AUSTIN, Texas — NPR and member stations are planning to launch their first journalism hub as early as this fall, with four partners in Texas forming the core of the collaboration.
Attendees at the Public Radio Program Directors’ conference Aug. 22 heard an update about the initiative during a session for news/talk stations, where NPR also provided a progress report on its efforts to work more closely with member stations on digital content.
Both initiatives are part of NPR’s “station compact.” Introduced in 2017, the compact aims to deepen collaboration between NPR and member stations on journalism, fundraising and digital platforms.
The journalism hubs are intended to increase regional coverage for both NPR and the stations participating in each collaboration. Stations developing the Texas hub are finishing a “memorandum of understanding” before moving forward with the initiative as early as this fall or next year “at the latest,” said KUT Managing Editor Matt Largey.
KUT in Austin, Texas Public Radio in San Antonio, KERA in Dallas and Houston Public Media have been in talks for about a year with conference calls on a near-weekly basis. “The idea is to connect us all technology-wise, get us all on the same platform in terms of content creation so that we can actually see what we’re all doing, and to get us working from the same playbook, so to speak, and to bring that coordination even closer together,” Largey said.
Largey said staffing the hub will require filling seven positions: a managing editor, two deputy editors, a visuals editor, a data editor, an investigations editor, an operations editor and a statewide newscaster.
The Texas stations have a jump-start on other regions that may host hubs because they have been working on a “hubs lite” newsroom collaboration with CPB funding and through Texas Standard, a weekday news program produced by the four stations, Largey said.
Collaboration among the stations is “something we feel we kind of have a handle on,” he said. “… [W]ith the help of NPR, with the help of some more money and technology going toward that effort, we’re hoping that we can kind of take what we currently have to the next level.”
‘No one-size-fits-all’ for hubs
A proposed hub in California has not progressed as far, but the stations involved are “feeling much better about it” after a “reset” in planning during the last year, Joe Barr, chief content officer at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, said during the session.
Capital Public Radio, KQED in San Francisco, KPCC in Pasadena and KPBS in San Diego thought they could duplicate the effort in Texas but realized “we need to do it our own way,” Barr said.
“There is no one-size-fits-all,” Barr said. “There isn’t a template to create these hubs. There are the overarching goals for the system and for the stations … but how you get to those goals is most likely going to be different for everybody who’s taking part in putting the hubs together.”
The stations and CALmatters, a nonprofit news outlet, started a collaboration earlier this year called “California Dream” to examine issues around economic opportunity and quality of life in the state. “We’re already collaborating, so the idea is we should build on that instead of starting from scratch,” Barr said.
As they expand their work together, they aim to “have less redundancy in our coverage and more proficiency,” Barr said. For example, the stations are often duplicating efforts in sending their own reporters to cover the state’s wildfires. “So part of what we want to figure out is how can we do this collectively,” he said.
The stations are developing a content management system to use for collaboration after determining that the lack of a CMS was “the biggest barrier to us being able to collaborate effectively,” Barr said. The stations are also creating a business plan for the hub and want to hire an editor.
NPR Executive Editor Edith Chapin, who is leading the hubs initiative, told PRPD attendees that the network hopes to establish roughly 12 hubs. It wants some of them to be in news deserts such as the Gulf Coast region, she said. But that presents challenges in raising money and adding reporting capacity compared to other locations, Chapin said.
The CPB-funded Regional Journalism Centers are also “clearly going to be very helpful in the next set of hubs,” she said.
NPR is also considering ways to share resources and journalism specialists among stations. “Think about how great it would be if there were a cluster of investigative editors” who would work with stations on stories throughout the system, Chapin said. “… Think about how great it would be to have collective FOIA expertise. … The list goes on and on.”
‘Sunsetting’ Core Publisher
Meanwhile, NPR is working on strengthening connections with stations on digital publishing. It will focus on shared platforms, tools and technologies with stations and an “integrated system of tools and services,” said NPR Chief Digital Officer Thomas Hjelm.
The effort could help station content find wider audiences, and it could address duplicated costs and technology within public radio, Hjelm said.
“We have literally hundreds of websites, hundreds of apps out in the market, branded in different ways that are in large part, to be honest, shades of each other,” he said. “We don’t necessarily have a very coherent strategy as to what we are asking the audience to do where, for what. There’s just a lot of variations on the theme.”
As part of the initiative, NPR is phasing out Core Publisher, the CMS used by many NPR member stations. NPR will be “gradually sunsetting” Core Publisher at the end of next year or early in 2020, Hjelm said.
The CMS will be replaced with “a series of APIs or content editors that make it easier for stations to publish directly to the NPR platform,” he said. These content editors will allow stations to “publish once to a variety of platforms, whether it’s your own website … or NPR.org, NPR One, NPR apps or third-party platforms,” Hjelm said. “That’s the idea — a federated approach toward the API development.”
NPR has also been testing localization of its homepage, which includes adding a box featuring headlines from the user’s local station.
Despite a small sample size, “early indications are that … when people consume local content, even on a national platform like NPR.org, they’re more likely to be engaged, to come back and to go deeper into the experience,” Hjelm said.
The network is continuing to explore ways to share digital infrastructure throughout the system, Hjelm said. It is in talks with WBEZ in Chicago about working “in a more collaborative and effective way,” Hjelm said. “What would a closer digital partnership in terms of tools and technology look like?” he asked.
WBEZ built a tool that allows its website and app users to play shows that aired on WBEZ on demand and to rewind a live stream. It’s a “terrific product,” Hjelm said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could white-label that or take that technology and make it available to the system?”
Some questions about digital collaboration remain to be answered. “Who is the master curator of these shared platforms?” Hjelm asked. “… If we’re collecting user data — say, an email address on an NPR platform — at what point does that get handed off to stations?”
Fascinated by the apparent retreat from NPR Core Publisher; know that many NPR affiliates use it and wonder what the transition over the next couple years will look like? From NPR’s announcement, it looks like many stations will need to re-develop their websites to integrate with the API or simply become local “subpages” on NPR.org.
NPR is trying to solidify as a content hub. My guess is that maintaining website infrastructure for thousands of radio stations with Core Publisher was too unwieldy, particularly as technical debt started to pile up. Far easier to concentrate on an existing strength in content aggregation/distribution.