NPR and the iPad: Too close for comfort?

Herbert Rotfeld teaches marketing at Auburn University in Alabama. Recently, he played NPR promos of its new iPad application for his class to demonstrate how Apple got free publicity for its newest product.

Rotfeld wrote me after the iPad launched April 3 to ask how much Apple paid for all the iPad advertising on NPR.

“I listen to NPR podcasts,” wrote Rotfeld. “And since Saturday, almost every segment starts with Scott Simon’s voice telling me that I can optimize my listening experience with an iPad. Of course, Scott shares the money, since I hear some other hosts telling me the same thing. But the relentless advertising for an Apple product on NPR podcasts is overwhelming.”

His students, Rotfeld said, “asked how much this level of underwriting for the iPad cost? They thought Apple had paid for it.”

But Apple did not. Apple is not an NPR sponsor, and so Rotfeld’s assumption about Simon – and others at NPR – sharing Apple’s money is wrong.

Another listener thought that Apple was getting publicity for free.

“You are often advertising and promoting Apple products such as the iPhone and now the iPad on your programs,” Lofton Alley wrote from China. “It would be sad beyond belief to think that otherwise wise people would fall for the hype of the Apple media machine without recognizing that you were shilling for them for free and thereby giving your support to a commercial product that does little or nothing to provide corporate support to NPR the way your listeners do.”

Apple has benefited from short promotions NPR runs for its news iPad app before a radio story plays on an MP3 player, iPhone, or the computer – as well banner ads and even videos with NPR personalities talking about the new NPR iPad app.

As did most other news organizations, NPR also has given Apple tons of free publicity on its news shows and web site since January, when Apple announced its plans for the new computer tablet.

But every news organization that has developed an iPad app faces the same conundrum: It’s virtually impossible to promote the app without also giving the appearance of promoting the iPad.

NPR began developing an app for the iPad a month after the January announcement. The NPR app was developed in 5 weeks and ready by April 3. It remains one of the two most downloaded news apps.

But NPR is not promoting the iPad, said Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president for NPR Digital Media. He said all of NPR’s promotions are aimed at showing how the NPR app can be used on the iPad.

“We are agnostic about what devices people use,” said Wilson. “But we are not going to be silent about how to use our content. We adapted the website to be compatible with the iPad. The reason we did this for the iPad and not other tablets is that we don’t know yet what the requirements of other manufacturers will be.”

Wilson said that Apple is the market-share leader in the mobile space and that NPR wanted to capture that market – especially since NPR listeners are twice as likely to be Mac users compared to the average U.S. citizen (source: MRI Doublebase 2008). An NPR survey of 890 respondents indicated that 5 percent likely would buy an iPad in the next 12 months.

“Mission-wise, we are dedicated to free universal access so that people can find us on many platforms,” said Wilson. “But the market does dictate where we go first.”

Brian Chen of Wired magazine said it’s not fair to complain that NPR is endorsing the iPad.

“The iPad is the only [tablet] device on the market now,” said Chen. “If there were a competitor, we could say a publication is endorsing a device. Who is to say NPR is evil for being one of the first participants?”

Dell, Google, HP and others are thought to be developing similar tablet devices.

NPR focused on the iPad app because it wanted to maintain its reputation as an industry innovator in the digital space – and be ready for the upcoming devices, Wilson said.

NPR has video guides for the new website launched last July, the NPR News iPhone app launched last August, and now the iPad app and HTML5 site launched in April.

A video explaining the features of the NPR News Android App is in the works, said Keith Jenkins, who heads NPR’s multimedia department. [Android is a Google-developed software platform for mobile devices based on the Linux operating system.]

Some within NPR expressed concern about other video vignettes that show NPR reporters and hosts talking about the ease of using the NPR app on the iPad. The concern is that the vignettes look like an ad agency-produced iPad commercial.

“That’s the last image we ought to present,” said an editorial staffer who asked to remain anonymous because he did not want to be quoted criticizing the company. “Did Apple approach NPR about it? Did NPR make a deal, if so? If not, who at NPR came up with the idea?”

Jenkins worked with NPR’s Digital Media and Communications department on the vignettes.

“What we are trying to do is let listeners and viewers know our content is available in different ways,” said Jenkins. “We are trying to extend our own brand and thought it made sense to hear what the NPR app can do (on the iPad) from people listeners and viewers know and have an interest in hearing from.”

Jenkins cautioned against looking at things in isolation. “NPR is agnostic,” he said. “We are trying to be on all platforms. None of the videos are to promote the device. The short answer is we just want to let people know NPR’s content is not just on the radio.”

But there’s one other concern about the close relationship with Apple products. Apple could potentially become the dominant publishing platform for mobile devices. That would be good for Apple, but not necessarily for news consumers.

Apple tightly controls what can be in its app store. In December, for example, Apple rejected cartoonist Mark Fiore’s “Newstoons” app for the iPhone because he “ridicules public figures.” Only after Fiore won a Pulitzer Prize in April did Apple relent.

“I’m warning publishers about the loss of independence,” said Wired’s Chen. “Apple hasn’t published a complete set of rules for the kind of content that can and can’t be allowed. My whole problem is we just have faith that Apple will do the right thing and not pull news content on controversial stories. It’s faith in a capricious gatekeeper.”

Clearly NPR needs to adapt to the latest, most-promising technology and be where the audience is. No longer can NPR expect its audience to listen only on radios.

But to maintain credibility, NPR must be much more careful to avoid creating the impression that it is favoring one computer company or one type of mobile device. One step would be to do a better job of explaining what it’s doing, and why, to its staff and its audience. It also will be interesting to see if NPR is as quick to develop apps for iPad’s competitors once they reach the market.

This column was originally published on on April 30, 2010.

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