New England News Collaborative sunsets radio show, refocuses strategy

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The New England News Collaborative has ended production of its radio show and podcast Next as it shifts its focus to collaborative multiplatform journalism and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. 

Next has been the “showcase” of the collaborative’s journalism since it started in 2016, said Vanessa de la Torre, NENC’s executive editor. The magazine-style radio program aired weekly on most of the collaborative’s nine partner stations, featuring original journalism and interviews on topics of interest to the region. The collaborative released the final episode Thursday. 

De la Torre

“Even though we’ve appreciated producing the show Next and we love their audience, it’s time for us to hit this next chapter,” de la Torre said. While the show is ending, “we intend to expand our original regional journalism that we produce as a collaborative,” she said. 

Morgan Springer, host and producer of Next, chose to end her work with the collaborative to coincide with the end of Next. She told Current that she will work as an independent audio editor, producer and reporter. 

In addition to Next, the collaborative has focused on sharing stories among stations, which has “helped the stations so much to be able to count on that daily flow of news coming in, spots and features, every day to our network,” de la Torre said. In 2020, the stations shared about 2,200 stories, she said. 

“What started as really a radio content-sharing group in the beginning, almost five years ago, is really expanding to thinking about all the different ways we can tell stories in media,” de la Torre said. 

Ending Next frees resources for “special initiatives” on important topics in the region such as the environment, immigration, racial inequality and education, she said. 

“There are so many stories out there that we have tackled as a network, but also that we could pursue that we haven’t really been able to because of our faithful commitment to producing the show that is distributed weekly for the past five years,” she said.

A new strategic approach 

Scott Finn, chair of NENC’s governance council and CEO of Vermont Public Radio, an NENC partner station, said “an hourlong radio show may not be the most effective way to attract new and more diverse audiences. So we decided we’re going to redirect those resources towards something new.”

“We need to be reaching people with content that’s relevant to them on the platforms they’re on, in the formats that they already use,” he added. “… By doing it together, I think it will give us more running room to try different things, to see if they’re working and, if not, to try other new things.”

During the pandemic, NENC worked with America Amplified to produce special talk shows. De la Torre would like to continue similar special broadcasts across the partner stations and also hopes to expand NENC’s work with social media, video and shorter digital pieces. 

The collaborative also has ambitions to produce events, she said. 

“In addition to our loyal listeners and viewers and readers of our websites, we know we also need to reach younger populations,” she said. “We need to reach more people of color who might not be aware of us or who we’re not just providing the content that they need. So we need to accept that and we need to work hard to reach those audiences.”

Among the DEI initiatives NENC has begun to undertake collaboratively is a Race and Inclusion Task Force with committees on editorial and on hiring and retention made up of editorial staffers from participating outlets. 

The committees will “recommend best practices for fair and inclusive coverage in our communities and for recruiting and retaining journalists of color,” de la Torre said. 

NENC is also working on a Regional Diversity in Sourcing initiative, which is essentially a source database consisting of people of color, experts of color and “other community voices who we think are good sources,” she said. The collaborative is running a contest to encourage journalists to add sources to the database. If they submit 10 or more sources, they get “NENC-branded swag,” she said.

“We think it’s important to really reflect the diversity of our communities, not just in our newsrooms, but also in our stories and in our shows,” de la Torre said.  

Other elements of the DEI initiatives are an “internal talent database,” a mentoring program and professional development and training for journalists, de la Torre said.  

The collaborative DEI work is “a journalism issue, because we can’t … meet our full potential if we’re missing whole segments of our communities when we’re doing stories,” de la Torre said.

“To do the most authentic journalism, we really need to think about these principles of diversity and inclusion that includes how we’re approaching folks in the communities,” de la Torre said. “It includes the language we’re using. Are we using outdated language or not? When we think about expanding our audience, are we turning off our audience from the get-go?”

Station investments

NENC launched in 2016 with eight public broadcasters and a CPB grant of roughly $625,000. It has since added GBH in Boston and GBH’s CAI, which includes WCAI, WNAN and WZAI serving Cape Cod. CPB’s funding concluded at the end of May.

Connecticut Public Broadcasting is the lead station. The other original members are WBUR in Boston; Maine Public Broadcasting Network; New Hampshire Public Radio; Vermont Public Radio; WSHU Public Radio in Westport, Conn.; and New England Public Radio in Amherst, Mass. The Public’s Radio in Providence, R.I., which was a member at NENC’s launch, did not agree to move forward with the collaborative’s new plan and stopped participating in strategic planning in February 2020, de la Torre said.  

NENC hired Public Media Co. last summer to assist with business and strategic planning, Finn said. As part of a memorandum of understanding, participating stations have agreed to contribute funds to help sustain the collaborative. They will pay based on a tier model tied to their nonfederal financial support as reported to CPB. De la Torre declined to say how much stations will contribute because the amounts are still being finalized. Beyond the original CPB funding, the collaborative has received other grants and matching gifts, de la Torre said.  

“The New England News Collaborative has had some success raising some foundation money, but there’s more opportunity there,” Finn said, adding that there may be opportunity around underwriting.

“The most reliable source of income ought to be the contributions of the members of the collaborative,” Finn said. “I just think we benefit a lot from this. And I think that for these collaborations to be able to really survive in the long haul, stations have to realize that they’re going to have to invest some of their money into it, too.”

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