NPR’s Argo Launches With Dozen Sites In Search Of Sustainability

NPR promised to launch its $3 million local journalism effort Project Argo this summer and it’s making the deadline with days to spare. The Argo Network goes live officially today: twelve sites hosted by 14 stations, each zeroing in on a topic of specific interest to that community relevance — local music in Philly, education and technology in the Bay Area, climate change on Cape Cod, New York state politics, the military in San Diego. Now another clock starts ticking: the pilot project is funded only through fiscal year 2011.

NPR wants to show that with the right resources, stations can create beats of value to the community and in turn increase their own audience and value by using the internet as a platform for original content. Those resources include the funding to hire dedicated reporter-bloggers who come at the topic from an internet-first, not radio-first direction and the technology to support the sites. Put another way, it’s about helping members find a digital strategy beyond having a companion website for a radio station.

Stations may not be able to afford a team of reporters dedicated to a topic but can support one beat that is tightly focused, said Project Director Joel Sucherman. “Our mission is in proving out the theory. In order to gain traffic we feel there has to be a certain dedication to that site.” The stations selected to take part in the first Argo wave agreed to mainstream their new hires, not to carve out space away from the action. That’s not just to keep the blogger from being isolated; it’s to give the stations a chance to learn from how the blogger approaches writing and news.

At first glance, the small NPR logo tucked in the top right hand corner of new Philly music blog The Key might just be a reminder that parent station WXPN is an affiliate. But the logo with the words “Argo Network” is a subtle badge connecting the new site with the 11 other sites at NPR stations across the country, one of the few outward signs for most users that the network launching today even exists. No front-page mention of the role NPR had in launching The Key or the $3 million from the Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Much of what connects the Argo Network is below the surface — for now.

Go deeper to an article page and an NPR Network module appears on the lower right rail with links to stories across the network. The interlinking I envisioned when I first heard about Project Argo isn’t there, though. Each site has its own taxonomy; there isn’t a shared tagging system that automatically links topics or threads. It’s more of a federation then a shared knowledge base. That’s because the real emphasis now is on the sites, not the network. “The thing we concentrated on most was making the site work for the audience for that site,” explains Matt Thompson, Argo editorial product manager. “We imagined natural points of overlap but each site’s taxonomy is geared to its audience.”

Unlike the core station sites, which run on a variety of platforms, the Argo sites all use Word Press because of the familiarity and ease for bloggers, with a structure that let’s each one design its own look. They hang off of station domains but their server is in the Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) cloud, not with each station. Says Sucherman, “You’ll be able to recognize them as being part of a broader NPR effort even while they have distinctive identity.”

Tools being produced by the Argo team include a way to use Twitter to bubble up shared links instead of a litany of RTs or off-topic tweets. Each blogger builds a tightly focused group of people they follow on Twitter; the script returns the links that are repeated the most, not the tweets, to create what Sucherman calls a much better list of related content. The bloggers have full control and can pull links or add their own. They’ve also integrated the sites with Delicious so they can bookmark links and use tags that make relevant links show up around the site.

“The Argo team is dedicated to adding new features, functionality — we’re maybe about 33 percent to where we want to go,” says Sucherman. “We’ll be continuing to build this out for the next year and a half.” Eventually, whatever they develop will be released publicly as part of the Knight Foundation requirements. “One of the important pieces of what we are charged with doing is building site technology that can be used by anybody whether or not you’re part of public media.” But that doesn’t mean it has to be contemporaneous. “We won