Posts about npr

Inside an entrepreneur’s sausage factory

I will be assigning all my entrepreneurial journalism students to listen to every episode of Alex Blumberg’s podcast about starting a podcast company. It is an open, honest, true portrayal of the making of an entrepreneur.

Blumberg, you’ll recall, was a producer and voice on This American Life and one of the geniuses — along with NPR economic correspondent Adam Davidson — behind its Giant Pool of Money and then their podcast and blog Planet Money.

He decided to pick up and start a new company to produce quality, journalistic podcasts because he wisely saw the opportunity — we’ll all be streamin’ while we’re drivin’ — and because he saw their success in public radio.

Blumberg’s progress sounds so much like that of our entrepreneurial students. He starts with a passion to make what he does now pay. He faces and admits to many tough reality checks: How can he get the business to scale? Does he have the business and technical skills needed to make the enterprise sustainable? He faces fundamental choices: whether to become a content or a technology company. He learns that venture capitalists fund only technology companies; they fund scale. He learns the importance of the elevator pitch and clarity of vision. He learns the importance of learning from pitches.

Blumberg is a master storyteller and so this tale has plenty of suspense. I’ll be listening to every episode — and assigning every episode as well. Here are the first three:

NPR’s inevitable conflict

Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR, was just forced to resign by the network’s board. I don’t know what the spin will be, nor am I privy to the internal politics. But I will say that this is an indication of more trouble ahead for NPR on a few fronts.

First, the network lost a visionary leader who I know, first-hand, was doing great things. I told her executives that they were enjoying their work entirely too much while others in the news industry all have the worldview of Eeyore these days. NPR is initiating new journalistic endeavors around the country with Vivian’s leadership and support.

Second, this act reveals the NPR board as ballless in the face of pressure. Yes, the Juan Williams firing was bungled by NPR’s head of news but Schiller apparently forced her out and also let the buck stop at her. Yes, rightwing NPR haters entrapped chief fundraiser Ron Schiller in a kerfuffle of their making but he is gone. But that was not cause for Vivian Schiller to go. I’m afraid to see how they will acquiesce to pressure in the future.

Third, I say this is why NPR should get rid of federal funding so it gets rid of political strings and pressure. That leads to the biggest problem:

Fourth, look at the NPR board. It is comprised mostly of local stations. That made sense when the stations distributed NPR programming and paid for it. But today, NPR the network does not need the stations when it can distribute online, which is how radio will be distributed more and more. The stations that don’t add real value in their markets — such as WNYC does in mine — are screwed as their value as distributors diminishes. The stations’ audiences are going to shrink and with that their revenue. Most of them have no real local presence other than their towers. The stations also depend heavily — more than NPR does — on government support, so they cannot easily give it up and buy their independence. The board fired the last NPR CEO because he pissed off the stations. Now Schiller is gone. Who the hell would take this job next?

Bottom line: The stations’ interests and NPR’s interests are no longer aligned. That has been the case for some years. It is the elephant in the studio. Schiller tried hard to find ways to improve the stations’ lot. That’s why she created new content initiatives in their backyards, to have them create more value. But in the end, the stations will fear a stronger NPR.

This is parallel to what is happening at the Associated Press, which newspapers own. Its board, too, is run by local affiliates. But the majority of the AP’s revenue no longer comes from the papers but from other news outlets, broadcast and online. The newspapers won’t allow the AP to do what it must do to survive online: build its own brand and distribute widely on the internet. The newspapers, like the stations, face shrinkage and so they complain about the AP’s costs and try to beat it down. They are locked in inevitable conflict.

This is the untold story of the future of two important journalistic institutions in this country. There is a strategic cliff ahead. But no one dare speak of it. Watch out.

NPR blames us for its problems: Insane

Oy. I should be writing a book right now and not responding to the zillionth linkless attack on the ills of the blogosphere, this time from NPR’s outgoing ombuds, Alicia Shepard, who blames the “dark side” and “lousy job” of the blogosphere for NPR’s own admittedly unclear (not to mention wrong-headed, in my view) memo forbidding staff from so much as stepping near the Jon Stewart Restoring Sanity rally. She does so without linking to a single blog … except mine. Sorry, blogosphere, I guess I’ve single-handedly lowered your standards.

Shepard acknowledges that management’s memo failed to say that NPR would cover the rally and then she gets all high and haughty that people wondered whether it would. That fails a pretty basic test of journalism: does the story answer the obvious questions? And if it doesn’t, who’s to blame for confusion, pray tell?

She includes in her litany of blog dastardliness my argument that NPR is forbidding journalistic curiosity. She doesn’t attribute or link to that opinion, nor to any of the other probably equally out-of-context smears she alleges. In our low standards of the blogosphere, we think that’s a sin for it robs the reader of the chance to judge for herself.

Shepard doesn’t really address the many other quite legitimate questions NPR’s Papal bull also raises in the fetid mind of the blogosphere. The fact that NPR felt obliged to put Stewart’s rally off limits to its staff but didn’t feel it necessary to issue such an order for Glenn Beck’s rally does obviously raise the presumption that NPR staffers would be interested in the former and not the later — ergo, NPR staffers are liberally inclined. (I have no problem with that, only that it is masked under NPR’s Shroud of Turin Objectivity.) Shepard merely repeats and accepts the company line without real discussion of it. She doesn’t deal with the journalistic questions I raised, only repeats the cant of freshman journalism seminars about objectivity:

But at the end of the day, they have to be professional – and that means avoiding actions that create the perception that they are taking sides in political controversies, including elections.

If you really mean that, then you should follow Washington Post ex-editor Leonard Downie’s vow of voting chastity and order that staff may not cast ballots. For that is taking sides. Except it’s done in private. So it doesn’t create perceptions. That, then, is what this entire episode is really about: perceptions, the PR in NPR.

“She sees her job as explaining NPR to listeners, and listeners to NPR,” says Shepard’s network bio. I’d say she does the former and not the latter. Shepard’s term is about to end (note my restraint, please, in making further comment on that event). NPR: I’ll repeat: Love ya. But please, please this time give the public a representative who sees it as her job to represent the public, not management and the Priesthood of The Way It Has Always Been Done, Amen.

: UPDATE: NPR CEO Vivian Schiller’s response to the kerfuffle is more intelligent and nuanced than Shepard’s. But it still comes down to the same bottom line: appearances.

We live in an age of “gotcha” journalism where people troll, looking for cracks in our credibility. We need to err on the side of protecting our journalism, our journalists, and our reputation. While the credibility and trust that attaches to the NPR brand depends principally on the quality of our news reporting, it can be easily undermined if our public conduct is at odds with the standards we seek to uphold as a news organization.

On All Things Considered

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik came to CUNY to report on the effort to find new business models for news, including our Knight Foundation funded presentation at the Aspen Institute. It turned into a bit of a profile of yours truly.

Pay = “mass delusion”: Schiller

I know I’m a day late, but I can’t resist quoting Vivianne Schiller, head of NPR and former head of NYTimes.com, in Newsweek on paid content. Mind you, she is one of the few executives in the industry with real experience on the subject.

Q: While employed by The New York Times, you helped the newspaper stop charging for online content. Now it’s reconsidering. Generally, why do you oppose paying for content?

A: I am a staunch believer that people will not in large numbers pay for news content online. It’s almost like there’s mass delusion going on in the industry—They’re saying we really really need it, that we didn’t put up a pay wall 15 years ago, so let’s do it now. In other words, they think that wanting it so badly will automatically actually change the behavior of the audience. The world doesn’t work that way. Frankly, if all the news organizations locked pinkies, and said we’re all going to put up a big fat pay wall, you know what, more traffic for us. News is a commodity; I’m sorry to say.

Q: But the Times did get people to pay, right?
A: We far exceeded our expectation—225,000 subscribers paid $50 a year, in addition to the home delivery subscribers, who got all of the Web for free. But guess what, that’s $10 million. Instead of 225,000 who pay the $50, let’s say it’s one million subscribers. OK. That’s $50 million a year. That’s not going to save any newspaper. It’s going to kill your advertising base. The numbers don’t work.

I also like her coinage that what we’re trying to protect is not much vaunted investigative journalism but instead “accountability journalism,” which includes beat reporters, watchdogs.

In the New Business Models for News Project, I hope to speculate on how NPR and its affiliates could play a key role enabling local networks of accountability journalism.

Media is

I’ve decided that media are is singular.

I came to that conclusion, unblogged, awhile ago because I saw the lines between media crumbling. I especially see this teaching journalism school. When I came into the business, we had to pick a medium for life (or at least until we went into PR). Now, every time a journalist does a story, she can and should pick from all appropriate media to tell it (and not just tell it, by the way). Today, still photographers shoot video with a still camera. Print reporters take pictures and make slide shows and shoot video. TV people write text. Magazine people make podcasts. And that was just the game of 52-card-pickup we began playing with old media. Now enter new media with data bases and animation and interactivity. What is Twitter? A medium? A conversation? Both? Yes. So how does one separate one medium from another? It’s impossible, I came to see.

Then On the Media called asking whether I fell into the media as plural or singular camp. Funny you should ask, I said. I was plural, now I’m singular.

Now Brooke Gladstone took this question from another angle as well: media as monolith. We complain about The Media. But I argued that media are is no longer monolithic thanks to the internet, because scarcity is dead, because the dinosaurs are consolidating only to hide from the cold wind of the future, because consolidation is thus no longer a threat, and because we can all make media. We are all media. We are the message.

So here’s the On the Media conversation. They don’t agree with me. But that’s fine.

Defending Google

Tuesday night, I’m joining in an NPR Intelligence Squared debate – Oxford format – on the motion, Google violates its “don’t be evil” motto. I’m speaking against – surprise, surprise. Esther Dyson and and Jim Harper of CATO are on my side; on the other are Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia (who’s also writing a book on Google), Randal C. Picker of the University of Chicago, and Harry Lewis of Harvard. Gulp. (The debate will be aired later. They’re charging $40 for tickets to the live event.)

Here are draft notes on my opening. I’m writing it out but will treat this more as an outline. As always, I would be grateful for your thoughts.

My opponents have a high bar to get over. Google should be presumed virtuous until proven evil. Just because it could be evil does not mean it is. Just being big and powerful does not make it evil. In this country, we tend to value success until one becomes too successful, and then we become suspicious. How much success is too much? That is our problem, not Google’s. No, my opponents must bring the evidence of Google’s misdeeds to prove their case. I don’t envy them.

I grant that Google could be better.

* In China and in other nations where free speech is attacked, Google should use its power and influence – which are greater than even it seems to know – to refuse to issue censored search results. I wonder whether the risk of life without Google could lead to revolution. But in its defense, Google argues that a hampered internet is better for the Chinese than no internet at all.

* I also wish that Google were more transparent about the business arrangement in its ad networks. Google demands transparency from the rest of us – if we want Googlejuice – but it is too often opaque itself. But opaqueness has long been standard procedure in business.

Evil? No.

Leavening the impression of – or fear of – evil is Google’s virtue. Google does good. Our world is a better place because of Google. Consider:

* Google has opened up the world’s digital knowledge to everyone. We can answer any question, satisfy any curiosity, fix any error of fact in the blink of an eye. I wanted to know just how fast that is, so I asked Google how fast an eye blinks and in .3 seconds it told me that a blink takes .3 seconds.

* Google respects the wisdom of the crowd – that is the essence of the PageRank that determines which search results are most relevant. Google also enables us to recapture our wisdom, as it does with its analysis of flu trends based on our searches for related words.

* Google connects people. Young people today will never lose touch and I hope that will lead to better friendships and better behavior.

* Google’s ads are helping to support the creation of the next generation of content. I made $4,500 in Google ads on my blog, Buzzmachine, last year. Granted, I shouldn’t have quit my day job but Google made my blog profitable.

* Edward Roussel, digital head of the Telegraph in London, has argued that declining newspapers should consider handing over the work of technology, distribution, and ad sales to Google so they could become efficient and profitable and do what they do best: journalism.

* Google created platforms on which others can create products, companies, jobs, value, and wealth. About.com, Platial.com, Outside.in, EveryBlock.com exist only because Google made them possible. With Google’s ads, maps, hosting, services, and promotion, new creations bloom.

* Google shows us the way to a new economy that will be built out of the wreckage of the financial crisis. No longer will companies grow to critical mass by borrowing huge amounts of capital to make huge acquisitions. In the Google age, they will grow by creating networks on platforms. We have much to learn from Google’s ways.

One might say that its vow not to do evil is the height of hubris. Google is undeniably arrogant. But its executives say the evil motto is valuable inside the company because it allows any employee to question any decision. It’s not a bad rule. Indeed, I wish Google’s covenant had been chiseled over many a door on Wall Street. If only, in the poisoned process that led to the financial crisis, enough people had asked whether seeking and issuing toxic mortgages and making and selling toxic assets were evil—instead of someone else’s problem—I wonder whether we’d have reached this nadir.

As we try to understand and navigate a new world built on links, connectedness, networks, openness, transparency, publicness, trust, generosity, efficiency, niches, platforms, speed, and abundance, we would do well to ask ourselves, what would Google do? Google is not evil. Google is an example to us all.

Winners and losers in crisis coverage

NPR’s Planet Money podcast and blog is just great, almost as good as Adam Davidson’s and Alex Blumberg’s shows explaining our mess on This American Life. They’re now doing it daily. Highly recommended. (This American Life has another episode with more on the crisis but I can’t listen to it on my iPod until Monday because, presumably, they want people to happen to be near a radio when it happens to be on a local station. That’s no way to treat urgent news, folks.)

The latest episode of the amazing Peter Day’s In Business on BBC4 was also a special edition, recorded life (and podcast immediately). I wish they’d have him doing it daily now, too.

It strikes me that cable news is caught empty-handed in this crisis. They just don’t know how to cover a story like this – a story with depth. They know how to repeat over and over that the storm is coming or that the white girl is missing or that the politicians are sniping. But they don’t know how to understand and get us to understand as NPR and BBC4 are doing. They also can’t adapt to covering another story just as their favorite story, the horserace, is loping toward the finish line. Cable news is a big loser in the financial crisis.

The Wall Street Journal is a natural winner but now I wonder whether its strategy of breaking out past business news might be a loser. I never buy the physical Journal but I am now because other news outlets – notably TV – are giving me too little.

The Times is doing a decent job. I’m going to international sources – my Guardian, the Telegraph, the other Times, German sites I try to understand – to get more perspective. But so far, the winner in keeping me up to date is NPR because it fearlessly broke its own formats. This American Life is the last show that you’d think would be great at explaining complex news – until they do it. Radio should be the last medium at letting us get depth when we need it – until they start a podcast and blog.

If only I could buy shares in NPR.