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From Argo to R&D: Vivian Schiller’s legacy of innovation at NPR

With the departure of NPR CEO Vivian Schiller today, and the January resignation of Senior VP for News Ellen Weiss — not to mention threats of the loss of government funding that have been escalating in the past couple of months — things look like they could be pretty scary for NPR at the moment.

In the wake of all of this turmoil, though, it’s worth taking a look at Schiller’s and Weiss’s legacy. Under their leadership, NPR has been doing things that have been helping to set the standard for innovation across the industry — in broadcast and beyond.

I say this after being involved with NPR on the research end since 2008, after the Knight Foundation gave NPR $1.5 million to retrain 400 digital journalists, and gave USC $2.4 million and UC Berkeley $2.8 million to help the transformation happen. I worked with Knight Digital Media Center head Vikki Porter and USC professor Patricia Riley in studies of NPR that included field research, interviewing, and leadership workshops at USC.

Here are some of our findings about NPR under Schiller and Weiss:

• Continued audience growth, not just on traditional airwaves, but in on demand forms, such as through podcasting and streaming radio
• Exposure of large numbers of staff to multimedia training and digital news concepts
• The incorporation of digital news staff into the traditional radio newsroom
• The relaunch of the NPR website
• The opening of the NPR API for programmers and anyone else to experiment with — making it possible for a volunteer firefighter, who happens also to be an NPR fan, to create a streaming mobile app called NPR Addict
• The development of an active social media team, which can both create social media content from NPR and also harness everything from audience Flickr efforts to user comments
• The willingness to experiment with an in-house social media platform on NPR’s community page
• More followers on Facebook — 1.5 million at the moment — than any other comparable media organization, Schiller has said*
• The expansion of the NPR brand beyond radio to include visuals (such as flash graphics), video, photography, and — a challenge for any radio or broadcast organization — text
• The active presence of NPR Labs, an R&D team inside NPR that can bake new ideas into initiatives throughout the news organization and at other public radio stations
• The launch of project ARGO, a network of public radio digital sites, which represents a commitment by NPR not to leave member stations in the lurch as it moves forward

Now let’s take a look at the outlook for NPR, something I heard articulated by Schiller when she spoke at USC in November:

• NPR understands that its mission is to increase “interactivity,” as Schiller put it, and to be “more respectful of citizens” in its work — to continue, as she put it, to “put the audience first”
• NPR will continue to give people context and avoid tabloidization
• NPR wants to compete in new ways with other news outlets through new technology
• NPR wants to address the fact that “not all listeners are invited to the party” and to focus on making it more inclusive
• NPR wants to give people on-demand content
• NPR has a goal of “transparency through new technology” — an openness to giving people everything from access to its API to the ability to share and comment and provide feedback

In all of this, there has been something of a revolving door that never stopped in the plans for making NPR an innovator in digital news. In 2008, Ken Stern, NPR’s CEO, left the organization, in part because, some say, his vision for NPR digital news didn’t do enough to include member stations. Maria Thomas, Senior VP for Digital Media also left. Jay Kernis, the Senior VP for Program (and one of the creators of Morning Edition) departed, as well.

But in came fresh blood, such as Kinsey Wilson, who moved from USA Today to become the general manager of digital media, and NPR executive editor Dick Meyer, who helped Schiller and Weiss build their vision.

You can look to NPR’s work just over the past week to see that vision brought to life. And anyone who has been paying any attention to the uprisings in the Middle East knows that NPR is not just a radio station; it has become a curator for information from around the world, thanks to Andy Carvin (@acarvin) and his efforts to curate for the rest of us the on-the-ground efforts in the region.

NPR has been hailed by many media activists, scholars, and generally anyone concerned with the future of news as a model for both innovation and quality reporting. The Downie and Schudson report from late 2009, for instance, praised NPR’s new website as well as its growing audience and its capacity to do journalism on a local, national, and international level — in a comprehensive way that few news organizations still can.

The question is whether all of this progress can continue, given today’s shakeup. But if all the revolving doors haven’t stopped NPR so far, it’s possible to continue to think that it will keep moving forward.

*This post initially said “more than any media organization.” We changed the wording to clarify the context: that the record is held within NPR’s peer group. ESPN, for example, has over 3.5 million Facebook fans.

                                   
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