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April 6, 2011, 1 p.m.

New name, new mission: NPR Digital Services expands, hoping to help streamline local journalism

The ouster of former CEO Vivian Schiller last month brought understandable fear that the technological advances NPR had made in recent years would slow if not outright stop. As we outlined here at the Lab, NPR pulled the innovation lever pretty hard during Schiller’s brief tenure, from the full redesign of to the ongoing development of the NPR API to the organization’s ever-expanding efforts in social media.

Those fears should be pushed aside (at least partially — there’s still that whole defunding cloud looming) by the recently announced expansion of NPR Digital Services. Previously known as Public Interactive, Digital Services is something like a mechanic to NPR’s network, the support behind the scenes who helps build and maintain the machinery to keep things running for member stations around the country.

But with Digital Services’ new name comes a new mission: distributing to member stations the kind of innovation and user engagement that NPR has developed in recent years. They’ll be working on creating flexible, open-source tools (such as a content management system), broadening the reach of the NPR API, and developing a networked platform for underwriting that could increase support dollars for local stations.

What we can infer from all this is that with these moves, in concert with things like Project Argo and the Impact of Government initiative, NPR is trying to shore up its strongest journalistic assets: its member stations. Even as the mothership takes heavy fire, it’s attempting to provide cover, time, and resources for people on the ground. Digital Services’ goal has always been supporting local stations, but in their new, expanded role, they’ll be actively helping stations to reinforce and transform the journalism they do in communities around the country.

Robert Kempf, the vice president and general manager of Digital Services, said he wants the project “to be the connective tissue between NPR, what NPR is able to do and local stations.”

Applying the lessons of

Kempf joined NPR in December after coming from, where he served as vice president of product and technology. Kempf sees NPR’s moves in tactical terms—specifically, as trying to fill a vacuum in local news. As newspapers and TV contend with their own struggles, and as new online and nonprofit news outlets emerge, that leaves a clear space for public media to occupy, he told me. Many stations already recognize the situation in their markets, but need varying levels of help, he noted.

What Digital Services will provide is technology and support with audience engagement and business development. On the tech side, they’re developing a Drupal-based CMS called Core Publisher, which they hope to integrate with the NPR API. As for the API, Kempf said they want to enable stations not only to use NPR content locally, but also to feed their own work into the API. Kempf said Digital Services is expanding the user engagement many associate with NPR “responded to a digital audience,” he said. “The question is, can the lessons be applied locally?”

They are also planning to offer support for analytics, Suzanne Brendle, Digital Services’ director of client services, told me. It’s not that audience numbers are a foreign concept to stations, she said, but at the moment, there is a greater emphasis on ratings and Arbitron numbers rather than on total visitors and monthly uniques. What Digital Services wants to do is get stations tracking online stats more closely — and in a standardized fashion. Just as some newspapers use Omniture and others use Google Analytics, member stations use different analytics strategies. By working off uniform measurement approaches, stations can adapt to web traffic with the same vigor as they put into tweaking on-air programming, Brendle said.

Perhaps one of the Digital Services’ biggest undertakings is the creation of what they’re describing as a centralized ad-serving network that could increase underwriting dollars at member stations. The ad-network (an inexact name, but one that describes it nonetheless) would make it possible for sponsors to make underwriting buys that could reach state, regional, or national levels, said Keith Hopper, Digital Services’ director of product development. Though all stations have sales operations for dealing with sponsorships, this network would provide underwriting from larger or national companies that don’t necessarily reach out to smaller stations, Hopper said. The sponsors would go through National Public Media and stations would likely have the choice to opt-in to buys from national underwriters.

But what could make this a big deal is the ability to serve sponsorship online and for audio streams. “In-stream ads are a big opportunity,” Hopper said.

Expansion, training and outreach

From its beginning Digital Services was an application provider for stations, offering systems for everything from pledge drives and event calendars to email marketing and streaming audio. With their new mission they’ll be growing in size, doubling from a current staff of 22 in their Boston offices. (They’ll likely relocate sometime in the future, they say.) Aside from needing the extra hands to build apps, they’ll also need people in station-support roles. A necessary part of their expansion will be to offer training to stations switching over to Core Publisher or updating any of their other offerings, said Doug Gaff, Digital Services’ director of technology. This is important because the challenge Digital Services faces is that not all stations are equal: What WNYC employs may not necessarily work for Montana Public Radio. That’s also the reason they wanted to make Core Publisher open source, which allows stations freedom to customize their systems and have a reliable support network.

Even as Digital Services builds more applications, provide a layer of standardization to connect member stations nationwide, Gaff said, they also respect each station’s independence. “Our message is: One size doesn’t fit all.”

Setting the table

As much as Digital Services’ job is to outfit stations to do the best work possible, it’s clear they want to be seen as collaborative rather than prescriptive. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of serving more underwriting to stations through a national pipeline, or of creating a template CMS that can be copied, moded, or re-imagined altogether. The bottom line, as several members of the Digital Services team told me, is to ensure that stations be in control of their own destines. NPR, while offering a buffet of new products, won’t mandate that they use these new services, or dictate how they use them. Digital Services deals in infrastructure, unification, and scale—very (un)sexy sounding propositions, but ones that have negotiable value to stations.

Essentially, Hopper told me, the job of Digital Services is to set the table for stations and make sure they’ve got the capability to innovate by themselves—and be able to adapt to change as needed, and as quickly as possible.

POSTED     April 6, 2011, 1 p.m.
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