By: Alan D. Mutter
The people who listen to NPR are a lot like those who read newspapers. They tend to be wealthier, better educated and more thoughtful than the population as whole. And, like newspaper readers, they are older than the broader population, too.
But there’s one major difference between NPR and most newspapers: The managers at NPR have moved aggressively to create differentiated digital products to attract new, and significantly younger, audiences than their traditional radio listeners. In a moment, we’ll take a look at how they did it. First, let’s look at how well they did.
While the median age of the NPR radio audience is 49, the median age of its web visitors is 40 and the median age of its podcast users is 36, according to a survey published on its website (http://tinyurl.com/nprdemo). This compares to the national median age of 38.
The age differences across the NPR media result from the fact that each platform attracts its own, distinct following. While 18 percent of web visitors tune in to NPR radio, only 12 percent of radio listeners visit the website, according to the audience survey.
The podcast service, which serves nearly 25 million downloads a month, delivers the added bonus of encouraging two-thirds of its relatively young listeners to listen to radio broadcasts at least once a week. While there’s no way of knowing if podcast users will turn into lifelong radioheads, it’s better for NPR to have them periodically engaging with the legacy platform than iTuning it out altogether.
Now, let’s look at the newspaper industry, where the story is not as bright.
The median age of a typical newspaper print reader is 58 and the average age of a news website reader is 49, says Greg Harmon of Borrell Associates who has surveyed users at scores of newspapers for more than a decade. “These audiences,” said Harmon in an interview, “get a year older every year.”
Another long-time industry watcher, Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, reported (http://tinyurl.com/newsdemos) in October that people under the age of 50 spend notably less time perusing the news each day than their elders. After studying news consumption for a decade across every age group, Kohut concluded that individuals ranging in age from 18 to 47 “have so far shown little indication that they will become heavier news consumers as they age.”
Facing the same daunting demographic headwinds as newspapers, the management of NPR embarked on a thoughtfully conceived strategy to export their assets and brand to digital platforms to attract different, yet complementary, audiences. To do this, they created a magazine-style website and a comprehensive podcast library featuring audio from more than 50 local affiliates and other providers.
Where newspapers for the most part export the look, feel and content of the printed product to the web – and, in many cases also to smartphones and tablets – the NPR efforts are purpose-built to leverage the full array of digital technology for each audience and application.
NPR had an advantage over newspapers: As an audio-only medium seeking to project its brand to the highly visual digital realm, NPR had to learn how to acquire and use pictures, videos, maps and other graphic elements. To do so, it took its cues from successful native digital publishers, unfettered by the stubborn obeisance at most newspapers to a format inspired by the need to efficiently craft pages the way Gutenberg did.
Because NPR was free to start from scratch, its website looks, and functions, like a truly interactive medium, where it is easy to find related content, navigate to a local affiliate, add or read comments, and share an article or audio clip via Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or email. There are revenue opportunities at every turn, including links to the NPR Shop and – this is, after all, public radio – where visitors like you can make a donation.
Attuned to the desire of modern consumers to customize their content consumption, the podcast section of the website features a “mix your own” playlist tool, tapping a rich and easily searchable library of content indexed by topic, title and provider. The organization, design and convenience of the NPR podcast environment actually surpasses the podcast section of the estimable iTunes store.
The NPR digital strategy creates multiple entry points for consuming multiple types of content on multiple types of media on multiple types of platforms. As such, it is the antithesis of the one-size-fits-all content and presentation employed by most newspapers across their digital media.
The difference in strategies between NPR and newspapers would not matter if publishers were continuing to gain readers and revenues. But print penetration is at a modern-day low and advertising revenues are less than half of what they were as recently as 2005.
Publishers interested in turning things around should tune in to the NPR strategy.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor and Silicon Valley CEO who now serves as a consultant to media and technology companies. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (www.newsosaur.blogspot.com).