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So What Do You Do, Vivian Schiller, NPR CEO?

Fresh from overhauling NYTimes.com, this media vet's newspaper background informs her vision for NPR

- April 8, 2009
Vivian Schiller made headlines last fall when it was announced she would be leaving her post at NYTimes.com -- where she'd led the team responsible for the Times' much-admired Web overhaul -- to become president and CEO of NPR. Judging from Schiller's rather unconventional and "random" career path through media, however (she tells us curiosity is what drives all her career decisions), the sudden leap makes perfect sense.

To wit: The first job Schiller took after graduating from Cornell in 1983 was as a Russian tour guide; it was a position which eventually led to her being hired by Turner Broadcasting as the company's 'fixer' in the Soviet Union. Over the next 14 years, Schiller made her way up through the ranks at Turner, and at the time of her departure in 2002, she was in charge of long-form programming for CNN worldwide. She left CNN to launch the Discovery Times channel and spent four years as its senior vice president and general manager before moving over to head the Times online during a period which saw NYTimes.com establish itself as the standard by which other newspaper Web sites are measured. And now she's taken up the helm at NPR, a role Schiller refers to as a "once in a lifetime opportunity." Schiller arrives at NPR at an interesting moment in the annals of mainstream media. It's no secret newspapers are struggling to stay afloat; Amidst the current and dramatic decline in local and international newspaper reporting, NPR, along with its 860 member stations and 38 international bureaus, is well-positioned to step in and fill in the gap. Fast Company recently called NPR "the country's brainiest, brawniest news-gathering giant," speculating that the organization may well end up "saving the news." Judging from Schiller's tone of excitement and optimism during our interview, this may be exactly what she has in mind.


Name: Vivian Schiller
Position: President and chief executive officer, NPR
Resume: Before joining NPR, Schiller was senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com from 2006-2008. From 2002 to 2006, she was founder and general manager of the Discovery Times Channel (a JV of Discovery and the New York Times); 1998-2002, senior vice president of CNN Productions, in charge of long-form programming for CNN worldwide; 1988-1998, held various positions at Turner Broadcasting, starting with production assistant/fixer and moving up to senior vice president of TBS Productions; from 1985–1988, worked as a Russian tour guide and interpreter.
Birthdate: September 13, 1961
Hometown: Larchmont, NY
Education: Cornell, BA; Middlebury College, MA
Marital status: Married, with two kids ages 13 and 14
First section of the Sunday Times: "Op-ed part of Week in Review, then Sunday Styles."
Favorite TV shows: Mad Men
Last book read: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Guilty pleasure: "Glass of Chianti at the end of a long day."

You've been at NPR now since January 5, 2009. What's been the most surprising thing to you about the new job? What's your typical day like?
There has been no typical day. What has surprised me first of all is that some things are not surprising at all. I feel incredibly comfortable and at home there because the fact is, at good news organizations, there's a certain commonality to the culture -- people who are, for better or worse, very iconoclastic, very tough, very demanding about quality. That culture existed at The New York Times and it exists at NPR, so that feels the same to me. It actually feels very comfortable and very reassuring. So that was a good thing. What's been different for me? It's a completely new experience for me to deal with the station system, and it's a really interesting challenge. It's been really fun getting to know everybody. And also I've always been in commercial media -- mission-driven -- but nonetheless commercial media. And in this case [with regards to] a lot of our funding, I'm dealing with foundations [and] philanthropists, so that's been new and interesting experience.

Did you originally intend to work in so many different areas of the media industry? What did you envision doing/focusing on early in your media career, and why did that change?
I didn't know what I wanted to do. The only thing I knew -- and it was such a pompous college thing -- is, 'I'm never going to be one of those people who go to an office.' As if that was the epitome of evil. For me, my whole career has been about taking advantage of opportunities that intrigue me. Somewhere along the way, I realized the things I care about: journalism, media, quality content, a social mission. It sort of came into focus over time.

You can plan all you want but things are never going to turn out the way you plan them. So it's about being thinking about what am I doing now, and whatever it is, what's next? How do I need to be rethinking this? What's another opportunity? Just when you get comfortable, that's the time to realize, 'Okay, I need to be figuring out how to make this bigger.'

"Change is happening so fast in the media and the economy that you have to be able to say, 'Forget about what we did then -- let's look at what makes sense now.'"

You've gone from television to newspapers to radio. Describe the professional transitions you made from one medium to another -- which jobs were you leaving/entering, and what skills did you rely on from each to ease your progression?
I don't think it's ever been intentional. You really don't want to follow my path because it was very random, frankly [laughs]. The path makes more sense in retrospect than it did at the time: I see now how one thing has built on another, has built on another, and then I found greater and greater focus through that journey. One impulse for me has always been the same, and that is curiosity. The Russian [tour guide part of my career] was the result of intense curiosity about this -- at the time -- very mysterious place. Everything has always been about curiosity, which at the end of the day is sort of the fundamental quality of journalism. I realize that's what drives me.

You said in another interview that you one day hoped to write a book entitled 'Everything I needed to know I learned as a Tour Guide.' What skills did you learn as a tour guide in Russia that are applicable to what you're doing at NPR?
A lot of the skills that I use now in executive and management positions were the skills I needed as a tour guide. Public speaking was one. I was only 22 years old and speaking to groups of 125 people. Crisis management, because you know things on these trips would always go awry and this was before cell phones, before the Internet, in this strange, weird Soviet environment. Also, learning to prioritize and working collaboratively with people. All of these things which matter so much in these things I do now. It was a great time in my life. I had so much fun.

Some people seemed surprised that you chose to leave the NYT.com for NPR -- can describe how you came to that decision, and what the NPR role offered that spurred you to leave NYT.com?
I'm surprised that people were surprised. It was a tough decision in the respect that I absolutely loved working at The New York Times. It was extremely painful for me to leave there. I had no plans to leave -- I would have been there forever, except that this to me was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And the opportunity for me was to go from one really amazing news organization to another really amazing news organization -- one that is really strong. What is exciting to me is not only that it remains vibrant but also the amazing opportunity that NPR represents. It is such a strong brand, and has such a loyal audience. I want to try and extend that experience to other forms of media. That is a really exciting opportunity. I get to be the president, and it's an amazing team, and I know where we need to go. I don't know all the details of how we're going to get there, but I am so completely clear on where we need to go.

What are your long-term goals for NPR? With so much media moving online, including radio, how do you keep radio relevant in the Internet age? Is there an NPR site overhaul in the future? Describe what you think the site currently does well, and what do you think it can do better.
We need to do a number of things. We need to align, and as much as I wish we weren't in a terrible economy, it is forcing all of us to focus on the high priorities. We need to align with the stations. NPR needs to do a better job of working with the stations and come up with a common vision so we can make this local experience better and better on every platform. How do we translate those qualities people love about NPR to other mediums? I don't know the answer to that, but I know we need to do it. Not so much with video but online, mobile, whatever people want, podcasts -- you name it -- so that you have that same sense of the NPR experience wherever you are. As far as NPR.org -- sure, I want the traffic to increase, but to me the ultimate goal is not just bringing people to this walled garden that is NPR.org. The idea is to create this network. And then once that is set up, I want to count traffic for the whole thing, and aggregate that into one number. And you know what, once we do that, we're going to be right in there with the top five.

There has been a lot of talk about NPR's local strength. As local radio gets usurped by conglomerates like Clear Channel, and local network TV wanes as well, do you see NPR and its local satellites filling in the holes? How, exactly, does NPR capture the audience that's left without the local news outlets they previously had?
They're not actually satellites. Generally speaking the audience doesn't understand this distinction, and frankly they don't need to. When I tell people now that I work for NPR -- and people love it, there's not that many people who don't like NPR! -- the most common response is, 'Oh, I love that station.' Well, of course the funny thing about that is it's not a station. The way that we're structured, NPR is a central organization. We are a news gathering and news reporting, producing and distribution organization. We have 36 bureaus around the world. We produce programs, we also license and distribute programs. We also provide services to the stations in all manner of technology, lobbying -- you name it. But each station is run autonomously, so they're not really affiliates. They are members, which is a nuance. But it's important to understand that because the reality and the culture is a justifiably proud devotion to the local market and the local station. To me, local is the big play, because local commercial radio has abandoned the local market. Local newspapers are withering or sometimes dying. The big national media companies, including excellent ones like The New York Times, cannot afford to be covering every single community. So that leaves a big, gaping hole to serve Americans' local coverage. What we offer in the combination of NPR and the local stations is one-stop shopping for -- and it's not perfect -- local, regional, national, international news. That is our big play. Some people in the past or outside NPR have said, 'Why do you need the local coverage? Why not just have one national service?' Answer: because our unique offering is the fact that we are local. The stations know their communities. There's different demographics. There's different sensibilities. So we enable them and they provide it. A lot of these are very small stations that don't have reporting resources, don't have Web resources, so we at NPR have to do a better job, and I think it's part of our mission, to help them with training, with resources, with whatever they need. Now it's costly -- but that's a whole separate issue -- but I see our role as enabling all the local stations to thrive on radio and move in to other digital platforms.

Plenty of attention has been devoted to the demise of print lately, but what do you bring from the newspaper world, as well at the NYT.com, that you want to implement at NPR?
Several things: One is the philosophy about test and learn. At a lot of legacy media companies, there is a tradition from the past -- you take months to develop a new idea or program. You do focus groups. You do pilots. You hire talent. It's this long, elaborate process, and then it goes on the air and it's either a success or it's a failure. And if it's a failure, you've taken up so much time to do it. What I learned at the NYT is to be much more nimble -- it's a test-and-learn philosophy. If something doesn't work -- okay, we tried it, no big deal, get it off the site, move on. And I want to bring the same sensibilities to NPR. I don't think we need to be developing entirely new programs. But I think we need to be using this incredible platform we have, the news magazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and incubate new ideas. A perfect example of that is Planet Money, which is an extraordinary little project that is a co-production between NPR and This American Life. Now that it's a success and won some awards, we are looking at how we can extend it. Test and learn! The second, and this is really tough to do in a bad economy, is that you have to give creative people space.

How do you prefer to get your news in the morning? Print? Radio? Online?
Oh, any multiple of ways. I still really like to read the newspaper in print, which I know sounds really crazy because I was running the New York Times Web site, but personally for me I just like to pick up the paper. I don't actually read the newspaper till night, because I don't actually have time to sit, and I love lying on the couch, which I can't do in the morning. In the morning, I scan NYT online, I don't really read full articles. I scan WSJ, WaPo, NYT. I get a bazillion blogs -- the newsletters in the morning, about the trades. Obviously NPR. I have MyTimes.com set up with a bunch of RSS feeds, including mediabistro.com by the way, Romenesko, all of that. Then when I'm getting dressed and taking care of my kids, I listen to NPR on the local station, WAMU. I listen to it all the way to work. (On a side note, I want to be able to figure out a way that I can sample different station feeds from around the country.) During the day I scan email, and listen to NPR on the way home. And then when I get home, that's when I actually sit down and read the newspaper.

How will NPR support itself? How do you keep it sustainable? Do you foresee any more layoffs?
We have multiple revenue streams: Sixty percent of our revenue comes from stations, and stations are struggling, though interestingly revenue from our pledge drives is up. Then we get approximately 20 percent from underwriting, and we also get money from foundations and philanthropy and gifts, all of which are struggling in this economy. We get less than one percent from government-supported entities. We also get some from earnings from our endowment which, like everyone else's investments, are down. We are not immune to it; we are hurting in this economy. Everyone in media is -- I'm not just saying woe is me. So what do we do about it? I think we have to be really clear about our message and about why we add value. We need to do a better job of working with the system of raising money together. And we need to have our audience up, so that the underwriting and advertising continues to come into us. And we have to tighten our belt. I think it's inevitable that there will be more cuts, which doesn't necessarily mean there will be more layoffs -- I really want to differentiate between the two. There's no big sweeping announcement coming.

Paid content, whether through subscription or micropayment, is a hot topic these days. Which do you think will work, and for what types of media?
You know, I was the person that led the charge to kill TimesSelect. I always said, TimesSelect was the right thing to launch at the time, and the decision to end it that was the right decision. I don't know what the right decision now is for them. But it may be that there is another model. Change is happening so fast in the media and the economy that you have to be able to say, 'Forget about what we did then -- let's look at what makes sense now.' My gut is, no, the micropayment system doesn't make sense; on the other hand, I don't have a solution for how to save newspapers.

Do you plan on starting your own blog at NPR?
I'm taking baby steps to get there. My first baby step was that I launched an internal blog on our intranet for staff. And I blog on it all the time. I say, 'Greetings from San Antonio! I'm here meeting with..., this funny thing happened.' And I talk about business issues, but I also talk about what I am doing. I'll put links to articles I think people will read. So that's my first baby step. It's been really fun, and people have really appreciated it. I think people like the transparency. I've been very transparent about our challenges and all that. The next step is, I'm going to launch a blog for the NPR stations system. So that's now going from hundreds to thousands of people. And after that... we shall see. I mean I want to do this fast -- each one of these steps won't take a year.


Glynnis MacNicol is editor of FishbowlNY.com.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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