NPR's Argo Project plans to increase 'vertical' news production

by Karen Everhart, Current Online

Looking to advance public radio’s standing as an online provider of news, NPR will try ramping up 14 stations’ local reporting capacity through a project that creates and distributes web-original content in specialized subject areas that the stations want to develop.

The Argo Project, as the network calls it, will help the stations expand coverage by creating “content verticals,” a new-media term for an ongoing online offering devoted to a particular subject.

Think of Planet Money — the feature that persistently examines the mysteries of the global economic meltdown. Imagine how Boston’s WBUR could apply that reporting depth and doggedness to health-care reform stories on its CommonHealth blog, or what Triple A pioneer WXPN could do on the Philadelphia music scene, or how Oregon Public Broadcasting could clarify environmental policy.

Proposals for a digital content repository shared by public TV and pubradio are “not only possible but absolutely where we should be aiming,” Kinsey Wilson said. (Photo: Steve Behrens, Current.)

That’s NPR’s approach to the Argo Project as described by Kinsey Wilson, head of NPR Digital Media. The project isn’t launching at top speed. Stations and NPR haven’t settled on topics, and NPR hasn’t raised the budget. The trial run of 18 to 24 months is expected to cost about $3 million, Wilson said.

The Argo Project is named for the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts, mythological Greek heroes who ultimately succeeded in a harrowing quest for the Golden Fleece.

Comparisons between public radio’s quest and Jason’s “can only extend so far,” Wilson said in an interview June 1. “It is a rather bloody tale in the Greek telling of it,” he said. “We were looking for a convenient name that people will remember.”

But the broadcasters have a valued objective in mind. “We feel that it is crucially important to the system as a whole,” Wilson said, “for us to develop and deepen our local newsgathering capacity.”

Stations joining the quest include KALW and KQED in San Francisco; KPCC in Pasadena, Calif.; KPBS in San Diego; KPLU in Seattle; Minnesota Public Radio; WAMU in Washington, D.C.; WBUR and WGBH in Boston; WNYC in New York; OPB; WXPN; and Wyoming Public Radio.

“We approached stations that have historically been interested in working closely with us or that were being pretty ambitious about their own local newsgathering efforts,” Wilson said. Participation will be limited to “keep it manageable in terms of cost and logistics.” Each station recently proposed several topics on which their websites could specialize.
Some day: pubTV partners

Argo runs parallel with other initiatives in digital public media, large and small:
NPR plans to offer podcasts and downloads of Morning Edition that will be customized to include local material from a listener’s preferred station.
The PBS NewsHour has offered to supply public TV video content for Argo stations.
That and other limited collaborations between pubTV and pubradio could grow into a more comprehensive partnership, as envisioned by advocates for the PBS News and Public Affairs Initiative. Consultant Tom Bettag, a former top producer at CBS and ABC News, is scheduled to make recommendations along these lines next week.

Proposals to establish an indexed digital repository of public radio and television content — under discussion since long before Wilson arrived at NPR last fall—are “not only possible but absolutely where we should be aiming,” Wilson said. “The question is — how do you get there both quickly but in a way that ensures that the interests of the parties being asked to play are being served?” he said.

The technical fix for all this future interconnection is the Open API (application program interface) that NPR released last July for wider nonprofit use of NPR journalism. The API that provides orderly access to NPR’s archives, custom-filtered by topic, can bring national stories to stations’ local websites and do the same for local content that stations put into pubradio’s national repository.

With all the pieces handily delivered by API, a website can stitch together “a close facsimile of what airs locally” on Morning Edition for podcasts or downloading. The NPR Board approved the localized Morning Edition webcast project in May, a decision that “seems to have removed any significant opposition to it,” Wilson said.

The API expansion also allows stations in the Argo Project — and those on the sidelines that may want to plug content from it into their own websites—to share material. The API can add multiple databases from local stations and can provide and publish content so that anything available in the system becomes available anywhere else,” Wilson said. Stations with web-development expertise will be able to craft their own websites; smaller stations that “need everything baked” can look for Public Interactive to provide templates and other tools to easily build their sites.

For the Argo Project, NPR will build a common platform and provide tools for blogging, search and aggregation and social media, Wilson said. “These are things that exist within the system, at NPR and elsewhere,” Wilson said. “Think of it as a rapid prototyping exercise, from a technological standpoint. Where we go and who ultimately builds and supports that platform over the long term is yet to be decided.” The long-term goal is to create a neutrally operated system for distribution of web content.
Why vertical?

Under discussion since January, the project helps stations boost their reporting in response to the decline and, in some markets, collapse of local newspapers.

In previous jobs, both Wilson and his boss, NPR President Vivian Schiller, looked for ways their national newspapers — USA Today and the New York Times, respectively — could provide local news. As dailies cut back and online offerings spring up in attempts to replace them, “we’re beginning to see the reinvention of newsgathering and delivery at the local level,” Wilson said.

“It would be foolish for us to sit on the sidelines as all of that is going on,” Wilson said. “So much of this is about timing. The ability to have an impact and be a player in that reinvention of news really depends on getting in there at the right moment, when things are in turmoil and when we’re strong on the radio.”

The Argo Project is aimed to satisfy the high expectations of Web 2.0 users, who want to “find quickly and easily that which they are most interested in,” Wilson said. “We have gone from a world in which there were a handful of distribution outlets to one in which there is information everywhere of enormously varying quality. Part of the task of a journalist is to help people find, identify and engage with information they are interested in.”

“That’s not at the exclusion of our reporting or storytelling — but it’s not enough to just do that,” Wilson added. “The winners in this game are going to be those who help people quickly get at what it is that they’re after. That’s more easily achieved with specific subjects on which you have particular authority or expertise, or that you’ve identified as a strong point.” And that’s where the Argo Project will concentrate, on topics that stations have identified.

“If you look at evolution of online news and what public broadcasting can bring to it—we do a good, capable job of daily news coverage, but where we can make a difference is by doing on the Web what we do on the air,” said Morgan Holm, v.p. of news and public affairs for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

For its Argo project, OPB has proposed specialized websites on environmental policy, economic diversification for rural communities or public health, Holm said. The first two topics “build on things we’re already working on,” particularly environmental reporting. “I would like to deepen and broaden what we’re doing online with that.” Holm also sees a need for better coverage of public-health issues in Oregon communities, and Argo “gives us a reason to aggregate the things we’ve already done and to do more.”

For WXPN in Philadelphia, a station partner in NPR Music, Argo provides a chance to build out the station’s coverage of the local music scene, according to Bruce Warren, p.d.

The station has been showcasing local talent for several years, but he needs a producer to create the content he envisions—“a combination of blogs, editorial coverage, reviews, concerts, listening MP3s, and video sessions of local bands”—helping to establish XPN as “the place in the local music scene with the best curated content.”

“It took me a pretty long time to figure out how this vertical thing works, and it makes pretty good sense,” said Sam Fleming, content director for WBUR in Boston. “As public radio looks for ways to better integrate its national and local web content, this is a good device to broaden that coverage out and offer greater depth.”

His news station has proposed to expand the editorial scope of CommonHealth (, a blog devoted to health care policy issues surrounding the 2006 Massachusetts law that extended health-care coverage to the uninsured. Other options: expanding web coverage about economics or higher education.

WBUR’s Public Radio Kitchen blog (, which launched about six months ago and already ranks among the station’s most popular online offerings, could also gain some editorial leverage via Argo. Its content is almost entirely driven by WBUR listeners and other outside contributors, Fleming said. Web traffic “is as high as anything that we do, and everybody here is sort of stunned by it.”

NPR has shared its proposal for Argo with CPB and “all the customary sources,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to characterize those conversations while they’re in process.”

“It is hard to say when we might see something come to fruition,” Wilson added. “Our goal is to get something operating in six months once we have the money in place.”

The Argo proposal responds to major conclusions of Grow the Audience, the CPB-backed study recommending strategies to expand pubradio’s audience by strengthening its programs, integrating its online news service and using digital technology to make its content more accessible, among other themes. Argo’s rollout as a pilot project takes its cue from a tactic proposed by the study’s authors, Tom Thomas and Terry Clifford of the Station Resource Group. To make progress toward audience goals, SRG calls on pubradio to form “coalitions of the willing” to work collaboratively in specific areas.

Argo will “start with those [stations] that are most interested and willing in experimenting with something over the short term,” Wilson said. Results will be showcased to the larger system and lay groundwork for broader collaboration.

Working with a small group of stations, Wilson said, “reduces the hurdle we have to get across to get buy-in, but also the amount of money that we have to raise over the short term to get something off the ground.”

article originally published at Current Online.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey