Listening for the grind-to-the-bottom narrative is not hard in NPR's disclosures. In fact, the corporation breaks out its Digital Services revenues clearly, and they dropped from $1.98 million to $1.69 million last year, for about a 15% decline. Of course, being the Web, during the same period, Digital Services expenses jumped from $3.2 million to $5.8 million, for an 81-ish percent increase. That grosses up to a by-now-standard-for-the-era single-line jump in losses for Digital Services from about $1.3 million in 2011 to roughly $4.3 million last year, or about 230%. And that's just Digital Services. Digital Media costs -- which is grouped as part of NPR's Program Services expenses -- rose from $17.8 million to $20.2 million during the same 12 months. That 13% increase is a full order of magnitude larger than the growth in Station Programming revenues, which nudged up from $67.7 million to $68.6 million for the year. NPR makes it very easy to hear where all the money is going. Attachment 1-2 of its Form 990 starts with a lengthy description of the full suite of costly digital services offered by NPR: content available free on the Web, mobile devices and other emerging digital platforms. There are on-demand downloads, a decade of archival audio, original feature stories, additional information on NPR programs, commentary and other "content exclusive to the Internet." All of which culminates with Attachment 8, where we learn that two of the top five highest-paid independent contractors at NPR are Siteworx, its Reston, Va., Web design firm, and Dallas' Limelight Networks, one of NPR's Web hosting service providers.
Worse, NPR seems oblivious to the digital bloodletting ahead. In June, it announced a deal with San Francisco-based Swell, which an NPR representative described to me as a classic Digital Age disruptor. Swell offers customized news content based on an algorithm's guess for free via an app. And -- in my opinion at least -- a familiar blurry digital road to profitability for its content provider vendors. Making it all worse, as of Aug. 31, Knell -- remember, the guy who dreamed up this Pandora of News thing in the first place -- announced that he will leave NPR to run the National Geographic Society. "The outgoing executive says he feels he's leaving NPR in better shape than when he arrived," wrote Mark Memmott, at The Two-Way, the NPR news blog, "Knell believes his successor will be able to pick up and continue that 'strategic trajectory.'" Digital hipsters may call me what they will, but these tired ears have heard enough: Until it dawns on whoever replaces Knell that survival here in the digital slum is about limiting the exposure to the Web, not embracing it, NPR will become a perverse riff on Lake Wobegon: A wisp of a town shivering high up on the digital prairie, where everybody and everything is merely below average.