Curious about its performance and implications for the future of NPR’s journalism content distribution, I checked in with Mark Stencel, their Managing Editor for Digital News, and then followed up late in the week by doing a phone interview with Kinsey Wilson, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Digital Media, as he was driving to BWI to catch a flight.
Developed by Bottle Rocket, a custom mobile application development shop, and created to enable users to either read or listen to top news stories when using the iPhone, the application enables either live listening to programs occurring on almost any NPR station in the country or it enables time-shifted listening with the ability to bookmark a favorite station and then queue up programs in a playlist.
The iPhone app has garnered more than half million downloads since launch and been solidly positioned in the top ten among free apps in the news category on iTunes, even holding the top slot at one point. As encouraging as that is from NPR’s perspective, the app also seems to be driving a high level of audience engagement with more than 15 minutes of listening occurring with each opening of the application, according to Wilson.
He believes this would indicate users of this application are making a deliberate decision to consume NPR news and information in the moment and that they have time to do so when opening the application. It supports NPR’s aspiration that this application would enable their fans to listen whenever it is convenient and have that ability on an “untethered” device even more mobile than a computer or radio itself (given the fact that transistor radios are no longer in fashion).
I am interested in these results because they confirm for me the wisdom of a strategy recognizing that news and information must be fitted into the fabric of the audience’s life, rather than demanding “appointment viewing or listening” as a pre-condition for media consumption. Further, NPR has recognized that its core platform can be easily adapted for use on another distribution channel, while offering two distinct ways to consume news and information within that new channel.
I think the strategy recognizes that the audience’s time for consumption of media is limited. By facilitating rather than fighting day-parted, time-shifted media consumption, NPR is winning even more support and positive plaudits from their already-loyal audience.
Creating iPhone apps is also logical for NPR because it provides an alternative to the “lean forward” search-driven media consumption patterns prevalent on news websites. Yet, it does not force NPR to eschew the web as another platform for news and information delivery. In fact, their strategy represents the new ideal for organizations delivering journalism; be ubiquitously available to your audience, recognizing the audience may consume on different platforms at different times of the day for different reasons.
Equally interesting are the implications of NPR’s decision to offer open API’s to the development community. This led directly to the iPhone app NPR Addict, created by Bradley Flubacher, a professional programmer and volunteer firefighter in State College, Pa. His iPhone app was developed and offered for free, consistent with the NPR mission of making the highest quality news and information freely and universally available to “meet the highest standards of public service in journalism and cultural expression.” It actually predated the release of NPR’s own NPR News iPhone app and was also developed for free by Mr. Flubacher because he is such a big fan of NPR’s journalism.
According to Wilson, “opening up the APIs allows for a different relationship with our audience and the open source community. We are fortunate to have a diversified revenue stream and a very tight relationship with our audience. Our audience does feel like they “own” us and the open API project is a way of further engaging the audience while also allowing local member stations to present NPR content on their own sites to help them also strengthen ties to their local audience.”
The necessity of staying abreast of potentially disruptive advances in technologies is still very much a reality for NPR as it is with other mainstream media companies. That led me to ask questions about the value of new applications and how NPR is going to shape the development process moving forward. This is relevant because NPR also plans to release applications for the Symbian and Android mobile platforms later this year.
He elaborated on NPR’s development process this way:
The NPR approach is to use work by open source developers, to do some development in-house, and to work with outside developers when necessary on technologies that may be very specialized, or being developed very quickly by outside entities. When working with outside developers, we need to own and understand the code so we can support it properly and modify it, if necessary, over time to meet our needs.
Three factors need to be present for success in creating new applications, according to Wilson.
- Strong insights into audience needs and behaviors.
- Internal focus on product development, likely product lifecycles, and potential new platforms for content distribution.
- Tight integration of product development efforts with the existing editorial products and operations.
On the first point, it is crucial that a media company deeply understand how the audience is adopting and using new technologies. Then that must be matched against the core competencies of the organization as well as the current value proposition being expressed. This strong insight has to go beyond standard focus group questioning.
We are operating a news organization that is fundamentally healthy and optimistic about its future. People are excited about the prospects three to four years out, and it is easier to get our entire company excited about the possibilities of exploiting all digital delivery platforms. That transition has also been aided by a grant from the Knight Foundation to train all of the NPR editorial staff on all aspects of digital publishing. That training is helping to expand internal thinking about how NPR reaches its audience and can give the staff a clearer sense of what content the audience is looking for in different venues at different times of the day.
Finally, NPR has moved to the AGILE development process and begun to embrace it for such things as the recent redesign of their website, an event that preceded the application launch by about a month. Adopting that method of product development and innovation helps position NPR to function more like a software company than a large media company in this aspect.
We are shifting from a the point where the web is a fairly conventional news platform to a situation where digital delivery is becoming something different. Content is finding the audience, and the audience is coalescing around platforms that best serve the audience needs overall.
In closing the conversation, I asked Wilson to compare the act of bringing NPR fully in the digital age with the same efforts being waged by other major media companies who operate exclusively in the for-profit world, beset with responsibilities to shareholders about stock prices, profit margins, etc. I felt his recent past experience as USA TODAY’s Executive Editor would give him a good frame of reference for making the comparison.
“At NPR, we have a different mission and business model. We are not under the same pressure as companies dependent on advertising. We are also blessed with a stable audience that may actually be growing. It is very hard to take mature large media companies and give them the characteristics of a scrappy startup to address the challenges of creative destruction introduced by disruptive technology changes. That kind of transformation requires leadership and resolve from the highest levels of management all the way through the organization.”
His response leads me to think about one more point. NPR has chosen to recognize that their content has value on multiple platforms with separate delivery capabilities. This view contrasts sharply with media companies who claim to be “platform-agnostic” and who see their content flowing across platforms without any corresponding necessity to really re-think or re-form content presentation to take advantage of specific platform attributes. It seems to me that NPR’s approach is more sophisticated and more likely to breed further success. It doesn’t hurt either that NPR is enaging their audience so directly to help them enhance the fundamental value proposition.