NPR blog makes internal strategy debates public

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Jeremy Barr

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Wednesday, May 14, was a confusing day for a lot of people. One person who cut through the noise and helped make sense of Jill Abramson's ouster as executive editor of The New York Times was NPR media reporter David Folkenflik.

Throughout the day, but especially in the early evening, Folkenflik tweeted out a steady stream of news and contextual information that was seized upon as a possible "why" for Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s decision.

Vox's Matthew Yglesias immediately saw the news value in Folkenflik's tweets, and compiled them in a post that ended up getting shared over 2,000 times.

The next day, the NPR Social Media Desk Tumblr asked aloud what a lot of media-watchers were wondering. 

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"Someone else ran with the work we did and it spread across the Web under their banner. How do we feel about that? ... Should we own or output our stuff in such a way that we beat outfits like Vox to the punch in cases like this?"

It was a dose of honesty, and if it read like an internal conversation, that's because it was. Since November, NPR has been publishing its in-house social media strategy discussions on the blog.

"We're public media. We really think that what we do should be visible and public," said Melody Kramer, who co-leads NPR's social media team.

The next day, NPR also published some of the feedback — both internal and external — it had solicited from its post on Folkenflik's tweeting.

"We should be storifying these tweets or using them ourselves, not allowing other outlets to gain social capital from using our material," one staffer said. "I view it as a loss. Why didn’t we do it? More important, why aren’t we set up to do that —- and quickly?" said another.

Kramer says this public airing of grievances is just part of the learning process for NPR and its member stations.

"We believe that we should share what we learn with our audience," she told Capital. "We thought that was a really good thing."

But for the uninitiated, the list-serve feel of the blog can be unsettling.

Buzzfeed editor in chief Ben Smith was confused but grateful for an NPR Tumblr mention of an item by Buzzfeed audio editor Julia Furlan.

"Not entirely clear to me why @npr is posting its internal conversation about us and @juliastmi on tumblr, but cool," he wrote on Twitter.

Folkenflik, for his part, was a fan of the conversation that flowed from his tweet-reporting.

"I think it's great that the social media team is doing it," he said of the Tumblr. "It's helpful to stir up conversations internally."

No news organization has mastered the art of delivering the news while simultaneously shining a light on its reporters and amplifying the reach of their work. But NPR is doing well, says Folkenflik, who picked up some 7,000 new followers from his Times coverage.

"They're trying to harness what people do organically in a way that will extend the coverage that we do as broadly as possible," he said in a phone interview.

Mark Coatney, who in his role as digital/media evangelist for Tumblr helped media organizations harness the power of the platform, has been impressed by NPR's transparency and social engagement.

"One of the key values of social media is taking media from a broadcast model, where the reader just consumes the product, to a conversational model, where the reader is a participant," said Coatney, now a digital S.V.P. for Al Jazeera America. "This does a really nice job of helping to foster that dialogue, and it's something I wish more media companies would adopt."