June 6, 2011
A Happy Landing: Why Vivian Schiller and NBC News Are a Good Matchby J. Max Robins
When Vivian Schiller resigned as president and CEO of NPR in March, I knew it wouldn't be long before she landed. So, hats off to NBC News chief Steve Capus for being the one to grab her. The news last week that she is joining NBC News in the newly created role of chief digital officer speaks volumes, not only about Schiller's rare blend of news chops, tech smarts, and entrepreneurial zeal, but about NBC News's long record of investing in technology.
A longtime friend of the Media Council here at the Paley Center for Media, Schiller is a savvy news executive who headed CNN Productions, the Discovery Times Channel, and later NYTimes.com before joining National Public Radio in January 2009. At The New York Times, she famously championed the dismantling of the TimesSelect pay wall in favor of building an online audience for a free, ad-supported NYTimes.com -- a position she defended at a 2009 Media Council "Free vs. Paid" debate with Steve Brill. (At a recent Media Council breakfast in April, she discussed how her thinking has evolved since then.) And in her short tenure at NPR, she was lauded for her progress in making the public broadcaster into a truly multiplatform enterprise with initiatives like the Argo Project and the Public Media Platform, which created an open digital-content sharing platform for member stations.
In hiring Schiller, Capus is sending a message to his new bosses at Comcast -- primarily a technology company prior to its acquisition of NBC Universal this year -- that he knows growth for his news division depends on exploiting the digital frontier. Capus has adroitly overseen a portfolio of channels and digital properties that's been a consistent cash machine for the company since he took the reins in 2005.
NBC News has long pushed a culture of innovation dating back to the early 1990s, when it started an affiliate news service in Charleston, N.C., and pioneered newsroom automation and the use of small format cameras in the field. Moreover, it's succeeded on cable where competitors CBS and ABC have failed, with CNBC and MSNBC, which established an early beachhead for the network online. Given the maturity of broadcasting and cable businesses, the legacy news organizations that flourish going forward will be the ones that are best positioned to take their quality brands and news-gathering capabilities. Schiller gets that about as well as anybody in the business.
It doesn't mean that she doesn't join NBC News without any baggage. Her exit from NPR came after a combative several months sparked by the firing of NPR commentator Juan Williams for seeming to violate a code of political correctness during an appearance on Fox News. In the midst of renewed calls early this year from Congressional Republicans to zero-out funding for public broadcasting, a right-wing sting operation caught NPR's development director appearing to confirm critics' characterization of public media as a cabal of pandering liberal elites.
Given the political climate and potential harm to NPR, Schiller understood there was little choice but to fall on her sword-even as the video of the sting was revealed to be edited misleadingly. She spoke candidly about the experience at the Media Council breakfast in April. She also talked about how she now believes the time is right for The New York Times and other news organizations to give pay walls another shot. Far from an ideologue with an agenda, Schiller is a seasoned journalist with a record of bringing hidebound institutions boldly into the present.
She may yet be a lightning rod for accusations of bias already being hurled at NBC from the right. But it's Schiller's bona fides as an innovator, not any perceived liberal sympathies with Rachel Maddow or others in her MSNBC cohort, that attracted Capus and NBC News.
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