the news frontier

NPR Builds a Brain Trust

Thought leaders convene for a digital “Think In”
October 12, 2009

An unusual gathering took place in San Francisco on Friday: NPR corralled about sixty Bay Area technology thought leaders—innovators, entrepreneurs, strategists, and investors—put them in a bunch of conference rooms, and asked them to brainstorm ideas for the network’s digital future. NPR called it a “Digital Think In.”

The goal was to come up with ideas that would help NPR’s digital teams “create a more informed public.” A key requirement was that all ideas had to be things the network could realistically implement within the next five years.

The participant list was impressive and included everyone from the CEOs of Mozilla, Technorati, and Automattic (WordPress’s parent company); to leaders from the design and strategy firms IDEO and Adaptive Path; to venture capitalists; to academics from Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley; to entrepreneurs from companies like 43 Folders; to staffers from the local NPR stations KQED and KALW. Hosted at the global innovation firm frog design, which has worked on MTV’s online properties and Disney consumer products, the group generated ideas for boosting local coverage, making use of social media, opening up NPR’s content for use by others, generating revenue, and expanding the network’s technological platform.

While some news organizations are seeking the help of outside strategy consultants in light of the current upheaval in journalism, this was the first time a media organization gathered some of the most forward-thinking people in technology and invited them to collectively see what they could come up with.

“[These are the people who] have created so many of the great digital inventions and companies coming out of Silicon Valley,” said NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. “To set them loose on journalism…is incredibly exciting. They’re going to think of things in a way that none of us at NPR, sitting around for a hundred years, would think of.”

The upshot? The group produced over a hundred high-level ideas and fleshed out about twenty of those, ranging from gamer techniques used to incentivize participation in fundraising, to the customization of playlists, to mechanisms to enable listeners to connect with each other, to elaborate systems to enable the public to unearth news stories.

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“I was tremendously impressed with what came out,” said Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s senior vice president and general manger for digital media, who attended the event. “It ran the gamut from things like the idea of making [the use of] a donation module a requirement of using the [NRP] API, which is marvelously simple in its conception and could be transformative, to much more complex ideas that could take some time to digest.”

Wilson said many of the ideas involved technologies or mechanisms that the NPR team thinks about on a daily basis. But, he said, having people who are on the cutting edge of technology brainstorming together meant that the group came up with entirely new ways of connecting the “different bits and pieces.”

One theme that emerged in many of the ideas involved the “atomization” of content—the fact that, online, people don’t engage with whole programs the way they do in the analog world, but instead consume and pass around bits and pieces of content. “Not one of the presenters, all of whom are pretty ardent [NPR] listeners… talked about All Things Considered or Morning Edition,” Schiller said. “They were talking about the elements, the stories, and how people can engage with that information…the almost relay effect of information going from one person to another.”

Both Wilson and Schiller emphasized that they intended Friday’s workshop to be the beginning of a longer conversation. They want to continue discussions with technology leaders and are considering setting up a digital advisory group. Wilson said that many of the ideas that were generated Friday will probably be posted to the Digital Think In Web site, where both participants and others who didn’t attend the workshop can further hash them out.

The “open kimono” approach was another unusual aspect of Friday’s gathering. Instead of keeping the discussions behind closed doors, NPR opened them up, broadcasting live from the group sessions and live-blogging and tweeting from the breakout groups. Reporters were invited to attend the event, and participants were notified that all discussions would be “on the record.” The thinking is that the more brains NPR can get working on the challenges it faces, the better the ideas that will be generated.

“Clay Shirky talks about how there’s no way any single organization, no matter how smart the individuals inside it are, can respond to the pace at which things are changing,” Wilson said. “The value of allowing people to come into the conversation will exceed whatever you give up in terms of proprietary ideas.”

But both Schiller and Wilson acknowledged that NPR might be in a unique position to take such an open approach. For one thing, they said, there’s an enormous amount of goodwill toward NPR, and many people, like Friday’s high-powered participants, are willing to donate their time help the network out. For another, publicly traded companies might have obligations to their shareholders to keep strategy discussions secret, Schiller said.

NPR, however, plans to continue to collaborating with outsiders. Starting this weekend in Washington, D.C., the network is kicking off a series of “Public Media Camps,” unstructured workshops open to the public whose purpose is to come up with ideas for projects to strengthen public media that NPR can work on with the community at large. And Schiller said, in light of Friday’s success, her team is now considering holding another “Think In” sometime next year, but this time with tech leaders in New York’s Silicon Alley.

E.B. Boyd is the co-editor of’s BayNewser.