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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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March 15, 2011, 10 a.m.

News portal, super aggregator, and curator: new plans for PBSNews.org

[See update below.]

PBS finds itself with what could be the definition of a “good” problem. (Well, not that defunding problem, but another one.) Here’s the scenario: Under the PBS umbrella you’ll find news shows like PBS Newshour, Frontline, and Nightly Business Report, among others, all producing content that lives primarily on air and on individual websites. While video clips and stories are pulled into PBS.org, that site’s primary function is not to be a news source like, say, its cousin NPR.org.

With all that news and information swirling around PBS, though, it makes sense to have a sort of super aggregator, something to pull together the threads from various shows around news or topics. Think about it: What if on a broad story like the economic crisis, you could pull together a NewsHour interview with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on changes to borrowing policies for US banks along with a Frontline clip from “Breaking the Bank” on the merger of Bank of America and Merill Lynch? Of course what we’re talking about is not simply aggregation, but also curation — and actually, considering the hours of shows PBS has at its disposal, mega-curation.

Consider all of this and you’ll know where the team behind the PBS News Blog is coming from. It’s PBS’ effort to launch a new site that is both a news portal for readers and a new channel for PBS programming. The new site, which should launch soon, will be called PBSNews.org: The News Navigator.

[UPDATE: We initially reported that the site would be launching soon. After this post was published, a PBS spokesperson told us that PBSNews.org has been put on hold and that the team working on it is now building tools to support local journalism for member stations websites. "A PBSNews.org site is currently on hold as we work on these plans," Stephanie Aaronson said, adding that PBS doesn't have a timeframe for when it might launch.]

When I spoke with Tom Davidson, PBS.org’s senior director and publisher for news and public affairs, he told me the new project will essentially start from scratch, partly because a central news division has never been part of PBS, but also because PBS wants to take advantage of the opportunity to build a smarter news site. “Historically PBS has tended to not create content itself — it was founded as a programming service” that would pool member stations’ financial resources “to allow other independent producers to make that content,” Davidson said.

Over the years, PBS has built out a universe of news and current events programming — and in recent years, that’s been matched by further investment in digital tools and websites starting with PBS.org, Davidson said. Again, they’ve created a good problem.

Instead of offering another site for breaking news, the News Navigator team wants to build a site that moves past daily headlines and offers more comprehensive coverage on news or topics — the kind that can come to bear when you have a satellite staff of journalists, producers, and documentarians working on pieces. That staff will rotate around a central hub, the News Navigator staff (which is growing as we speak), which will include producers, data specialists, writers, and editors.

So what could the News Navigator look like? Davidson said the mission will be to present “the knowledge that defines what’s going on on a story behind the headline.”

More specifically they want to meet the balance of context and timeliness in news by having something similar to topic pages that would provide news, raw data sets, timelines, video and other background from across PBS programs. These deep dives, as they call them, will include areas like Afghanistan, same sex marriage, health care, and Congress.

The point in all this context-focused curation isn’t to out-NYT the NYT, but rather to add value by finding new angles on big stories. “I will try lots of crazy things,” Davidson said. “But I’m not going to try and take on CNN.com, CBS.com or NYTimes.com. We lost that battle 15 years ago. Let’s not fight that battle now.”

PBS is also creating issue clashes — an adaptation of a familiar feature of many PBS news shows, the two-analyst, head-to-head debate, adapted for online. Think Shields and Brooks, only on the web — and with the audience empowered not only to vote on the winner, but also to add their own arguments.

Of course, there are hurdles in building out a new news site, particularly one that will need to pull news and videos from across a multitude of other sites, each of those operating off of different frameworks and content management systems. It’s not as easy as connecting tube A to slot B. Instead of trying to put all its programs under one system, PBS instead decided to build the equivalent of a massive card catalog, naming it Merlin. Merlin is essentially a database of PBS content tagged with metadata to allow sites, either from programs or member stations, to pull up material they would like to use. (Merlin was a contributing factor in PBS.org’s recent redesign and iPad offering.)

Jason Seiken, senior vice president of Interactive, Product Development and Innovation for PBS, told me that Merlin came from the need for something that could act as a publisher and distributor of content that would benefit both programs and stations. Once stories or videos are tagged, they can be pulled up on PBS.org, the News Navigator, or WGBH, as an example. “Merlin is in essence a distribution channel,” Seiken said. “It turns PBS.org into a distribution network for local stations.”

Along with Merlin, PBS rolled out a standalone video player and management system called COVE. (While it may seem like online video is ubiquitous, in the past there was no quick, easy, or unified way for stations and programs to share video on their sites, Seiken said.) COVE allows sites to pull together video from across PBS in the same player, meaning a piece from KQED could be coupled with a feature from Need to Know or Sesame Street.

After PBSNews.org makes its debut, Davidson said it will still be in something of a rolling beta. He sees the site as a startup whose features PBS will constantly adjust. The challenge for PBSNews.org, Davidson said, will be growing an audience for it while also finding its place within the PBS family. Its job won’t be to recreate what others have done, but instead to complement and synthesize it. “We don’t see ourselves competing with NewsHour on reporting the news of the day,” Davidson said. Instead, “we see ourselves first and foremost as translators for the consumers.”

POSTED     March 15, 2011, 10 a.m.
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