ROCHESTER, NEW YORK — Fifty years ago the economy of upstate New York was rooted in industry and manufacturing, but in recent decades these sectors have dramatically declined. In the 1980s alone, hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs were lost, according to the Albany Times Union. “Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse were heavy industrial areas,” says journalist Juan Vazquez. “A lot of the economy was based on manufacturing… There’s a definite transition of what the economy is going to be here. How are we going to sort of re-image ourselves?”
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In 2010, a nonprofit media initiative called Innovation Trail was launched with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to track these economic transformations. Five reporters, paid through Innovation Trail, are employed at five different New York public radio stations (WXXI, WNED, WSKG, WRVO and WMHT) to cover emerging economies such as energy, biotech and information technology, and the role state government is taking to revitalize the region by supporting green jobs, new businesses, and industries. Reporters not only report for radio but present their stories in multimedia format on www.innovationtrail.org, which has its own editor. A radio series on windmills, for example, would also result in accompanying blogs, supporting material, and videos online.
Juan Vazquez is the senior managing facilitator of Innovation Trail. He says CPB’s term for the initiative is a “local journalism center” and that it was conceived as an effort “to increase journalism and quality of journalism on a broad topic.” To date, CPB has funded seven such centers in different states, some focusing on health, others on immigration or education. Innovation Trail is the only one focusing on emerging economies. As part of CPB’s two-year funding agreement (ending in March 2012), Innovation Trail is required to create it’s own model for future sustainability, which Vazquez says will include a mixture of underwriting, grants, sponsorships, and advertising. “We have a plan in place and we’re tweaking as we go,” says Vazquez. “It changes as market factors change.”
One of the biggest stories Innovation Trail has covered since its start is the debate in New York state communities over hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which is lauded by some as a possible economic boon to local communities and regarded as too much of an environmental hazard by others. “We try to cover the philosophical and emotional reasons people are for or against it,” explains Rachel Ward, editor of Innovation Trail. “When they first conceptualized this project, fracking was not as much as an issue then. But it’s something that we’ve naturally gravitated to because it’s so important.”
Ward is a former reporter and host for one of the participating radio stations in Innovation Trail, WXXI. Now, as the editor of this new initiative, she says one of her goals is to not only broaden the coverage of upstate New York’s economy but increase the quality of coverage. “At a practice level, one of the things I feel really strongly about is bringing the quality of reporting that we hear at the national level into local newsrooms,” Ward says. “We’re trying to make sure that when you hear our content, it sounds as good as national content.”
The project is still navigating the relationship between radio and the web, and trying to get radio listeners engaged online. Ward says she thinks of the project’s audience as a Venn diagram. “The right circle is the people who would hear us on radio, the left circle are those who find us on the web,” she explains. “The center is people who heard something on the radio and then went to the website.” It’s this sector that Innovation Trail hopes to expand, informing people more deeply on local issues through a mix of video, audio, photographs and writing. “We’re trying to get people to understand that there is way more stuff on the web,” Ward says.
Innovation Trail Data
Name: Innovation Trail
Principal Staff: Rachel Ward, editor; Juan Vasquez, senior managing facilitator.
Affiliations: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, WXXI, WNED, WMHT, WRVO, WSKG.
CJR on Innovation Trail:
12/01/11: The Landman Cometh - Innovation Trail and other New York outlets help readers prepare for fracking prospectors - Alysia Santo