While there is plenty of discussion out their about how news organizations of all types are trying to handle the migration of eyeballs, ears, and advertising dollars to the Internet, there's another important issue — especially when considering news content distributors like NPR and their relationship with their affiliates.  Since similar organizations like the Associated Press, Bloomberg, and Reuters also have news sites of their own, it is important to ask: How can distributing and producing content on the Internet help both the distributor and affiliate? 

First, syndication is not the entire solution since web surfers have the freedom to get information from where they want and search engines and other sites can easily send them to view the same content in multiple locations. The traditional constraints of media markets that broadcasters and publishers enjoy offline aren't in play.

I've been thinking about this question since NPR's Andy Carvin announced the other day the launch of the Get My Vote beta site — a site where people can submit video, audio, and text political commentaries.  It has many features that one would expect to find on a social media site with user profile pages, RSS feeds, comments, member-to-member messaging, recommendations, tagging, and the ability to embed the commentaries on other sites, a pleasant surprise, but that's for another post.

One of the main reasons why NPR or any other organization would launch such a site is to better connect with its audience.  However, listeners aren't the only ones in the public radio system (or news media affiliate system) that NPR needed to consider when developing Get My Vote.  Its local affiliates throughout the country also carry major clout, and there is some major debate occurring in this realm about social media ventures like this one.

This tension was publicly displayed last week when NPR announced that its CEO Ken Stern would leave the organization as a "mutual" agreement between him and the board of directors.  I don't know the exact reasons, but articles from the Washington Post and New York Times speculate that Stern's approach to integrating the Internet into NPR's business model is part of the reason behind his departure. 

During his tenure, NPR expanded its audience and influence partly by increasing its online presence, and that helped it and the local stations.  However, in a blog post by former NPR Exec and Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin explains that some people at the local station level felt like they were left out of the loop when he states:

Ken Stern's departure from NPR was caused, I assume, because his vision for NPR and the stations' vision of service to the listeners became increasingly separate. Inevitably, these competing visions were bound to clash. Managers who ignore the reality that at NPR, the customers (the stations) own the company, do so at their peril.

NPR owes its existence to local stations that air its content and pay dues to keep the organization functioning, and it is troubling to many in the affiliate community to see NPR enable people to bypass them to access public radio content.  The Internet allows anyone with access to do just that, and Stern tried to connect NPR with its audience more by buttressing its website by pursuing projects like the Bryant Park Project, a show with a strong online component, and the NPR Music site which is a portal to musical performances, interviews, and news produced by NPR and some of its member stations.  

The Internet also enables listeners to access content on their own schedule or content that isn't provided by the local affiliate(s) all while essentially bypassing the stations.  If the stations are increasingly left out of the equation, why should they pay to air NPR content or obtain underwriting support with a dwindling audience?

It is also crucial to acknowledge the disruptive nature of podcasting since it allows people to listen and watch media whenever and wherever they want. This leads people like Hear 2.0 blogger Mark Ramsey to request the ability to contribute to individual public radio shows — not stations, and by touting that it is "a leading podcaster" with over 600 offerings (albeit many from its affiliates) NPR complicates the matter.

That's why the Get My Vote site straddles an interesting line between NPR's need to better connect with individual listeners while not cannibalizing its local stations.  That's probably one reason why Carvin was quick to explain on his blog that:

We've also designed the project in such a way that local stations – both NPR and PBS stations – can create their own Get My Vote initiatives on their websites by embedding Get My Vote widgets. That way, a station can localize the project.

Personally, I think that targeting both a national and local audience makes this site more useful and more profitable for NPR which developed it as it sells yet another service (or creates another expense to justify the fees it charges) to its affiliates.  However, the whole point of this post is that although media distributors are trying to serve listeners better but cannot avoid acknowledging the, albeit very important, elephant in the room — their affiliates/clients. 

Once again I'll explicitly point out that other news media organizations are facing similar issues as eyeballs, ears, and ad dollars migrate to the Internet.

Now, as Dvorkin suggests, do Internet ventures like Get My Vote force news media distributors to favor audience members or affiliates over the other?  How could media execs like Stern harness the Internet to help both the distributor and the affiliate?  Those are two very important questions that media companies must address about the Internet in addition to the migrating audiences and advertising spending.

Update: Randy Dotinga's article "NPR grapples with the prospect of a post-radio future" in today's Christian Science Monitor also discusses how podcasting has affected NPR's relationship with its affiliates.  Ken Stern is also mentioned.