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July 6, 2010, 1 p.m.

Boston NPR affiliate WBUR celebrates its first year of running a news site, experiment with API

Boston’s NPR news station WBUR relaunched its website last July — drastically changing the site from what amounted to a brochure for the station’s radio shows to an active news publication in its own right. The results: Traffic doubled and the site is now being looked at as a model for other NPR stations.

The core of the revamp was aggressively tapping into the resources of NPR. The network’s content API allows WBUR to efficiently pull in NPR’s national and international stories in both text and audio format. Before the API, if a station wanted to provide users with NPR content, links took users away from the station’s site and to NPR’s.

“The secret sauce is we figured out in a very effective way to leverage NPR’s API,” John Davidow, executive editor of WBUR.org told me. The goal was to mimic what WBUR does on the radio, combining its own local content with NPR’s. (WBUR won the Edward R. Murrow Award for “Overall National Excellence” last month.) In an hour of public radio, the first six to eight minutes is the need-to-know news, followed by 52 to 58 minutes of analysis, content and in depth reporting, Davidow said: “What we were wanting do, and the API made it possible, was for us to whiteboard our online news approach with NPR content.” (You can see more about the back end of the redesign in this PowerPoint.)

Has the rest of the NPR family caught on to the secret sauce? I spoke with NPR’s director of application development Daniel Jacobson, who said that about half a dozen medium-to-large member stations have contacted him recently about using the API. A “common theme” on the calls has been a desire to reach out to WBUR for guidance. A number of public radio outlets have recently incorporated the API as well, like KQED and Minnesota Public Radio. Jacobson says NPR hasn’t tracked how many stations are using the API, but they know about 1 billion stories are being delivered through it every month. Those stories are consumed across platforms, from NPR’s own site to mobile applications and member station sites.

I asked Jacobson whether there was any concern that the API, by spreading NPR’s content around, could ultimately cause a drop in traffic on NPR’s own site. “All we’ve seen on our site is growth,” he said. “If WBUR is cannibalizing our traffic, we haven’t been able to detect it.” And even if it were, he says, that might not be a problem: NPR’s goal is to support the member stations.

The API is the centerpiece of NPR’s digital strategy. It’s what allows NPR to expand its mobile capacity, and it will play a part in the much anticipated Project Argo later this year. Separately, another API program aims to unite public radio and public television content into a common platform.

Beyond the API, WBUR’s relaunch also required changes in workflows and staff responsibilities. Radio reporters now create web versions of their on-air work, and they’re responsible for gathering media (like photos and video) that had no role in a pre-web radio world. News doesn’t have to be broken first on the radio: “We put up the news [on the site] as fast as we can get the news,” Davidow said. “We’re so used to the old days, which is, something went on the radio, it went out to Venus and that was the end of it. It was very hard to archive, to find. Now, the hard work that our newsroom does, it’s there now. There’s a perpetual use to it, there’s a shelf life.”

WBUR’s rebirth online comes at an interesting time for news in Boston. On the radio dial, WGBH — Boston’s other NPR affiliate — switched away from its classical music format to compete directly with WBUR and is building collaborations with its popular PBS affiliate. The Boston Globe is not far removed from its own near-death experience, and rumors keep swirling about paywalls at both of Boston’s daily newspapers. If Boston.com were to become anything other than free, there’d be a free, high-quality alternative at WBUR. “We have no intention of charging for our content,” Davidow told me. However, he emphasized that WBUR is interested in collaboration and community with other news organizations: “It’s a long way of saying we’re not looking to compete with The Boston Globe.”

Photo by Theresa Thompson used under a creative commons license

POSTED     July 6, 2010, 1 p.m.
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