via the outlet’s new Public Media Platform) and its experiment with topic-based news coverage (via its Project Argo). A transcript of part of that conversation is below.
Schiller also noted (video here) NPR’s high-priority emphasis on original reporting (the outlet is “really, really focused on increasing the ranks of our original reporters,” she said, particularly in areas, like foreign coverage and investigations, that many other outlets are abandoning). Given the organizational tension said to exist at NPR between a radio-specific production strategy — with a focus on traditional aural documentaries — and a multimedia one, I asked Schiller whether they’ll be looking for reporters with radio skills in particular.
After mentioning the digital training that nearly 400 NPR journalists have undergone thanks to Knight funding (“it doesn’t make every single one of them experts, but it makes them, of course, much more conversant and much more versatile journalists,” Schiller noted), she told me: “Certainly there are radio experts and radio producers and radio correspondents — that’s our heart and soul, and it’s where most of our audience is, and it’s what we love and who we are. But, you know, we don’t think of what we do now as only radio. It really is very multiplatform — and using all of the platforms at our disposal to really report and tell stories.”
Here’s a transcript of the conversation clipped above:
Vivian Schiller: All right, so we’re developing a project called the Public Media Platform. And basically it’s building upon the API that we launched about two years ago, the application programming interface. We were really the first major news organization to launch an API, which makes our content available — you know, with terms of service attached — to our member stations, so that they can just pull our content or full text, other entities, and to software developers, who can take our content to develop cool new applications with it, which they have.
So the idea is: What if it wasn’t just NPR content, but a vast amount of public media content and data that could be available in a large — you know, sort of an API on steroids, a public media platform. Think about NPR content: all the content from the public radio stations, all the content from the other radio producers and distributors like PRI and APM and PRX, all the content from PBS. Now imagine all the content from the other new media players, all the new not-for-profits, like the ProPublicas of the world, and all the local, online journalism startups. And then you can go on and imagine data.
And all of this would be available in a platform: searchable, indexed. It’s not just one big content management system, but the content management systems would talk to each other. And to make that available to — not just as a network, but to networks — to public broadcasting players, to any of the parties that put content in, to community providers, to individual citizen publishers, to software developers. And you imagine, really, a future where you have this incredible network where information and data could be mashed up in ways we can’t even imagine, because there are coders out there that can think about things that I will never think of. And it’s a really, really exciting project.
I mean, it will take a long time before we have all of that together, but we’ve taken a very big step this year in that we’ve gotten some money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and we’re partnering with PBS, PRI, APM, and PRX, and of course NPR in the lead — I know that’s a lot of letters — but to do a test system, to test it out, to get it launched, see what kind of services we need to expand it. So this is one of the things I’m most excited about.
Megan Garber: That’s fantastic. That’s —
Schiller: Sorry, that was very long, but —
Garber: No, that’s great, that’s great, I love that. And what are the metrics that you’ll be looking at when you do the testing?
Schiller: Well, again, for the test, which is going to be wrapped up by the end of this calendar year — you know, I mean, a lot of it is the technology. Really, most of it is back-end stuff. It’s the technology — can all of these forms of content, coming from different content management systems, be sharable, will our systems be interoperable — so a lot of it is just sort of the platform: Can it carry the load of all the bandwidth that’s required? And then beginning to feel out, like, how might this content might get picked up by others. But, so, a lot of it really is technology and back-end testing.
Garber: Okay. Okay, great. And how does all that, then, fit in with the Argo project?
Schiller: Well, so, Argo is a discrete project that’s a little bit different, but also related. Argo is really a proof of concept, funded by CPB and the Knight Foundation, whereby 12 individual public radio stations in 12 different markets, who are part of this test, each one of them has picked a content area — a topic that is particularly important in their community. So it might be immigration, or energy issues, that kind of thing — very discrete verticals, as some in the news business call it — and the idea is that we’ll be hiring a journalist in each one of those markets, who will be largely an online journalist/blogger, who will be doing both original reporting about that issue in the community and aggregating content. And the idea is: Can this little mini-website, can this, sort of, news blog — can it both address the critical issues through original reporting and aggregation around that topic, and can it attract an audience? So it’ll be testing: Can it attract, and is it a basis for, the various revenue models that support public media?
But the other thing it’ll be testing — and here’s where it connects into the Public Media Platform — is, if each of these markets — their content, of course, will go into the API, which is, again, the forerunner of what will be the Public Media Platform — and as all this content goes into the API, will these local stories become relevant to a national audience? Will other national players in other communities pick it up, maybe marry it with their own related content? And if you imagine this happening, growing into communities all over the country, you can imagine sort of a form of journalism in the collection — sort of, you know, the crowdsourcing, the journalism, journalistic crowdsourcing — I’m mangling this a little bit, especially since I know you have a fellow who’s much more expert on crowdsourcing than I am [ed. note: that's Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing and a 2010 Nieman Fellow] — so that national trends and national stories will emerge that become very, very relevant at the local level but tell a national story.