i-6caa02f2aea97f04d5463df938df6f98-argo_promo_sites_sm.jpg Jason and the Argonauts were the mythological Greek heroes who set off on a quest for the Golden Fleece. Like its namesake, NPR’s Project Argo is off on another noble quest — to strengthen local journalism, particularly on digital platforms. Project Argo is a partnership between NPR and member stations, funded by the Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Its focus is building and launching niche, topic-focused websites for NPR member stations that can be models for the rest of the system.

We’re proving the notion that a news organization can quickly build authority, engagement and traffic without large-scale increases in newsroom staff. Argo sites are piloted by one reporter-blogger (in a couple of cases, two reporters share one full-time job).

The topics we cover vary from Global Health to Higher Education and from Climate Change to Crime and the Courts. Argo stations include Oregon Public Broadcasting, KQED and KALW in San Francisco, KPCC in Pasadena, KPBS in San Diego, KPLU in Seattle, Minnesota Public Radio, WBUR and WGBH in Boston, WNYC in New York, WXPN in Philadelphia and WAMU in Washington, D.C.

Although each of the Argo sites is producing very different types of content, they’re linked to one another in a network dedicated to quality journalism. We think you’ll find the same serendipity that carries you from a climate change story to a health care story on NPR programs such as “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” will also inform and entertain you online in the Argo network. The organizing principle is that you will find the same high level of quality throughout the network.

Reporting, Aggregation, Community

Make no mistake; the Project Argo sites are local. But we are covering news that resonates nationally. WBUR’s blog, CommonHealth, may become your new favorite site devoted to reporting on health care costs if you live in Boston. But it might also be required reading if you live anywhere, from Chicago to Corpus Christie, from Miami to Missoula, and anywhere else in between.

The Argo sites are based upon the principle that in order to bring the world to our readers, our reporters must report and write outstanding enterprise blog posts. But they must pay equal attention to curating the conversation by aggregating the best content from across the web that is relevant to his or her beat, and by fostering and participating in a robust community.

As a key deliverable for Project Argo, we were expected to build a new free-standing, web-based content management system using open source code and free software commonly available. By the end of the project’s pilot phase (December 2011), we will open source that platform.

Platform

In building the platform, the questions we needed to answer were:

  • Will it allow journalists to publish quickly with minimal training?
  • Will it allow journalists to perform the role of content curator and community manager? In other words, can we empower a single person to run an entire site?
  • How can we ensure we use entirely, or as much as possible, open source software for easy and low-cost reuse throughout public media?

To achieve the goals, we needed to build a foundation for the Argo Network that could provide the structural underpinnings for any Argo site, and at the same time be flexible enough to accommodate the unique needs of individual sites.

WordPress provided the most advanced starting point of the options we evaluated in terms of basic blog publishing. We have added a good deal of customization and also integration of other open source or free technologies like Django, Delicious and TwitterTim.es to create efficiencies, promote content and create a new way of displaying aggregated headlines.

All 12 websites were live by the end of August 2010. We will check in back here at Idea Lab from time to time to talk about various features that we roll out, and overall progress. We’ll also be completely transparent about our process and training for Argo bloggers at our Argo Project blog. Let us know how we’re doing and what you might like to see.