|The mother of all maps: a shared online data treasury.|
Election ’08 collaboration:
Will it leave lasting payoff, or is it another one-off?
Pundits predicted that this year’s presidential election, featuring no incumbents for the first time in nearly nine decades, would be as wide open as any in U.S. history.
So far, that’s about the only thing the talking heads have gotten right. As of last week, a different candidate had won nearly every major primary and caucus, adding intrigue to an already enormously complex Super Tuesday, Feb. 5. That’s when 2,500 delegates in 24 states will be up for grabs, leaving journalists to make sense of it all on the fly.
“It’s fair to say this is the most challenging election we’ve ever tried to cover,” says Beth Donovan, election editor for NPR’s Washington desk.
It may also turn out to have a lasting significance for public broadcasting that has little to do with the final outcome. While the candidates have yapped incessantly about the need for change, pubcasters have come to the same general conclusion about the way they cover national elections.
Rather than labor over duplicative work, as many pubcasters did in past elections, NPR, the NewsHour and other outlets have embarked on an ambitious plan to combine their efforts and create a broad, deep, easily accessible repository of election content tools and resources contributed by and used by stations to fill out their coverage plans.
The Public Media Election Collaboration project, with contributions from Public Radio International, New York’s WNYC, PBS, American Public Media, Public Radio Exchange and other national players, grew out of more than a year’s worth of talks and received a boost from CPB in the form of a $1.3 million grant announced last week.
Planners hope it will survive the 2008 election as a blueprint for future collaboration for a system whose organizations talk constantly about working together but don’t often do it.
“The words come very easily to us—we all agree that collaboration is a wonderful thing,” says Dana Davis Rehm, senior v.p. for strategy and partnerships.
What doesn’t come as easily, she says, is “putting your time and money into something and then freely allowing others to use the fruit of your labor.”
The most visible result of cooperation is a content-rich, interactive online U.S. map, stocked with vote tallies, demographic data and links to text, audio and video pieces drawn from NPR, the NewsHour and local stations. It replaces similar maps developed independently every four years.
In addition to the map, the collaboration will include widgets for station websites such as Capitol News Connection’s Ask a Lawmaker and a national version of APM’s popular Select a Candidate tool, plus pieces from PRI’s Global Perspectives on Election 2008 initiative, user-generated videos and other content unearthed and vetted by PRX.
The shiny features and digital doodads will be available to all public TV and radio stations through a new “knowledge network,” a web-based social space hosted by NPR that is set to launch at the end of January, Rehm says.
Pubcasters can hear more about the plans in election sessions at this week’s National Educational Telecommunications Association Conference in Columbus, Ohio, and next month’s Integrated Media Association gathering in Los Angeles.
Plans promise an unprecedented inventory of online and broadcast content. Pubcasters have a chance to leverage their national and local ubiquity to deliver a level of audience service other media can’t match.
“The New York Times can have the coolest data-rich map ever,” says Lee Banville, editor of the Online NewsHour. But the Times, along with national media correspondents who practice parachute journalism, doesn’t have local journalists in many cities who can contribute ground-level coverage and connections that take them deeper into stories, he says.
What remains to be seen is how much stations will participate and whether that will lead to even more editorial togetherness.
“It’s really been quite a commitment with the understanding that, however awkward and time-consuming it is, it was worth it,” Donovan says. “An awful lot of work has gone into it. Hopefully it’s not all been for a one-off.”
National scope, limited timeline
Pubcasters admire innovators who break out of their specialties and organizational silos, and some have partnered on productive group efforts such as the NPR Music website (Current, Nov. 19) and the MPR-led Public Radio Collaboration commemorating 9/11 (Current, Aug. 19, 2002). But cooperation often succumbs to divisive concerns, according to system vets.
The need to collaborate isn’t “hard to get people to buy into,” says Kathy Merritt, CPB’s director of radio program investments. “But it becomes harder in practice once you have to do things like write contracts and start putting into action all your wonderful intentions.”
For advocates of collaboration, the election seems an ideal chance for experimenting — when interests converge, the outcomes matter and the end of the game is in sight.
“We’re not making a lifetime commitment to one another,” Rehm says. “We’re taking some very practical and innovative steps and getting experience, and my hope is that as we get close to November it will be obvious to everyone that we want to continue in a similar vein.”
Work on the partnership began in earnest last April at NPR’s annual gathering. At a follow-up meeting, the network convened a group of thinkers and producers to recommendation joint election projects. When CPB issued its request for election proposals last summer, NPR submitted the plan.
NPR will administer the grant, which pulls cash from CPB’s radio and TV programming funds and its digital fund, Merritt says. Partners will receive $60,000 to $300,000 each, based on their roles, NPR says. The CPB grant won’t cover coverage costs, Merritt says, but it will pay for the knowledge network and help with other new features.
The knowledge network will function as a repository allowing pubcasters to coordinate coverage and share links to resources.
For instance, the Ask Your Lawmaker widget will let listeners pose questions to legislators and listen to answers obtained by Capitol News Connection’s reporters. Stations’ producers curious about the tool can consult the knowledge network to see how other pubcasters use it. Later they can post tips of their own.
The network amounts to “an extranet for PBS and NPR stations, along with other public media partners,” writes Andy Carvin, NPR’s senior strategist for online communities, who is overseeing the knowledge network’s creation. NPR plans to launch the knowledge network this month.
Mother of maps
While the new knowledge network will be the behind-the-scenes heart of the pubcaster collaboration, perhaps the public face of the enterprise and of the system’s overall electoral cooperation is the NPR-NewsHour map.
The embeddable, Flash-based interactive graphic looks like a traditional color-coded U.S. political map that groups the states by the dates of their primaries and caucuses. But clicking on a state will reveal extensive information drawn from multiple pubcasting sources and government databases. Choose South Carolina, for example, and you’ll see the results from the Jan. 19 GOP primary and past Democratic contests (until the party’s Jan. 26 primary), links to extensive state demographic and economic stats, and stories from NPR, the NewsHour, South Carolina ETV and Charlotte’s WFAE-FM.
“It’s the mother of all maps,” Banville says. “We’re trying to create a portal to the best public media content that’s not fraught with the diplomatic and branding issues” that would bedevil efforts to build a special pubmedia election website, he says. Maps for the Senate, House and governors’ races will follow.
The map will be among the features available as widgets for stations to place on their own sites. Other available web content includes election-related video from PBS and localizable news modules from PRI’s Public Interactive.
Among the planned widgets: In addition to Ask a Lawmaker, there’s KQED’s You Decide, which provokes users to consider other sides of a election-related question or issue; a national version of APM’s issue-focused Select a Candidate tool; and APM’s Idea Generator, which aims to help voters collectively identify critical issues and solutions.
NPR’s Get My Vote, a widget available for station websites, will collect user-generated text, audio or video to be posted online, prompting further dialogue. PRX will hire curators to wade through content-sharing websites such as YouTube to find and tag compelling amateur videos and other content to showcase.
Web page posted March 4, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC