Vivian Schiller

CEO, Civil Foundation

Vivian Schiller is CEO of Civil Foundation, a nonprofit “committed to the sustainability of trustworthy journalism around the world.” She was formerly President and CEO of National Public Radio, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer of NBC News, and Head of News for Twitter.


People are making up their own definitions. I’m not saying that as a criticism. I mean, I think of it as a continuum, from membership to subscription, with each organization sort of deciding for themselves what name they want to give it. I mean, I see some news organization using the word membership and it’s just a straight-on subscription, and less so vice versa. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about seeking a definition, because it has all become muddled.

What the Texas Tribune has done is remarkable, and I think serves as a model for what other markets can do. Which is, even though they are not-for-profit, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to be a not-for-profit. That you declare yourself a not-for-profit and the money just pours in. Would that that were true. So, they are a not-for-profit for a whole bunch of reasons, but from the get-go, they very much focused on growth and financial sustainability.

At its core is that it is the opposite of a transaction. It is a relationship. And, when the relationship between a public radio station and its local member who writes a check, or puts in a credit card, or whatever it is, is successful, it has a very sort of counterintuitive effect, in so far as you would think if I write a check to WAMU, my local Washington station, they are beholden to me because I gave them money. But actually, psychologically, the opposite is true. When I write a check … the act of giving them money makes me more beholden to them. So, when I get a tote bag, it’s not because I’m getting that as a purchase. I’m getting it because it is a symbol of this club that I’m a part of. And, when I carry that tote bag, I’m signaling something about my identity. And that is very, very, very, very important, and it is something that I’m seeing non-public radio stations struggle with.

Local news organizations, where they’ve had the most success, they’ve been very clear about ... who is their target audience, and how is that audience being served and not being served, as opposed to being sort of a broad platform for all news, including national and international news.

We’re now at a period of rebuilding and reimagining the future ... and there is no silver bullet. There’s no singular business model that’s going to replace the previous business models.