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Public Media Collaboration: Innovation Trail

We are seeing it happening more and more these days, public media organizations collaborating to better serve their community like those in southern California and to develop products to serve other stations like the Incubation Lab. Now a new collaboration has evolved, stations working together to create and share content like EconomyStory that helped provide easily digestible coverage around the "wide-ranging issues facing the American economy and their global implications."

Another collaboration is upstate New York's Innovation Trail - a new project that is designed to give the public news and information they need to bridge technological breakthroughs with the recovery of the area's economy. I caught up with Editor Rachel Ward and asked her to tell us a little more about this exciting CPB funded project.

What is your role and what do you do with the Innovation Trail?
I’m the editor of the Innovation Trail, so I edit the radio and multimedia work of our reporters across the state. I also edit the content at InnovationTrail.org, contribute to our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and do the morning round-ups that give our users a daily look at what’s happening across the state in our beat. On top of all of that, I’m responsible for overseeing our events, like radio and television shows, implementing special projects like series and investigations, and balancing the needs of our news directors with the mission of the project.

How many people work on the Innovation Trail and what do they do?
There are a ton of people who’ve helped contribute to the success of the Innovation Trail so far. There are five stations that are partners on the project. WXXI is the hub station, in Rochester, N.Y. The partner stations are WNED in Buffalo, WRVO in Oswego/Syracuse, WSKG in Binghamton, and WMHT in Albany. But our content also airs frequently on other public media stations in New York, including North Country Public Radio, WAMC in Albany, and WAER in Syracuse.

We have five reporting positions at each of our partner stations and the reporters file a lot of radio reports and some television and web video pieces. For our Albany reporter, that ratio is flipped, since our Albany partner station produces New York NOW, a weekly statewide public affairs show. The reporters are also responsible for building their beats, blogging regularly at InnovationTrail.org, hosting talk shows at their stations, engaging with our users through social media and outreach, and working with me to develop series.

We also have a managing facilitator who we say is in charge of “everything else” – Juan Vazquez does everything that’s not editorial, from setting up the logistics for trainings, to building our underwriting policies, to designing the graphic parts of our brand. Most importantly, he’s overseeing our sustainability plan, to help us continue as a project.

And then there are all the folks who support the Innovation Trail that aren’t hired by the project directly, but who instead work at our partner stations. There are news directors who feed us leads, give us feedback, and tell us how we can better serve their local communities, underwriting sales folks who are helping us becoming sustainable, public relations people who help promote our work, producers and technicians who help us bring our shows to life, and executives who advocate for our project with funders.

What sparked the Innovation Trail? How did it begin?
When the CPB put out a request for proposals for local journalism centers, the grant writing team at WXXI reached out to some of the stations in New York that we were already collaborating with on the New York State Capitol Bureau, which WXXI manages. They wrote up the application, focusing on the connection between investments that the state is making in technology, and revitalizing the economy, and CPB liked it enough to fund it for an initial two years. We really got going full-force in July 2010 – that’s when we had all the reporters hired and our initial training complete.

What is the best part about collaborating with other stations on this project?
As an editor, I get to see the successful strategies or seek advice from a bunch of different newsrooms. At a coverage level, it’s really great to be able to pull together a series looking at a specific phenomenon (like brain drain) in several different places in upstate New York. That allows us to have a wide lens as we report, but also depth, since our team members are embedded in each of their communities.

What is the most challenging part about collaborating with other stations?
Every newsroom works differently, and has slightly different priorities. So balancing all of the content that we produce – spots, features, blog posts, tweets, television programs, and talk shows – with the content needs and platform opportunities that partner stations’ have is something we’re always working on. The distance can make finding that balance tough, so we’re always trying to improve how we communicate with our partners.

What is the next big thing to come from the Innovation Trail?
Coming up on May 26 we’re doing our first statewide TV event – we’re going to be talking about the challenges and opportunities for small businesses in New York State. And in our next year we’re planning lots events that will give the audience a chance to talk back, and engage in conversations with us and big players in the innovation economy upstate.

What does the future hold for the Innovation Trail?
Our goal is to be sustainable over the long term and to continue filling this niche in upstate New York that no one else is working in. We want to be a resource for decision makers, but we also want to help the general audience get a strong footing in the future of New York’s economy. Shows like Marketplace have proven that there is demand for this type of content – we’re trying to take that to a regional and local level, and add the technology element in an approachable way.

If there was one thing you'd want people to know about the Innovation Trail, what would it be?
We’re more than just radio. Our reporters are filing interesting stories on InnovationTrail.org, going deeper into the issues we cover, and sharing finds on our Facebook page and Twitter feed. Folks might hear us on our member stations and not realize that what we’re really trying to do is build a whole ecosystem of reporting around the economy and technology.

What would you recommend to other stations who may be interested in creating their own collaborative project like Innovation Trail?
Document your successes, debrief the disasters, and share it all with each other. Set mutual goals and define strategies that each partner is comfortable employing to reach those goals. Above all: You cannot communicate with each other enough - and you have to trust each other.

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