A year at Stanford, and I'm finding my inner optimist. It's probably the contagious positivity around here.
So I can't help but see the NPR crisis in hopeful terms.
I'll assume you've been following the news and know NPR has now said farewell to three top executives in three months: President & CEO Vivian Schiller, Development SVP Ron Schiller (no relation to Vivian), and News SVP Ellen Weiss.
The departures were triggered by controversial incidents: the mishandled firing of NPR news analyst Juan Williams, then the sting video of Ron Schiller schmoozing fake nasty Muslim donors while talking smack about Tea Party activists.
The immediate context for all this blood-letting is the debate in congress over federal funding of public broadcasting.
But the bigger context for you, me and democracy is the future of trustworthy journalism, which my dutiful colleagues and I in public media have been trying to forge.
To the critics, NPR is not at all about trustworthy journalism. It has been derided as a purveyor of "liberal propaganda"(a direct quote from FOX TV personality Sean Hannity).
To its supporters, NPR is a paragon of trustworthy journalism.
The debate might be a healthy one if it hadn't escalated into a war of words and gotcha videos.
With that in mind, let me try to inject a few baseline facts and a little Stanford-style hope into the dialogue about NPR, public radio, and the pursuit of trustworthy journalism.
It's the Mission, Stupid
Note the location. She's standing next to a wall -- no, she's leaning upon the wall -- emblazoned with the NPR mission statement.
Mission is what we in the non-profit world all lean upon. If you're not familiar with the non-profit world, you need to understand that mission is everything.
It's easy to mix up for-profit and non-profit organizations in our minds. Both can show up in our daily lives as competing choices. Both are organizations with brands and services and marketing.
They appear to share a lot in common, but one exists to make money for owners and shareholders, the other exists to do good for goodness sake.
I think Vivian was truly excited to deliver on NPR's mission. She certainly talked about it frequently and she inspired a lot of people during her (all too brief) tenure.
If you aren't familiar with NPR's mission, then you are missing the most salient point about NPR.
Here it is, with the usual accompaniment of vision and goals:
The mission of NPR is to work in partnership with member stations to create a more informed public - one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.
To accomplish our mission, we produce, acquire, and distribute programming that meets the highest standards of public service in journalism and cultural expression; we represent our members in matters of their mutual interest; and we provide satellite interconnection for the entire public radio system.
This vision statement describes our aspirations for NPR's future.
NPR, with its network of independent member stations, is America's pre-eminent news institution.
We strive to inform our democracy and culture by bringing important stories, insight and delight to audiences everywhere.
NPR innovates and leads; we discover and develop new talent and ideas.
We seek out new audiences and search for ways to be more essential, using every available platform of communication - across the nation and around the world.
These high-level goals direct the efforts of NPR management and staff.
Make NPR the most relevant, trusted and consumed news source in the U.S.
Expand the reach and relevance of NPR and member stations to current and new audiences.
Unlock the potential of the national and local public media system.
Reflect best practices, whatever the activity or field.
Adapt our business model to sustain the present and secure the future.
Theory of Change
I don't know if Bill Meehan listens to public radio, but he is a great professor anyway. I've enjoyed his class, Strategic Management of Non-Profits, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business this quarter. Talk about optimistic viewpoints. The entire class is about changing the world through social innovation.
Bill has really helped me understand just how vital it is to link high minded vision statements like NPR's with the work of the people on staff -- and then link that work directly to the lives of people being served by the mission.
The linkage is called the "theory of change."
Here's a diagram of the theory of change at work in the NPR mission.
(This is my oversimplified configuration and not that of NPR or any stations.)
As you can see, it shows the fundamental logic of the organization.
The idea is simple in concept. And it promises hope.
Of course, I borrowed the "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" phrase from the Declaration of Independence, because it epitomizes the goals of democracy and self-governance.
It perfectly captures what we, the people, want. And it shows what NPR is trying to provide.
Measure of Success
Theory of change is one thing. Measuring that change is the hard part.
Albert Einstein has been credited with a line that non-profits love to quote: ""Not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that can be counted, counts."
Most non-profits have a difficult time applying precise metrics to their work because making the world a better place is actually a very hard thing to measure.
Public broadcasting is no different but it has developed sophisticated metric "proxies." Our operating theory is that listening = public service. So mainly we measure listening. To do so, we borrow well-established audience measurement techniques from commercial media.
What do the metrics show?
Public radio has been steadily improving its success. In fact, NPR and all its member stations more than doubled their audience from 15 million weekly listeners at the turn of the millennium to over 34-million today.
And as NPR moves on-line, it is both gaining users and gaining data. More than 17 million people use the NPR website each month and 19 million use NPR podcasts.
Of course, there are many more ways in which NPR and member stations study and gauge their service impacts. They take surveys. They accumulate letters and emails. They hold meetings and focus groups.
These other measures have revealed shortcomings in meeting the mission. As you can see from this screen shot of an NPR Audience Report, the people using the service the most tend to be older and well-educated. They also tend to be affluent and white -- and that indicates a failure to serve a diverse population.
The lack of diversity has system practitioners brainstorming and experimenting with new service models.
But we should not be totally surprised by the audience profile, not when we consider the other metric that has steered much of public radio's programming behavior: fund-raising dollars.
Fund-raising success is seen as an indicator of public service success. The idea is that if people truly value the broadcasts that they can otherwise hear for free, then it is a true hallmark of public service success when they voluntarily contribute their private dollars to support the service. Moreover, this sustains this business model in a virtuous cycle.
It's only logical to steer toward the satisfied people in our development messages, though journalists will tell you they don't pay attention to the demographics in their editorial choices. Certainly that's a tension point.
What do these money metrics show?
Listener support was generated by 2.5 million private contributors who chipped in about $317-million to U.S. public radio stations in 2009 (the last year for which the Corporation for Public Broadcasting displayed totals). A decade earlier, the total was around $178-million. That's another doubling of a key indicator.
The Move to News
Without going into a 40-year history lesson about public radio, it should be pointed out that its deliberate attempt to grow its public service measurements is not merely coincidental with its deliberate move toward journalism as a primary staple of the broadcast menu.
It wasn't always the case, and at some local stations it still isn't the case. Public radio stations are a diverse local lot. You have NPR stations who also provide classical music, or jazz, or "triple A" formats.
(Of course you also have public radio stations that are not NPR members -- and they are very worried about the federal funding situation, too. In fact, more so! They work on a shoestring budget and the federal community service grants make up a much larger portion of their spending. See my earlier analysis on the tensions between these community stations and the NPR stations.)
But, let's be clear about journalism in public radio. It is the service that attracts the most listeners and the most dollars. The NPR system has been inexorably marching in this direction for several decades, and that's a tension point for some. But for most Americans, NPR and the public radio system is becoming equated with news and news-oriented programming.
What's the Problem?
Okay, so we're clear on what NPR is trying to do... and that its methods of measuring success show strongly improving results. What then are the problems with public broadcasting? Is there a main problem?
There are many complaints:
- Lack of leadership
- Lack of diversity
- Lack of innovation
- Lack of money
- Lack of personnel
- Lack of hard hitting journalism
- Many viable substitutes
- Rapid technological change
- Political interference
- The federal deficit
- Liberal bias
- Agendas of funders
- The culture wars
- Misaligned priorities among its parts
There are probably more on your list and I think there's a grain of truth in all of these. I know I've railed against short-sighted leadership and I've bemoaned the lack of resources. I'm not alone in calling for better insulation from political interference and more diversity in our ranks and in our sources.
With much debate about NPR's future, some think there's really only one issue, public radio's enemies (cue the vociferous piece by NYU Professor Jay Rosen).
We can spend all day on all of these... but I don't think these get at the main problem.
To me, the main problem is this:
Our mission is hard to do! (But worth the effort.)
Our mission is hard to do! (But worth the effort.)
To me, that's what the whole hub-bub in public broadcasting comes down to: How to do this really truly worthwhile thing despite a long list of complaints and challenges.
Frankly, there are no easy answers no matter what anyone says.
The Key Factors
If you want to really appreciate what Vivian Schiller was up against at NPR (in addition to the political attacks), consider the competing forces she faced while trying to implement the vision and goals of the organization. These key forces also affect the local stations struggling to collaborate with NPR.
The High Cost of Quality News
For starters, you've got an entire service model based on highly competent people delivering daily, nay, hourly journalistic services. Content has got to be well-conceived, well-sourced, vetted by others, expertly packaged, and delivered via multiple distribution pathways in timely fashion. And all these people have to be supported technically and administratively. Costs soar even higher when you send people abroad and into war zones.
NPR has grown its news service into one of the most admired on the planet. This on a comparatively modest news budget of $61 million (out of a total network budget of $161 million in FY'11).
The latest focus has been shifting toward journalism at the local level. Currently, there are 2000 journalists working in local public radio stations. The cost of fielding many new reporters in local stations is estimated as roughly $100-million dollars a year for every 1000 journalists employed.
The Changing Nature of Media
What Vivian Schiller is going to be remembered for most is her innovation in digital platforms. She riled some people up when she said NPR no longer has radio in its name, but she drew admiration for ushering in a new web site, a social media strategy, a rich mix of apps and multi-media products, and the NPR API for sharing content. All of this new media invention required significant investments in people, training and infrastructure while maintaining the legacy radio operation.
We all know that traditional journalists are being disintermediated by the Internet. But that doesn't mean the citizenry no longer needs what journalism offers -- relevant facts provided in appropriate context. NPR and its member stations may not know the future of journalism on the radio exactly, but they know its more about journalism than it is about radio.
In 2009, leaders of public media got a helpful road map in a document called "Public Radio in the New Network Age," from the Station Resource Group (the closest thing public radio has to a DC think-tank). While inclusiveness was the top concern, strong journalism -- national and local -- was next on the agenda.
The Complicated Business Model
It cannot be said often enough that NPR and its member stations are joined at the hip both in mission and in economic codependency. This is by design and it works remarkably well (despite the tension it naturally creates).
The business model basically works like this:
- Stations pay NPR membership dues and programming fees;
- NPR originates programming and sends it to stations;
- Stations deliver the programming to listeners (often adding value with local content);
- Stations seek to offset costs through contributions from the public, the government, corporations and philanthropy.
Stations also offset their costs through ancillary services like renting tower space, doing production for hire, etc. NPR, meanwhile, also conducts development activities to help support itself and the system.
Here's what the money flow looks like in a simplified illustration:
It's important to note that federal and state funding goes directly to stations who then choose whether to join NPR or not.
Also note that NPR largely stays away from direct solicitations from listeners, instead encouraging those relationships at the local level.
While stations and NPR do compete for philanthropic money (gifts and grants) and corporate money (underwriting sponsorships), these tend to sort out on national and local levels. For example, a national corporation may well afford the high underwriting fees to get its name before a national audience on NPR, while a local company would prefer only to spend its ad money on local underwriting at the local station.
What's particularly special about this model is that local stations and NPR each have a role to play that only they can do well. Stations provide an authentic relationship with local individuals. NPR provides powerful branding and resource aggregation. Together, they exploit the economies of scale.
Many are speculating on how well this model will hold up with the changing nature of media -- but so far it can't be tampered with... because NPR gets 80% of its operating money via the stations!
This graph from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting shows the distribution of all sources of revenues for all of public broadcasting in 2009.
The Complicated Goverance Structure
The NPR mission is designed and applied through the workings of the NPR board of directors. The directors also hire the CEO and monitor that leader's performance. This 16-member board is comprised of 10 member station managers -- who themselves are held to account back home by the boards of directors of their local stations.
CUNY Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis attacks the NPR board of directors in his reaction piece to Vivian Schiller's firing: "NPR's Inevitable Conflict." Jarvis focuses on the diverging interests of the stations and NPR as a conflict to be played out in the NPR boardroom. In essence, he's saying it's time for NPR to divorce the stations and go it alone. To this, I recommend the response by Dennis Haarsager, a long-time station manager who served as board chair and as interim CEO following the firing of Ken Stern, the previous NPR CEO:
Jeff is absolutely right to say, “There is a strategic cliff ahead.” Vivian saw it – so did Ken – so did I. We invested in solutions which the board supported. But NPR isn’t going to make the jump to internet distribution without writing off 90% of its listeners and be forced to win them back over the long slope of wireless growth. The audience isn’t ready for it; the mobile internet won’t scale to that level of use (just do the math) for many years, if ever; and local journalism and community outreach – plus more mundane but necessary things like local traffic and weather – depend on tax-based support and the income that audiences attracted to NPR programs voluntarily subsidize. The reality of operating public radio in the 200 or so markets in fly-over country is probably not apparent from our major cities, but it’s arguably more important to citizenship and quality of life in those communities than it is, because of alternatives, where Jeff and I live.
So, was the NPR volunteer board “ball-less” when it did whatever it did – appearing to some as dismissing its CEO to appease Republican critics? No, I think they were working to regain confidence in their ability to govern the organization and move it and public radio forward in the face of “Christensen disruptions” and challenges to funding. That is their tough job. --Dennis (from his blog, Technology 360)
NPR's drama should be of interest to anyone who cares about the future of journalism.
By walking through the mission, the theory and some of the major challenges facing NPR and its member stations, I've tried to show how aspirational and resilient it is by intention, by design.
As a lifelong practitioner of public service journalism, I've been personally pained and frustrated by the poorly informed debate about its intention and its practice. Clearly, our system is not reaching everyone nor serving all needs well -- but this is not a fault of mission. It's simply the gap between mission and perfect implementation.
When it comes to the public funding question, we can disagree philosophically on the rightness of it, but we should not disagree over the intentions that are behind it. I do support public funding on the basis that it is still a primary component of the funding fuel mixture, plus it represents the explicit endorsement by the American people for an electronic town square that is apart from commerical control.
One way or another, the future of trustworthy journalism will be forged through a clash of forces and interests in low-barrier world, by actors who may not have intentions as clear as those laid out by NPR and its member stations. But if these actors are to earn both the public respect and the financial support needed to consistently provide trustworthy journalism on a widescale, they'll need to approximate what NPR already has been trying to do.
I'm lucky to spend a year at Stanford where my focus has been "rewriting the NPR news station playbook." This was never meant as literally publishing a playbook -- but it was an attempt to untangle some of the thorny problems constraining local stations from achieving their vision as vital providers of trusted information in their communities.
At the moment, the quality of the political debate is the major constraint to the success of local stations and thus NPR.
The extent to which this debate fails to acknowledge the hope and promise at the heart of public radio's mission is the extent to which hope has been displaced either by apathy... or by hope's corrosive opposite, cynicism.