What Old Media Can Learn (from Fellow Old Timer) NPR

Apr 08, 2010


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I am addicted to National Public Radio (NPR). Ask anyone here at the EContent office: there is a near-constant stream of talk-radio coming from my desk. It always gets me thinking, but one day, during a pledge drive, I heard a particularly interesting claim: NPR is one of the few news outlets continuing to grow.

I thought about the fairly recent addition of one of my favorite local commercial radio hosts to the WNPR (a Connecticut affiliate) line-up, and realized that NPR did, in fact, seem to be growing-at least locally. Since we here at EContent spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the fee vs. free debate, I couldn't help but wonder what member-supported NPR was doing so right that they convinced listeners to voluntarily give them money for what is essentially a free service.

Of course, NPR has a major advantage over many other news outlets. It's a non-profit organization, and therefore can receive funding from such deep-pocketed benefactors as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (and the government) without the worries of posting a profit. Nonetheless, NPR seems to have the kind of loyal following that newspapers, magazines, and other media companies would kill for. It even seems to be stepping up its web-game, and on March 31, 2010, the broadcasting icon won a Peabody Award for NPR.org and "its exceptionally rich offerings."

I just kept wondering, what makes NPR so special that people voluntarily pay for it? So, I turned to my NPR-loving friends and asked a couple of them what it was about NPR that made it stand out. I knew that, like me, they donate to NPR. Yet, also like me, they do not subscribe to newspapers and balk at the idea of paying for news on the web.

A couple of themes emerged: Radio news is a great fit for multi-taskers. You can listen in your car, at your desk, or while washing dishes-and thanks to podcasts, you can do it on your schedule. Frankly, I've only got a couple hours a week to read, so I'm inclined to grab a good book not the newspaper. However, reengaging news fans is not as simple as getting a couple of your reporters to record stories for your website. Convenience was not the only factor my friends were interested in. The quality of NPR's reporting was important to them, too.

"It's my news source and the quality of reporting and entertainment is not matched by any media outlet (TV, print or radio)," Allison wrote to me in an email. "I can hear when they challenge themselves to be the devil's advocate and the fact that they do challenge themselves is what's important to me. The TV news is horrendous - it's more about sensationalism than reporting. NPR reports the news...and a wide array of news at that!"

Tracy echoed those thoughts: "I feel like I learn more than I do anywhere else. And to me, this is worth my money. I pay for entertainment such as my cable television, to go to or rent movies, and music--except I pay more than I believe than it is worth, unlike with NPR." So once again it all seems to come back to the content! Even in my wildly un-scientific survey, people say they are willing to pay for what they value.

Personally, I gave up my last connection to the world of "old media" -- cable television -- the last time I moved. I just didn't want to spend that kind of money on hundreds of channels I don't watch for the handful that I do -- not with sites like Hulu.com making it so easy for me to watch what I want to when I want to. If the cable company offered me an a la carte selection, however, I'd think about doing business with them again. But flexibility just isn't "old media's" strong suit.

The idea of "flexibility" got me thinking about Spot.Us, which EContent spotlighted in the last "EContent 100" issue as an InSite. Spot.Us is "an open source project to pioneer ‘community powered reporting.'" Essentially, community members can commission reporters to produce stories that matter to them. In many ways, this seems like a more specific version of what NPR is asking of its listeners. If I subscribe to my local newspaper I am told how much I have to pay, and have no say in what content ends up on its pages. With Spot.Us or NPR I get to determine what the content is worth to me, and directly or indirectly influence the editorial process.

What it comes down to, though, is that I just don't want to pay for news that I'm not interested in, don't have the time to read, or that I can find for free somewhere else. Until my local papers (or the cable company) figure out how to be more flexible and produce content worth my hard-earned money, and package it in a way that makes sense for my lifestyle, I just don't see this changing.

Now...back to All Things Considered...