NPR sees new roles for Public Interactive

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NPR is proposing to give public stations more help in building and maintaining dynamic websites and mobile apps by reconfiguring its Boston-based tech services group, Public Interactive.

PI is pilot-testing a new online publishing system for stations and on March 10 will unveil its plans for a broader service package that manages back-end databases and helps news sites build user traffic. The proposal, to be announced during the Integrated Media Association conference in Austin, Texas, would not only cut stations’ costs by centralizing technical operations but also earn advertising revenues from a network of stations’ and NPR news sites.

Next month NPR plans to release details about a broader database-driven Public Media Platform that it’s developing with PBS and other public media distributors to facilitate online publishing for both public TV and public radio.

NPR Digital chief Kinsey Wilson and Bob Kempf, v.p. and g.m., Public Interactive, NPR, declined to discuss financial specifics of the expanded service because the business model will be refined based on station participation, but they said the opportunity for revenue gains is substantial.

“There’s money on the table in digital,” said Kempf, a former v.p who joined PI three months ago with a mandate to move public radio stations’ digital services toward a local-national news network.

Rebounding digital underwriting revenues for are one indication of the revenue potential. The national site’s online ad sales took a hit from the recession in fiscal 2009, but NPR now projects a two-year sales increase of 62 percent by the end of this fiscal year. Online sponsorships now bring in 20 percent of NPR’s underwriting revenues, according to Wilson.

The gains are driven by a doubling of the audience for and NPR mobile apps from 8 million to 16 million unique visitors a month in the two years ending in February, according to spokeswoman Danielle Deabler.

The NPR Board agreed to back development of PI’s proposed services during a closed-door meeting last month in Washington, D.C., on the condition that the digital team consults widely with stations before completing business plans.

Execs from major-market stations — whose eventual buy-in will be key to the proposal’s success — and other public radio leaders have been briefed on a confidential basis. NPR plans to discuss PI’s service strategy with station execs in regional meetings this spring.

Advantage: collective action

Under the restructuring proposal, Public Interactive would change its name to NPR Digital Services. Originally established in 1999 by competing network Public Radio International, PI was sold to NPR in 2008, and has kept its focus on providing online publishing tools for public radio stations.

The unit will add new services, including training and promoting standards and practices for digital news publishing, updating and upgrading technical systems on a regular timetable, and using web analytics to build online traffic.

A separate unit in Washington, NPR Digital Media will focus on developing NPR-branded services. But the two teams will collaborate closely under Wilson’s leadership.

PI also plans to continue offering its services to public TV stations, and is talking with PBS about developing modules that integrate with pubTV’s online video systems, according to Kempf.

NPR will move Public Interactive “from what had been a pure technology outfit to one designed to help stations build audience in local markets and achieve impact in local markets that they’ve traditionally achieved on radio,” Wilson said. The idea is to pool the system’s resources to help stations stay abreast of tech changes, publish more effectively online and earn more revenue.

“There are enormous advantages in being able to act collectively in this space,” Wilson said. “It’s very difficult to put together a digital strategy market by market on your own. It’s cost-prohibitive, and acquiring the ability to marshal the expertise and the knowledge can be tough.”

Kempf brings to the job 15 years’ experience with content and audience development on the Web. He worked previously as v.p. of product and technology at, one of the country’s largest local news sites, an affiliate of the Boston Globe under the New York Times Co. “I can help stations understand what the opportunities are” and to benchmark their performance against the stats of other media, he said.

NPR is announcing PI’s expansion as the network’s earlier online news initiatives begin to bear fruit. The Argo Network of local blogs, launched by 12 stations last year with funds from CPB and the Knight Foundation, is up and running. Impact of Government, a multimedia project to do government-accountability reporting in all 50 states, is preparing to launch its pilot, and dozens of public radio stations are collaborating with TV outlets in seven regional Local Journalism Centers.

PI, meanwhile has redesigned the technical backbone of its digital news publishing system for stations. Core Publisher, built on the open-source content management system Drupal 7, is beginning to demonstrate the difference it makes when local reporters have flexible tools for web publishing and follow a set of specific practices for digital news reporting.

Neutral platform for all pubmedia

Details of NPR’s CPB-funded Public Media Platform development are still under wraps. A PMP prototype developed with cooperation from PBS and pubcasting’s other major program distributors, has been completed, according to Deabler. The partners plan an announcement next month.

The Public Media Platform, which will expand upon the Open Application Programming Interface that NPR released in 2008, will be capable of handling content “from any number of sources or producers without favor to any particular organization,” Wilson said. NPR Digital Services (formerly PI) will provide tools for moving content in and out of the PMP, and stations will make decisions about what content they use.

If the Public Media Platform develops as expected, Wilson said, PI’s role will shift to providing the technology and tools for moving content into and out of the PMP.

Despite these advances within the field, Wilson and Kempf made the case for pubradio to move faster into digital news.
Newsgathering in public radio isn’t growing apace with shifts in the digital media news landscape and the decline in daily newspapers’ coverage. The giant web portals Google, AOL and Yahoo and thousands of smaller startups are moving to compete for local news audiences, often with funding from venture capitalists and foundations, Wilson said. Public radio has many advantages in trying to fill this gap in local news — the enormous reach of its broadcast service, listeners’ trust in its journalists and stations’ connections in local communities.

If public media delay in pursuing their frequently voiced ambitions to provide substantial local and national news on multiple platforms, the costs of expanding that presence will steepen, Wilson said. And if individual stations build their own separate infrastructure for digital news, the fragmentation will make it “harder to achieve networked interoperability and the network effect.”

River of news

Public Interactive needed a new strategy because its technology came to be seen as outdated and inflexible in recent years, and it lost big public stations as clients, according to Paul Stankavich, g.m. of KPLU in Seattle/Tacoma. He joined a group of managers who pressed NPR in 2008 to be more responsive to stations’ digital service needs. Later, when he put NPR on notice that KPLU was preparing to drop out of PI, Wilson persuaded him to wait.

Now KPLU is pilot-testing the new Core Publisher Platform, with its “river of news” editorial strategy — a chronological blogging format devised for the Argo Network that PI adopted. KPLU’s news team received a week of intensive training on the system early this year, according to Stankavich, and it was a great help in creating workflows for KPLU’s broadcast and web platforms.

Also participating in the Core Publisher pilot are St. Louis Public Radio, KUT in Austin, Michigan Radio, the Innovation Trail Local Journalism Center (based at WXXI in Rochester, N.Y.) and KUNC in Greeley, Colo. Boston’s WBUR and New Hampshire Public Radio will be the next to test the new platform, according to Kempf.

The biggest test for NPR’s proposal is the extent to which big stations decide to sign on, according to pubradio insiders who have followed Public Interactive’s progress.

“The loss of big stations as clients has been a real problem for them,” said media consultant Mark Fuerst, head of Public Media Metrics, former head of IMA, and a Current contributing editor. Major stations invested in PI’s startup in the late ‘ 90s and used the first iteration of its services, but fell away as clients over time.

“The problem they ran up against is that, in every station there was an influential person who would say, ‘We can build a better website than that,” Fuerst said. “Big stations want to build their own thing so that it works the way they want it to and so that it stands out as distinctive.”

PI also lost clients because it didn’t help stations address problems with building audiences for their websites, Fuerst said. It provided the tools for web publishing, but no methods for building traffic and digital ad revenues, Fuerst said.

“If you want to help people do their online work better, you really have to measure and test what you’re doing, and make incremental improvements over time through a set of best practices,” Fuerst said. In public media, he said, even the biggest stations don’t do not enough testing of different approaches to digital publishing.

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