SlimeWatch, Part 3: What Local Stations Can Learn from NPR’s New Website

6a00d83451b26169e201053659b16a970c-800wiNPR.org doesn’t exactly grab you by the shoulders and scream “cutting edge!” At least, not yet. But give it time.

One thing that is clear is this:  the thinking behind the radio giant’s redesign is advanced, and should be studied by every local television station manager and web team–at least the ones that intend to survive as employees of viable, profitable businesses.

For NPR, the new thinking goes like this:  kinda, sorta, start not really focusing so much on the “R” in NPR: “This is an organization that’s in transformation into becoming a fully functional news content organization, not just a radio company,” said NPR’s Vivian Schiller in an interview with Newsweek.  Schiller’s the force behind one of the most powerful news sites on Earth–nytimes.com–but she left the Times six months ago to join NPR and get the old school org all multiplatformy and stuff.

As Newsweek’s Johnnie Roberts wrote, “For Schiller, that means building on NPR’s reputation as a broadcaster of national and international news, by extending its reach into local news. She plans on relying more on local member stations to fill what she sees as a “scary” void in local coverage as hometown daily newspapers fold.”

Supporting local coverage is obviously something most localnewsers can get behind.  Unless, of course, that means a network, like NPR, or NBC for that matter, coming in an bypassing its local station to do the local work itself. And NPR’s new model, as Schiller’s old shop The New York Times noted, “would make it easier than ever to find programming from local stations, (it) will also make it much more convenient for listeners to bypass local stations, if they choose.”

NBCChicago:  No Worries for NBC-Owned WMAQ.  But Boston, Tampa, Vegas?

NBCChicago: No Worries for NBC-Owned WMAQ. But Boston, Tampa, Vegas?

This is exactly the threat, as I’ve argued, that NBC’s “Locals Only” effort poses to NBC affiliates who don’t choose to accept NBC’s terms to do business on a local level.  GE’s already laid the groundwork by buying up domains from coast to coast that would allow the network to instantly be in the local online news business (as “NBC Boston,” for example) and bypass entirely another “NBC” entity in the same city. Welcome to the Wild West, folks, where allegiances may shift depending on who’s got better firepower, stronger horses, and cash.

Speaking specifically of NPR’s aggressive move into multi-platform news growth online, Jake Shapiro, the executive director of Public Radio Exchange, a group that supports local radio stations, told the Times, “That’s the risk. It increases the pressure for stations to offer compelling and distinct programming.”

As Schiller told the Times, NPR’s revamped website isn’t about offering National Public Radio a presence online, and certainly it’s not an effort to drive ears to NPR stations.  The new model reverses all of that, taking NPR’s website “from being a companion to radio to being a news destination in its own right,” Ms. Schiller said.

The Web's News Giants Smell Money in Your Backyard.  You Ready to Compete?

The Web's News Giants Smell Money in Your Backyard. You Ready to Compete?

With TV networks contributing their content to Hulu and ending the once ironclad arrangement that you see NBC shows on NBC stations, the “bypass local stations but own local advertising” model is no hypothetical threat.  It’s time for smart station managers and news directors to look at their own websites and ask if they can compete against their own network–if it ever came to that.

Can you?  Is your site that good?  Is it tied to your TV product or growing in creative ways away from the TV newscast and terrestrial station?  Is your local online reporting going to be better than NBC’s or CBS’s or Huffington Post’s?

You may not be thinking this way.  But trust me.  They are.

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