Talk of goal revived: strong local/national news site

Originally published in Current, May 27, 2008
By Karen Everhart

Public radio station execs are showing renewed interest in an idea that pubcasting’s new-media advocates began promoting years ago: Why not create a mega-website for news that offers a more comprehensive, competitive array of reports from stations as well as national networks?

They’re intrigued by the possibilities of integrating local and national material in the way that Major League Baseball’s does for the league and its teams.

The board of a regional band of stations, Western States Public Radio, has started talking up the proposal, bandied about since 2003, as a collaboration that would give pubradio an online audience as strong as its broadcasts in the radio world.

NPR and a group of eight major-market stations, meanwhile, are discussing a pilot project for the “news network of the future,” which would also bring together the work of national and local journalists. It was envisioned in 2006 during NPR’s New Realities strategic planning exercise. Plans for the news network pilot combine the newsgathering capacities of NPR and its strongest news stations for joint coverage of the economy.

Both ideas are in formative stages, but they seem to be given new impetus by the leadership change in March that made an avid new-media proponent, Dennis Haarsager, interim chief exec of NPR.

Western States’ board decided this spring to look at ways to tackle longstanding problems with pubradio’s web services when they discussed issues they want to pursue with Haarsager in his months as interim c.e.o., according to Jon Schwartz, g.m. of Wyoming Public Radio.

Haarsager, an NPR Board member, retired recently from Northwest Public Radio in Pullman, Wash., to fill the leadership gap at NPR after the network’s board ousted Ken Stern as c.e.o. March 6. Haarsager had managed the Pullman-based network, a Western States member, for three decades.

“Now that you’ve got Dennis there [at NPR], there’s no better circumstance and opportunity to deal with this,” Schwartz said. Haarsager “brings a more sophisticated presence and ear to the issue and the potential that there could be a technological way to solve this,” he said.

Plans to follow through on the news network collaboration also got rolling during station talks after the NPR Annual Membership Meeting in Northern Virginia March 12. The network recently convened a meeting in Chicago with its major-station advisory group to discuss strategies for future-proofing pubradio and reversing the downward financial projections presented at the annual meeting, according to NPR execs.

NPR declined to identify which stations make up the group until the collaboration solidifies. But NPR execs hinted at members during the May 21 NPR Board and committee meetings in Washington, D.C.

“Major stations that have considerable capacity in their newsrooms would be working with us in a more significant way,” said Joyce MacDonald, whom NPR promoted last week to v.p. of member and program services. Program and news directors from the major stations are to meet with NPR news staffers this week to plan the pilot.

The newsroom project is planned as the first step towards a “bigger idea” that came out of NPR’s New Realities project, said Dana Davis Rehm, senior v.p. for strategy and partnerships. “We want to establish a new architecture for how newsgathering and production is organized and create a new culture to think of ourselves as part of a larger whole in which we all have a role,” she said. To begin this work and make it manageable, NPR wants to start with a pilot collaboration.

“I think it’s a wonderful direction to have something to talk about in partnership with major stations,” said Ellen Rocco, an NPR Board member who manages North Country Public Radio in Canton, N.Y.

“We need to talk about these initiatives but make sure people understand what the word ‘pilot’ means,” advised Scott Hanley of WDUQ in Pittsburgh, who is also an NPR Board member. “Managing expectations becomes really important.”

The news network pilot is not part of the ongoing NPR-backed Local News Initiative, although it is compatible with it, Rehm told Current. “There’s no funding for it. It’s something that will be mounted with resources of the partners,” she said.

Rehm’s staff is planning similar meetings with pubradio’s regional organizations “to talk about the theme of how we do better as a network and a system,” she told NPR’s Membership Committee last week. Each of the four regional organizations has set aside big portions of time during their separate annual meetings for talk about such NPR issues.

“We are working with each of the regionals to frame the discussion” and feeling “some pressure and expectation that we will come to the meetings with specific proposals of what we want to do,” Rehm said.

Big league interface

Western States Public Radio notified NPR last week of its interest in developing an integrated web service modeled on WSPR President Paul Stankavich said the board wants to convene a one-day meeting for stations interested in pursing the idea, and he’s already invited NPR to join the conversation. He described the baseball league’s site as a “perfect interface” for integrating national content from the baseball league with that of local teams.

Pubcasting techies began talking up the baseball site as the model for a public broadcasting “supersite” five years ago, according to Mark Fuerst, president of public broadcasting’s Interactive Media Association. He credits the proposal to adopt the league’s approach for pubcasting to Maria Thomas and Cindy Johansen, former web chiefs for NPR and PBS, respectively. Fuerst described the idea in a Current commentary in February 2006 and has continued to champion the concept.

At Schwartz’s invitation, Fuerst talked with the Western States board during a recent conference call about the possibilities for pubradio in an online architecture similar to “I thought it reflected conversations I’ve been hearing in the last six months,” Fuerst said. “I think there’s a feeling that public radio is not presenting an online presence that’s equivalent to the on-air presence it has.”

Local stations are hard-pressed to tackle the problem on their own, according to Schwartz and Fuerst, and they’re increasingly willing to push aside barriers that have frustrated attempts at collaboration in new media.

“People were constantly talking about not wanting to be subsumed into or,” Fuerst said, citing one perennial objection. “They didn’t want to lose their identity.”
Another impediment has been stations’ long-festering frustration with on-air announcements during NPR programs that send listeners to, Schwartz said.

Pubradio leaders “can see the problems, but we don’t see the urgency, need or reward that would drive us to solve it,” Schwartz said.

Stankavich and Schwartz emphasized that Western States has only begun to explore the possibilities of greater collaboration and integration among pubradio’s web services.

“We have no formulation of what to do, but we recognize some players we want to incorporate,” Stankavich said during the NPR Board’s membership committee meeting May 21. “The obvious problem is that stations are reluctant to give up control, but we have to have people who are willing to invest and give up some control to the benefit of everyone.”

The Western States board will convene again next week to discuss how to proceed with its web-integration talks, according to Stankavich.

Web page posted May 27, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC


IMA President Mark Fuerst's commentary: For our second decade on the Web, let's step up to baseball's league.

NPR New Realities planning project publishes Blueprint for Growth, July 2006.


Fuerst says figures indicate public stations are spending $30 million or more on their websites without getting the usage or other results it wants. See video of his closing remarks at IMA's Public Media Conference or Powerpoint presentation at NFCB conference in March.



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