NPR is taking a measured approach to its new local reporting and content curation initiative Project ARGO – including its sponsorships. The project launched today with 12 local sites affiliated with NPR stations, each one dedicated to a topic of local significance with national implications. The goal is to help develop new multimedia content and broaden NPR’s original reporting in a cost-efficient manner, and by extension, generate new sponsorship streams.
The twelve pilot sites, unveiled over the past six weeks, sit on a content management platform customized by the Project ARGO team, and are associated with some of NPR’s largest stations based throughout the country, including WNYC New York, WBUR Boston, Minnesota Public Radio, and San Francisco’s Northern California Public Broadcasting, KQED.
DCentric, a site affiliated with Washington, D.C.’s WAMU, for instance, focuses on the city’s evolving communities and cultures, touching on issues like race and local politics. And Home Post, an offshoot of San Diego’s KPBS.org, is dedicated to military life, a subject dear to the hearts of San Diegans – enough so that their home baseball team The Padres dress in camouflage uniforms whenever they play their home field on Sunday.
Yet the new network sites have yet to be sold separately to sponsors. Instead, standard display ads seen on the affiliated station sites are running. A standard display ad seen on Home Post promotes the California Healthcare Foundation, while an ad for a Julia Fischer album is running on DCentric.
“Right now the way we’re approaching [sponsorships] is to try to create opportunity for the stations,” said Bryan Moffatt, VP digital strategy and ad operations at National Public Media. “We’re always looking to build interest in products to take to their local sponsors.”
That top-down approach will persist for the short and medium term, but Moffatt continued, NPR in the future may “work with some stations to carve opportunities that are broader than their regional markets… It’s definitely on the roadmap.”
Local affiliates have thought about advertising potential of the sites, though. For example, while most sites follow a similar template, Minnesota Public Radio’s local higher education site On Campus features a large, above-the-fold unit requested by the affiliate.
The sites are intended to form a network, and like NPR’s affiliate station sites today, they will provide content for a network featuring ads with non-commercial messages – a self-imposed requirement for NPR.
The content of the new sites – which also includes healthcare, climate change, and local music – could easily lend itself to endemic advertisers; however, Moffatt said he and others reaching out to potential sponsors would position the sites as places attracting “a very engaged local audience of thought and opinion leaders…. That kind of an angle plays better,” he said.
Still, a hope is to build audiences of critical mass around particular subject matter, said Joel Sucherman, program director for Project ARGO, pointing to Boston’s WBUR, which operates the new CommonHealth site. The site focuses on local implementation of healthcare reform in Massachusetts, which served as a basis for national reform. “We’re creating the conditions for community to thrive, creating this passionate, knowledgeable community around a niche topic whom a sponsor might want to have a relationship with,” said Sucherman.
“We could have gone for much sexier subjects if it was all about getting eyeballs,” he said, alluding to sites like gossip peddler Gawker. Also referring to content aggregation strategies used by Huffington Post, he continued, “The point is that they’re doing something that’s making them very successful…. It would be foolish to not pay attention to some of the devices they’re using.”
The project was developed through a $3 million dollar grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More sites are expected throughout the coming year, said Sucherman. Each site is written by one blogger, or in some cases, two part-time bloggers, in an effort to reduce reporting costs. In addition to original content, the sites – built on a custom version of WordPress – also aggregate content from elsewhere.