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Dec. 12, 2011, 2 p.m.

NPR stations see big growth for Argo blogs as the pilot winds down

The network will continue supporting stations who created verticals, while the stations have to figure out next year’s funding.

How much of an impact can one blogger make?

A little more than a year ago, 12 public radio stations set a goal: Hire a reporter, teach him or her how to blog, and create the most authoritative local source of news on a single topic — a vertical.

Argo Gold Mine & Mill (Vilseskogen via Flickr)It was called the Argo Project, NPR’s $3 million experiment to expand the digital footprint of member stations. From nothing sprang blogs about health care reform in Massachusetts, education in San Francisco, immigration in Southern California, the environment in the Pacific Northwest, global health in Seattle. NPR provided the tools, training, and tech support.

As the project winds down this month, stations seem to have found the experience valuable — valuable enough that 10 of 12 are trying to keep their blogs alive (with the other two still trying to keep their bloggers employed), even though funding (from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Knight Foundation) dries up at the end of this year. NPR plans to continue supporting existing stations in the long term and find ways to expand the network.

And for some stations, it’s been an eye-opening experience in how original, web-native publishing can expand audiences in ways that repurposed radio content might not on its own. At four of the 12 stations, their Argo blog drew monthly audiences bigger than every other part of their news sites combined.

“Really, by hiring just one person, you can build an audience, build engagement, and demonstrate knowledge of a particular topic,” said Joel Sucherman, the project’s director at NPR. The first year of traffic for the whole Argo network surpassed published traffic numbers for startups such as the Texas Tribune and the Bay Citizen in their first years, he said.

Together, the dozen Argo sites attracted more than 400,000 visitors in a one-month stretch this fall, according to internal data furnished by a person who isn’t authorized to share it. KQED and KPBS were the top performers, each averaging more than 100,000 monthly visitors. Both stations have committed to keeping the blogs alive next year.

But there is more to success than pageviews. NPR’s Matt Thompson, Argo’s editorial product manager, said the primary measure of success was the impact and authority of the journalism. “And that, of course, is impossible to set one common metric for across all 12, but for each of the 12, I think we’ve got a pretty strong case to make,” he said.

Project ArgoAt San Francisco’s tiny KALW, for example, Rina Palta covers cops, courts, and communities for The Informant. Early on, Palta caught a good story: California was short on sodium thiopental, the lethal drug used for executions. She became a leading reporter on the story, not by writing one big investigative piece but by filing frequent, incremental updates, Thompson said. (Even Stephen Colbert cited her work.) Thompson calls it the quest: The body of work makes a bigger impact than any single post.

At Boston’s WBUR, CommonHealth has become a major driver of traffic to the station’s main site, said John Davidow, executive editor of new media (and my boss when I previously worked at the station). The two most viewed wbur.org stories of the past year both came from CommonHealth. One of those, “10 Things Not To Say To Parents Of Preemies,” got the attention of Brigham And Women’s Hospital, which asked to distribute a copy for staff. Davidow said CommonHealth gets an extra traffic bump from NPR.org, which features Argo blog posts on weekends.

Reaching new audiences

Another Argo goal was to help stations reach new and different audiences on the web. “For example,” Sucherman said, “at KPCC in Pasadena, Calif., with their site Multi-American, they’re able to reach an audience of 1.5- and second-generation Americans that might not be predisposed to listening to their radio programming currently.”

In San Diego, KPBS’ Home Post engages military families, an uncommon demographic for public radio, said News Director Suzanne Marmion.

Some of the largest stations saw the smallest growth over the year.

“We serve them with news and information, and our blogger can channel their comments and find good sources that then appear in our programming,” Marmion said. “It’s a dialogue with the military community that we would not otherwise have.”

At San Francisco’s KQED, MindShift attracted 125,000 visitors in October. KQED has since used Argo’s customized WordPress platform to build a new vertical covering the environment.

“Our criterion for picking a topic area for Argo was finding something is particularly reflective of, and somewhat unique to, the Bay Area, but that is having impact nationally,” said digital media VP Tim Olson. “A topic that KQED is well positioned to cover given our geographic proximity to many of the players and events, but that would appeal to people across the country.”

That may explain part of the blog’s traffic success. Olson said the MindShift audience is evenly distributed across the United States, proportional to population.

The most trafficked Argo sites, yes, belong to big stations like KQED, stations that already have robust websites. But some large stations — WNYC, Minnesota Public Radio — showed the smallest or most erratic audience growth over the past year. That could be because those blogs cover highly local topics, such as New York state politics and higher education in Minnesota.

Searching for funding models

WIth the grant period over, Sucherman, Thompson, and designer Wes Lindamood will get to keep their jobs at NPR. (Developer Marc Lavallee has since taken a job at the New York Times.) The stations will have to find ways to keep their Argo bloggers employed, and not all of them have yet.

“I think that radio stations are still learning how to, ultimately, sustain digital successes from a financial perspective,” Sucherman said. “I think that’s something they need to continue to work at.” He said some stations have found support for the blog next year, others are adding it to the digital media budget to fundraise against.

At WXPN, a Triple A music station in Philadelphia, The Key figured out something novel. A popular feature on that blog is the Key Studio Sessions, a series of downloadable performances by local bands in XPN’s performance studio. In May, the Knight Foundation awarded the station a $50,000 grant to keep the Key sessions running next year.

Now the Argo team hopes to take the lessons of the project and provide training to more member stations. A perfect laboratory is the newly created State Impact project, which makes Argo look small — a partnership between NPR and stations to cover government in all 50 states.

In part two of this story, we focus on the lessons NPR learned from the Argo Project.

Photo by Vilseskogen used under a Creative Commons license

POSTED     Dec. 12, 2011, 2 p.m.
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