“She liked the Planet Money content,” Davidson said, “and, more importantly, she instantly understood that several things embedded in the Planet Money experiment were truly important to NPR’s future”—namely, the power of collaboration and entrepreneurship that produces passionate journalism with a dual radio-Web focus. “The old broadcast model was inherently only top-down. The ideas all had to be big ideas, with huge funding and huge pressure to be a success,” Davidson continued. “She saw at least one path to success here for NPR more broadly—to make everybody feel excited, that they can and should be dreaming big and exploring new ideas.”
Still, despite the good feelings and strong audience support for Planet Money, by spring 2009 unresolved issues had piled up and begun to press. Was this a permanent unit, or would Davidson and the others at some point return to their old jobs? How many stories should the unit do for This American Life and NPR’s news shows? Was there an expansion plan? What exactly was its relationship with This American Life? “Even to schedule meetings with the right people was impossible. It wasn’t happening,” Davidson said. He began to fear NPR’s bureaucratic process could take years.
He talked to Schiller about his frustrations and she agreed that the ad-hoc nature of Planet Money’s existence had to end. They set up a two-hour meeting in her office—scheduled in back-to-back, half-hour increments—with each department that needed to weigh in. For example, the finance department figured out how to move the team’s funding to the permanent budget, and the general counsel committed to working out the specific legal relationship with This American Life.
“I think everyone left the meeting feeling like they had been heard,” said Davidson. He recalled Schiller’s words as she closed discussion on one contentious issue after another: “Done and done.” He was stunned.
Before Schiller’s arrival, Davidson said, management had sent out several pronouncements on how the staff had to get on board with new initiatives, embrace technology changes, work in a different way. “We were sort of culture-change-fatigued,” he said. But in Schiller’s first year, “the real culture change I’ve seen is amazing.”
Just a few months after Schiller’s arrival, Fast Company magazine dubbed NPR “the most successful hybrid of old and new media,” quite a compliment after many acrimonious starts and stops in the digital realm. NPR went from nowhere in digital media to one of the savviest users of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, to providing apps for phones that run on the Android program, to producing the popular Web sites NPR.org and NPR.org/music, and to building a digital infrastructure that allows member stations and members of the public to pick up NPR content and weave it seamlessly into their own Web sites and playlists.
“We were slow to the game,” said Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s senior vice president and general manager for digital media, who was hired in October 2008 from his position as executive editor at USA Today. He said NPR is not attempting to play catchup to build a portal-like news Web site; rather, it’s creating digital media infused with NPR’s sensibility, available on multiple devices. Using a $1.5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, awarded in September 2007, NPR is putting its entire newsroom of 334 journalists, plus another fifty or so staffers, through extensive digital training, ranging from two-day sessions to in-depth, five-week programs.
Wilson and others acknowledge that the tension between the traditional radio mission and the digital future still exists within the NPR newsroom, and in NPR’s relationships with its stations. “One of the reasons the transition to new platforms is hard here is because of the dedication to craftsmanship. NPR online is not as perfect or honed as NPR on the radio,” said Dick Meyer, NPR’s executive editor, who described the newsroom as “mostly like a giant workshop of craftsmen who are incredibly devoted to old-world values and new-world goals and visions.”