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July 30, 2012, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

One year since she was hired, Vivian Schiller’s “wild ride” at NBC is just beginning

NBC News’ first ever chief digital strategist reflects on her first year with the network.

If you ever find yourself awake past the witching hour, sleeplessly scrolling Twitter, take comfort in knowing that NBC News chief digital strategist Vivian Schiller is right there with you.

“I’m up for two or three hours in the middle of the night,” Schiller told me. “But my saving grace is Twitter.”

Schiller has been with the network for just over a year now. If it’s her job that keeps her up at night, she says it’s not for lack of satisfaction with it. After a difficult resignation as CEO of NPR, she’s happy at NBC — “incredibly happy,” actually — and excited about the changes that are taking place there.

The big one happened earlier this month when NBC bought back control of the MSNBC.com website and rebranded it NBCNews.com. (MSNBC — the cable television channel — will launch its own site in 2013.) Of course on a larger scale, it’s the industry itself that’s changing.

In Schiller’s words: “If you don’t disrupt yourself, someone’s going to disrupt you.”

And disruption is built into her job, which focuses on change, experimentation, and recalibration. That means embracing a try-anything-but-fail-fast mentality, taking the best of what works and hopefully turning it into something even better.

With #NBCFail trending in recent days, the Internet has been busy complaining about the network’s coverage of the Olympics thus far. Schiller said that she has nothing to do with the Olympics, but she’s also taken to Twitter to defend the coverage.

I spoke with Schiller last week before the games got under way. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and compressed.

Adrienne LaFrance: A little over one year in, how’s it going? What’s your prevailing mood? Update me.
Vivian Schiller: My prevailing mood is incredibly happy — I feel like I’m suddenly talking to a psychiatrist — but I’m generally a very happy person anyway. I went through some unhappy times, as you know. But I just love it here. I know that makes me sound like I’m being sort of a corporate goody two-shoes but I seriously love it here. I’ve now worked at five big media companies, and I can tell you that this has been spectacularly great.
LaFrance: What’s something you expected — or didn’t expect — coming in that you’ve since learned about NBC?
Schiller: Well it’s funny because — and I certainly didn’t plan it this way — but as it’s turned out in my career, I’ve worked for a company that is in every platform, and the one hole was broadcast television. I was in cable television, I was in newspapers, digital, radio. So coming into a broadcast news organization, I knew that the culture would be different than cable television, no question. And I knew that NBC News has this very storied legacy.

I maybe had just the slightest concern — before I actually started to meet with people — because NBC News is so successful, and because of the unusual relationship we had with our website, how would digital be embraced? How would I be embraced? But I will tell you that vanished instantly, as soon as I started working here. I’ve seen just about every corporate culture there is. One of the things I love about it here is it’s very collaborative. People are rewarded for sharing and being nice to each other, as opposed to in some places that’s not the case.

LaFrance: I always like to ask people about their news consumption habits, when you wake up, where you look first, that kind of thing.
Schiller: It’s a sore subject. The last few months, I’m up for two or three hours in the middle of the night. But my saving grace is Twitter. It’s quite sick. I wake up in the middle of the night. I don’t know why. You could say, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of stress at work,’ but there’s always stress at work. Maybe it’s age. I don’t know what it is. So what’s the first thing I look at in the morning? Really what I look at in the middle of the night and first thing in the morning is Twitter. It is my news feed. It’s a quick take on whatever’s going, including frankly NBC’s own news. So, Twitter. And I have a Breaking News app on my iPhone, and I look at that.

“The answer to everything is not always technology. It’s about technology married with trusted journalism…”

In my apartment in New York, I must admit I do not have like seven monitors set up in my apartment. I toggle back and forth between The Today Show and Morning Joe. I know this sounds rather old-fashioned but I get a bunch of email newsletters still. You know, paidContent, Mediabistro. Mind you, I was general manager of NYTimes.com, but I am still incredibly stuck to my habit of reading The New York Times in print. It doesn’t mean that I don’t also follow NYTimes.com on Twitter and look at the website, but I do read it in print. I just really like to read it in print.

LaFrance: If someone were trying to get a sense of the scope of NBC’s digital efforts, where would you first direct them?
Schiller: I mean I guess the one place would be NBCNews.com but I don’t want to create a false hierarchy by saying that. This is the way the digital world works, and it would be foolish of us not to serve various audiences. All of them adhere to the same journalistic standards. That’s the one immutable constant across everything we do: our journalistic standards. Whatever we do — hard news, soft news, breaking news — anything that we do, it all meets those same standards, regardless of what the coverage is. That’s the one constant.

From there, I want each property to have their own voice. The Grio has a voice. NBC Latino has a voice. Today has a voice. What was MSNBC.com and is now NBCNews.com, we’re going to evolve that site to have more of NBC News’s voice. NBC News on television has a voice. We’re looking to evolve the site — and when I say ‘the site’ I mean everything that we do: mobile, our social extensions — to have a little bit more of that voice. Of course when the new site for cable launches, certainly MSNBC cable has a voice, and you will see that reflected in the site.

LaFrance: In a conference call last week, you and [NBC News President] Steve Capus talked about how amid this transition to NBCNews.com, the thing that will continue will be a commitment to journalism. What recent hard news stories — or reporting packages, series, whatever it may be — come to mind for you as really exceptional demonstrations or that commitment?
Schiller: One of the more recent ones, we did a digital-only series called What the World Thinks of Us. It’s a series of videos from around the world, what people there think about the U.S., which is an incredibly timely issue, especially with a presidential campaign going on.

The web staff, the web journalists, do a tremendous amount. I think frankly we don’t do a good enough job, or haven’t done a good enough job, promoting or surfacing a lot of the extraordinary journalism that’s done that doesn’t appear on television. It’s certainly not just a companion to TV, and it’s not a commodity news site. It’s a place for exclusive, original, personal, in-depth content that — because time is a limited resource — can’t necessarily go on television.

We have reporters who are digital reporters — I mean, they are reporters, period, full stop — who are covering beats that heretofore NBC News hasn’t had desks for. Travel, for example. Consumer business. NBC News has not until now had dedicated reporters on some of these issues. We have now [through acquiring what was previously MSNBC.com] just gained desks and beats who are doing original reporting. There not just doing aggregating, not that there’s anything wrong with aggregating. We just expanded overnight our reporting ranks.

LaFrance: You said the digital side of things isn’t just a companion to television. But as we’ve been tracking tablet use and smartphone use, and as I’m sure you’re aware, people are watching TV while they engage with these devices. How do you factor that in?
Schiller: I’m really glad you asked that. ‘Second screen’ is the new buzzword. The whole concept of a more formalized approach to second screen is going to really explode over the next two years. You’ve seen the same statistics I have. While people are watching television, they’re engaging with a second and even a third screen. It’s astounding how many people have two screens. They might have their desktop or laptop and their mobile device or whatever it might be.

Audiences have created their own ad-hoc experiences, and created their own second-screen experiences through Twitter and Facebook while they’re watching television. We’ve seen that happen.

Nobody ever went broke following audience behavior and audience desire. So that hasn’t been lost on us either. What is the opportunity? If we know that people are watching our programs and engaging with them on Twitter, well, that says to me, couldn’t we create a better experience for them that’s customized to simultaneously watching television and, say, engaging with a tablet? We’ve launched a couple of efforts, one of them an experiment with Dateline — that’s sort of a quasi second-screen experience. We do a lot on Twitter of course.

We are not ready to talk about the details, but we are actively looking at the opportunities to tie more closely what you see on television to what you’re experiencing on your second screen so that we can close the circle of being able to tap into your community, to your social network. Frankly, look — we’re in an advertising-supported business. What are the opportunities for advertisers in terms of going back and forth between the second screen or the third screen? That’s a huge area of focus. Watch that space.

LaFrance: The Dateline experiment — was that the Chatline feature?
Schiller: Yes. I’m a big believer in test-and-learn model of innovation. We’re trying stuff. We’re trying lots and lots of stuff and you know going in some of it’s going to work, some of it isn’t going to work. Hey, if things don’t work, as long as you figure out quickly and stop doing them. The whole fail-fast philosophy. We want to try a lot of things.
LaFrance: So with Chatline, are you trying to appeal to people who maybe aren’t active on Twitter, so they want a narrower, pre-set experience? Or is it people who are so comfortable with Twitter that they’re willing to go all over the place? I’m not quite sure who would be the target audience.
Schiller: The ideal is you want to satisfy both. Anything that we do will involve people’s social networks: Twitter and Facebook. Nobody will tolerate being forced to choose between a dedicated experience that doesn’t include Twitter, and then having to go back and forth to Twitter. That’s not serving the audience very well. Everything we do will have an integrated experience.

People already have communities. I do not believe there is room for another player to come and say, ‘Create a new proprietary network of your friends on our site.’ I think that would be a complete waste of time, and a dead end, and a losing proposition. So we need to engage the social networks that people already have into our experiences.

LaFrance: You said something to the effect of ‘nobody goes broke following what the audience wants’ but people are still trying to figure out how to balance audience wants and advertising needs. Another way to ask this: Will I ever be able to livestream Meet the Press?
Schiller: It is challenging. We want to make sure that we don’t inadvertently hurt our affiliate partners but you raise a good question, and we’re all feeling our way through that. We’re experimenting a lot. I think the key to everything is to experiment.

A lot of times, I think sort of the history of digital media over the last decade and a half or two decades is unwarranted fear of cannibalization. People who think, ‘Oh, if we put something online, people will stop consuming X, whatever it is.” In some cases, yes, that’s true. But you can’t stop the tide. If you don’t disrupt yourself, someone’s going to disrupt you.

It’s not a zero-sum game in the sense that just because you put something online, I don’t think people look at it as a binary decision between ‘Do I consume it online or do I consume it on pick-your-legacy-business?’ What we’ve seen is more content is being consumed and both of those experiences can be equally valid to people.

LaFrance: I’m curious to hear how all of this will carry over to election coverage, and what you’re most excited about NBC trying in that spirit of experimentation that will distinguish 2012 coverage from 2008.
Schiller: We’re trying a lot of stuff. We had relationships with Facebook on the debates. We had relationships with foursquare, with Twitter. We still have some more things we’ll be rolling out. We launched our NBC Politics site and our NBC politics iPad app. We’ve created interactive experiences around delegate maps.

Look, I don’t want to say that other news organizations are not doing a lot of those same things. But we have so many trusted voices within NBC News on politics. What we’re doing is we’re saying, these are your guides that you’ve always trusted on television, so we’re going to make them available on every platform. That is really what is going to differentiate us. The answer to everything is not always technology. It’s about technology married with trusted journalism and the trusted voices who have been leading us through umpteen political races over many decades.

LaFrance: With some distance from NPR now, how are you looking some of the challenges that public radio faces as distinct from the challenges TV faces?
Schiller: Well, the obvious one is government funding, and I was chagrined to see recently that the calls to cut funding for public broadcasting are back in full force. I see my former colleagues going up to the Hill again to testify again. I feel for them. That’s a really tough position to be in. Frankly, I’m glad not to have to ask the government for money. It’s challenging on many fronts. It becomes very politically fraught. It is politically fraught. Nobody knows that better than I do, personally. It’s challenging — I want to phrase this carefully — I think it is complicated when an independent news organization takes money from federal, state, and local government. I think that’s challenging for an independent news organization which covers those entities.
LaFrance: From the TV side, what’s a challenge that’s more pronounced now?
Schiller: Well actually, the same challenge we had at NPR and cable TV, which was writing for the web — it’s not the same as writing for television and radio. We didn’t have that problem at The New York Times. But in all seriousness, that’s a surmountable challenge.
LaFrance: And since you mentioned The New York Times, I have to ask about your sense of how things are working there, specifically with the paywall.
Schiller: I will tell you as now an outsider but still a loyal reader of The New York Times. The newspaper has never been better. I don’t work there. They don’t pay me to say that. Even if they did pay me to say it, I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it was true. I think the news report has never been better. I find it really indispensable. I think the latest paywall — the porous, metered model — is really working well. I worry for them though. I’m not saying anything they don’t know, but all of the key indicators are going in a different direction. It’s a national treasure, so I’m sure they will find away.
LaFrance: Last question for you: What’s the most recent example of something you saw another news organization do that made you think, ‘Oh, I wish we did that,’ or that otherwise wowed you?
Schiller: Gosh, do I have to pick one?
LaFrance: Pick as many as you’d like.
Schiller: I love some of the news parodies that Slate is doing. I think those are really cool. The New York Times does spectacularly well with their interactive data-driven graphics. Some of the incredibly in-depth data-driven investigative reporting coming out of ProPublica is amazing. There’s a lot that I admire. I wish that we could do all of it, and I hope that we get to a point where we can. You’ll see a lot of change as well roll out some changes, as we launch the cable site. It will be a wild ride. It will be great.
POSTED     July 30, 2012, 10 a.m.
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