Not to be repetitive, but… NPR + PI = ?

Back on the 31st I mentioned the NPR purchase of Public Interactive (PI), wondered what the meaning was and hoped for some announcements or details from NPR. Since then there’s been more discussion out there, including a rather long post by Robert Paterson as well as a short one from Sue Schardt. The NPR CEO himself, Dennis Haarsager, posted on the topic as well, including…

I will have a lot more to say about this, how we got here, where we hope to go with it, and who the key players have been in this multi-year effort to extend public media’s impact in a future post.  PI will continue its current range of services, but it would also be useful to think of it as the beginnings of a new digital division within NPR which will operate with the same culture of neutrality as has characterized public broadcasting’s satellite distribution systems for decades.

That’s encouraging, but vague. Knowing Dennis’ capacity for system design and strategic thinking, I definitely feel better that he’s at the helm, but I sure would like more details on what’s behind the purchase.

In the mean time, I’ve exchanged private Twitter messages and e-mails with a few folks outside and inside NPR. To date, either no one knows what’s going on with the purchase or they’re not willing to say. Very odd. A major purchase like this would, presumably, be backed up with a “big idea” or a plan for the future, and you’d think people would be excited to talk about it.

So I’m still in the camp of “huh?” when it comes to the NPR / PI deal. I’m not against it, but I’m not seeing the value yet. I’m hoping Haarsager in particular can shed some light in the coming weeks.

But I’ll be more specific: I’m not interested in more web templating services from PI or any other vendor. They don’t really help me provide valuable, organic, human-scaled interactive experiences for — and with — my community.

My station’s use of any media platform must be authentic and must be “tuned” to the rhythms of the platform and the needs of the community.

So if I’m providing interactive web services, they need to feel organic, natural, part of the web’s fabric and not a “patch.” The PI offerings have, in my experience, felt like patches. They were designed for stations that had no “digital natives” on board and could not or would not invest in next generation services, but still had to have something on the web. A noble goal in its way. Unfortunately, such services encourage stations to treat the web as an afterthought, as a necessary evil, not as a next-gen media platform that operates on a new set of principles.

As tools on their own, the PI services are fine. They work as advertised (which is more than can be said for a lot of software). But they all have the feel of “made somewhere else” and “commodity package we bought just to get this done.” It feels hollow. Ning sites feel more organic.

If NPR bought the PI toolset and services with the idea of just selling them to stations as PI has done since inception, then this deal makes no sense; then it’s just a game: PRI owns it, then NPR owns it, maybe APM is next or PBS or whatever. But if NPR plans to use the skill sets resident in the PI staff to go in some new directions — more like API stuff, less like web templates — then this might make a ton of sense, and it’s a service I’ll want to use.

Too bad NPR already had a smart web services team in-house, unencumbered by the legacy PI business model. NPR could have started in-house with the team they have. Although I suppose buying PI gives you political cover while you develop these services. NPR Board and management can focus on traditional PI operations while substantial behind-the-scenes API / utility development costs are incurred. Maybe the PI purchase is just a new media red cape keeping the old media bulls distracted.

Am I being too cynical here? What am I missing? And when do we think NPR will come out and say what their plans are for the PI purchase?

3 thoughts on “Not to be repetitive, but… NPR + PI = ?

  1. I think this will unfold. One of the key internal private discussions the participants of the Digital Distribution Consortium had with NPR in 2006 (I was one of the six individuals on the DDC) was the disposition of PI. I’m not saying that NPR acquired it with the intent of pursuing to the letter what DDC had in mind for PI, but if you allow yourself to think more broadly about PI and its capabilities, most importantly its possibilities, you start to see there are a number of paths this might take… few of which damage or take anything away from NPR’s in-house digital unit.

  2. Todd, I agree there are possibilities here. I’m hopeful that NPR has a more concrete idea of which possibilities they want to pursue. But I remain surprised that an overarching notion of what to do with PI has not been broadly promoted or discussed. The purchase was a chance to generate a bit of splash and get attention for a new vision. (Are they waiting for the purchase to be completed at the end of this month?)

    I’m decreasingly anxious, however. Partially because things are about to change where I’m working and I’ll be totally distracted anyway. But mostly because I’m reassured by your comment here. You haven’t said anything specific, but I’m getting a good read-between-the-lines sense that no one has provided before this. Thanks!

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