Once a week, representatives from liberal publications such as AlterNet, Yes! Magazine, the American Independent News Network, the UpTake, and Ms. Magazine convene to discuss mobile strategies. The call, organized by the Media Consortium, is part of an Incubation and Innovation Lab designed to help members collectively tackle the new realities of journalism — a landscape where traditional revenue sources are disappearing, new technologies are emerging, and media organizations must innovate to survive.

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The Media Consortium created the Incubation and Innovation Lab in response to The Big Thaw, a study they commissioned and published in late 2009 on the changing business and editorial structures of journalism. Collaboration, experimentation and engaging communities were key themes in the study.

“We no longer want to talk about the death of journalism. It’s thriving,” said Tracy Van Slyke, project director of the Media Consortium. “We want to talk about what the future of journalism looks like.”

At the same time, the Media Consortium realizes that news outlets are struggling to find the time and resources to invest in the future.

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Tracy Van Slyke

“For our members and other media organizations, the ability to do this rapid low cost prototyping is challenging,” said Van Slyke. “They don’t have the space and time to organize it on their own. We want to provide that by pulling organizations together to look at specific topics and research, and work together to implement and experiment.”

In order to do that, the Media Consortium is providing organizations with a space to learn, experiment and create. For a nominal fee, members were invited to join one of three Labs. “Moving into Mobile” is the first, and will soon be followed by a Lab on community engagement, and one on revenue generation in the fall.

Jason Barnett, executive director of the UpTake, didn’t hesitate to sign up for Moving into Mobile. His organization wants to use mobile to build audience and increase user engagement. He hopes that by participating, he will come away with a better understanding of the trends and requirements for developing mobile applications.

“It is a totally new field, and it is really difficult to learn this information on your own while trying to run a small business,” Barnett said. “Having the Media Consortium coordinate and facilitate discussions and the information around this topic has been a real time saver.”

Media Groups and Hackers Collaborate

While discussing case studies and best practices is crucial, so too is the implementation of that knowledge to innovate and create. To that end, the Media Consortium will provide $5,000 to $12,000 in seed money for each of the three Labs to develop a shared application.

To jump-start the rapid prototyping phase, the Media Consortium is raising funds to host a hack-a-thon in October. They’ve already begun outreach to the technology community, including Hacks/Hackers, to generate interest and participation.

“We’re mostly looking at a hack-a-thon to benefit our members, but we’re open to other media organizations joining in,” said Van Slyke. “For hackers it’s a great way to work with organizations that can potentially use the apps you’re building. Hackers have realized the need to help journalists evolve. They bring a lot of creativity and knowledge to the table.”

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In addition to seed money, the Media Consortium is fundraising to further develop the winning prototypes. The resulting applications will be made available to all members.

“We’re hoping for projects that are easily skinnable,” said Erin Polgreen, senior program associate at the Media Consortium. “Ones that can be used by multiple organizations and for multiple audiences.”

Facilitating Collaboration

Before the prototyping phase begins, the group will undertake months of collaborative research and planning. Developing a strategy between five media organizations, with participants across the country, is no small feat. Communication is paramount to success and the Media Consortium ensures that there’s plenty of it.

In addition to the Lab’s weekly call, participants are in constant contact through Google Wave. Organizations contribute relevant articles, links and resources to the Wave. They also learn from each other’s experiences.

“We have organizations with all different levels of technical fluency,” said Polgreen. “This increases sharing between organizations: high-tech orgs help lower tech orgs.”

In addition to the technical experience that each organization contributes, the Lab benefits from having participants with different job functions. Each organization has two to three people on the call with an expertise in technology, editorial or community engagement. The perspective that each brings could help the Lab create a more nuanced approach to the development of its application, as well as one that has built-in buy-in across departments and organizations.

“We are learning from the other participants,” said Barnett. “The dynamics seem very healthy. Tough questions are asked, we all laugh and get along, and we are trying really hard to focus to find the core needs all the organizations share.”

While the cost to participate may be low, participation does require dedicated time. Van Slyke estimates that on average participants spend a couple of hours per week on the project.

“When we laid out the criteria for participation, we were very clear that it was a time commitment,” said Van Slyke. “People had to agree to that in the contract.”

Barnett finds that it is time well spent for the UpTake and its future in mobile.

“Many collaborations I’ve been involved with are content-based and on a short time frame,” said Barnett. “This one has goals of developing core knowledge that can help a diverse group of media organizations for the long term.”

While it’s tempting to project what that long term might look like, Van Slyke hesitates to speculate.

“We’re not putting the answer in front of people before they start talking,” she said. “This is an experiment and we’ll see what comes of it.”

A public relations and social media consultant, Katie Kemple works with public media clients to build community, develop strategic partnerships, and create integrated public relations campaigns. Over the past ten years, she has held positions at WGBH, WETA, Capital News Connection, and Public Media’s EconomyStory. You can find her every Monday at 8 p.m. ET on Twitter, as a co-host and organizer for #pubmedia chat.