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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

NPR CEO Gary Knell: We need to “smash together the digital and so-called audio journalists”

In a visit to the Nieman Foundation, the NPR boss discusses digital transformation, his earlier work at Sesame Workshop, and political perceptions of Big Bird.

After stepping into the big chair at NPR almost a year ago, Gary Knell says one of his first priorities was to “smash together the digital and so-called audio journalists.” That’s less of a violent collision and more of vision statement about NPR’s future. Speaking at the Nieman Foundation last week, the NPR CEO said “we should eliminate these distinctions. Because, really, the audience doesn’t view news that way anymore.”

When Knell joined an NPR that was fresh off a scandal that claimed several executives (including the previous CEO) and cast a cloud over funding from federal and private sources. In a scenario like that righting the ship would seem to be the first job. But Knell said he wanted to continue to push NPR to innovate while stabilizing its support network.

The two go hand-in-hand, Knell said. In order for NPR to not just survive but grow, they’ll need to keep delivering news and other programming that can’t be found elsewhere on all platforms. Staying competitive in the broader radio and news landscape is how NPR will ensure its sustainability, Knell said. “If you’re just serving up fare that the marketplace is also serving up there is no reason for a public subsidy. And that’s just true, in general, of anything in my opinion,” Knell said.

In the last year NPR has been active in developing new tools such as the Infinite Player, worked with Ford on an NPR app for Internet-connected cars, and invested in a news apps team.

Knell said they’re also trying to expand their audience on the local and national level. NPR is currently filling out its team to cover race and ethnicity, which was made possible by a $1.5 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. They’re also focusing on supporting member stations whose roles are changing as other media decline within their community.

“I’m very devoted to the idea that media is the most powerful teacher that’s ever been invented,” he said. “Maybe that was drummed into my head at Sesame Street.”

Above you’ll find video of Knell’s conversation with Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski. Note: Audience questions in the Q&A portion were off-mic and have been edited out of the video; you’ll be able to understand what was asked from Knell’s answers.

                                   
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