NPR announced to staff Monday that it is creating a team to build news applications and has hired the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Boyer to lead it.
The announcement represents a big bet on news applications, not just because of the team’s size – seven people, including Boyer – but because it comes just a few days after The Washington Post reported that NPR is running a $2.6 million deficit halfway through its fiscal year.
The Post reported that there are “internal discussions about staff and program cuts,” although NPR CEO Gary Knell said that was a last resort and NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher told Poynter that “no show, desk, or division has been targeted for cuts.”
The new team won’t add to NPR’s overall headcount, though, because the positions have been pulled from a few different places in the organization, including a few positions that are now unfilled.
Kinsey Wilson, chief content officer for NPR, said “it sort of dawned on me” at last fall’s ONA conference that “we actually had quite a few people working on this kind of stuff and we hadn’t brought them together as a team … What I needed was a strong leader to bring those different parts together.”
That will be Boyer, one of the first recipients of Medill’s scholarship to train software developers in journalism and currently the Tribune’s editor of news applications. Fittingly, Boyer said he gets most of his local and general-interest news from public radio.
The team will be part of NPR’s digital news operation, overseen by managing editor Mark Stencel. He expects to see the news apps team enhance the work of its investigative team, Planet Money and StateImpact.
NPR staff have done some of this type of work already, such as a presentation showing the growth of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. “What I’m hoping is that, by taking these positions and putting them together as a team, we’ll be able to do a higher level of [work] than we’ve been able to do with scattered design, database and development resources,” Stencel said by phone.
The initial team will consist of Boyer, data reporter Matt Stiles, who works for StateImpact, and three designers: Nelson Hsu, Alyson Hurt and Stephanie d’Otreppe. That leaves two positions open. Asked who he wants for the others, Boyer responded, “Programmers, programmers, programmers.”
It’s unusual for a news organization to dedicate seven people to news apps, although it’s hard to compare different companies because some people split their duties between editorial projects and other back-end work.
The New York Times most likely has the largest team, at 14. At The Washington Post, 10 developers are “embedded” in the newsroom doing some type of editorial work; about five are working on news apps at any one time. ProPublica has six on its news apps team; the Los Angeles Times has three Web developers who work on news apps, plus another three people with CAR skills, and sometimes others help on particular projects.
Wilson, a member of Poynter’s board of trustees, said the creation of this team doesn’t mean NPR is shifting resources to the Web instead of broadcast. Instead, it’s using digital methods to complement broadcast. “I would say radio is at the forefront of our digital strategy, but … we’re entering a world of multimedia audio, if you will, in which radio will be complemented by other storytelling forms.”
The news apps team, he said, “is an important component of an emerging strategy in which increasingly the radio we produce and the digital content we produce will be more effectively married together, both on the desktop Web and over time, mobile platforms and tablet platforms and other screens.”
So how will the news apps team complement NPR’s audio journalism? Stencel said radio’s power is its ability “to bring complicated stories to life, make them real, put a human voice on things that otherwise may be dry and complicated.” But on the air, it’s hard to make numbers comprehensible and to help people visualize complex types of information.
“Adding this allows us to take reporting that often has been underneath that type of storytelling and surface it in a way that also is just as engaging and powerful,” he said.
Boyer said in a phone interview that he wants these news apps to fit into people’s lives the way that NPR does – on a variety of devices, as they’re on the move, between all the other things they’re doing in the course of the day.
That means people should be able to view these apps on smart phones and tablets. As an example, he cited the online presentation for the Tribune’s recent investigation into the flame-retardant industry. (CJR’s Ryan Chittum called the series “a devastating piece of muckraking.”)
Everything but the stories for that project were done using “responsive design,” in which the layout and the size of graphics and text adjust according to the size of the browser window. An interesting example is an illustration of where flame retardants are found in homes; when the browser window is reduced to the size of a phone, the Web page substitutes small images in place of a larger one.
“I think one of the real challenges for interactive storytelling at this point is that ‘Web classic’ is essentially on its way to becoming a form of legacy media itself,” Stencel said.
Journalists “have no idea what kind of gizmos people are looking at your work on,” especially when they follow links on social media, said Stencel. “If when they get to that work on their iPad or their iPhone, if they can’t see it, that’s an unsatisfying experience.”
Boyer said he sees a particular challenge in localizing NPR’s national stories, something that will be harder for him than it is now at the Tribune. “I’m going to be looking a lot at the work ProPublica is doing; I think they’ve been the most successful doing work for a national audience that is localizable.”
He wants to work closely with affiliates to learn what local audiences want. “They know their audience. One of the things I harp on is being close to your audience, understanding their needs,” he said.
And he hopes to change the nature of newsgathering at NPR itself by giving its journalists “human-assisted reporting” tools. The idea is to set up systems that scan for certain things that are newsworthy and notify reporters.” It’s a way “to turn all reporters into data-driven reporters.”
If this team can aid such a shift at NPR, their work will end up bolstering NPR’s journalism regardless of how it’s delivered.