WisconsinVote.org is a great example of a collaboration between a public television and radio station to create a service for the community,” said Ann Alquist, director of Radio Engagement at the National Center for Media Engagement (NCME), via email.

The site, which offers comprehensive election coverage and resources for Wisconsin voters, is a joint project of Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) and Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR). As Alquist sees it, WisconsinVote.org “combines all of the assets of public media: our journalistic credibility, the power of the combined TV and radio megaphones, and relevant content for citizens … Public media audiences expect public television and public radio to work together to create a great, civic service. WisconsinVote.org meets those expectations.”

With that kind of ringing endorsement, I was curious to learn more about the nature of the WPT/WPR collaboration. I interviewed Andy Soth, senior producer at WPT, and Adam Hirsch (no relation to me), producer, WisconsinVote.org, via email; an edited transcript follows.

Q&A

Collaboration Central: What are you most proud of about WisconsinVote.org that you couldn’t have accomplished without collaboration?

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Andy Soth

Soth: I’m very pleased that since our relaunch, visitors to our site are much more likely to engage with our radio and television content. We have always used WisconsinVote.org as a source for our election coverage, but other features of the site, like candidate profiles and voter information, got much more attention. Those areas still attract the crowds, but our content and brand are much more visible and integrated into the site.

I’ve just been doing a comparison between two similar election cycles, one before our collaborative redesign and one after. Traffic was nearly the same (155,000 versus 151,000 unique visits), but time spent on the site after the redesign nearly doubled and the bounce rate dropped significantly. 

Hirsch: We pulled together and produced live online chats during the season’s political debates: those for president, vice president and one of our U.S. Senate seats. The chats were intentionally kept fairly casual; we wanted to offer political observers in the state a place to come for some fact-checking and conversation during what can be some of the most amusing moments of a campaign season. While coordinating with Wisconsin Vote staff, producers from both radio and television booked discussion panels from in-house, as well as political analysts from around the various University of Wisconsin (UW) schools. WPT promoted the live chats on their air, as did WPR. During our best-attended event, we had 550 people online, commenting and following along with our panel as Tammy Baldwin and Tommy Thompson debated.

I’m relatively new to WPR, having just come on for the Wisconsin Vote project back in May, but as near as I can gather, this kind of inter-organization collaboration has been unusual, indeed.

Collaboration Central: Describe your role in the project. With whom do you personally collaborate the most?

Hirsch: I’m a producer on the project, working in a similar capacity to Andy Soth, but from the radio side rather than television. I’m not a full employee; instead, I’m working on a limited-term contract until a week past the general election.

I come from a technical background, but then made a career change into editorial some years ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I spend about half my collaborative time chasing (or writing) technical features with the developers who put up the newly designed Wisconsin Vote site, and the other half of the time working on editorial projects — asking for blog posts from reporters and producers, finding and adding photographs and infographics to stories, and keeping tabs on the Wisconsin political scene.

Soth: I serve as the content editor, working on the candidate profiles, finding and linking to election coverage from other media sources, and writing some of the featured content headlined at the top of the homepage.

My executive producer, Christine Sloan-Miller, consults with me frequently on the longer-term strategy, and we both meet weekly during election season with Adam and WPR News Director Michael Leland. WPR’s Drupal developer, Laura Zimmerman, was on the team that created the redesigned site and remains invaluable for the many tweaks we’ve requested in the five months since the WisconsinVote.org relaunch.

Collaboration Central: Have WPT and WPR worked together on other projects? (I assume “yes.”) If so, how did those experiences inform how you approached Wisconsin Vote?

Soth: Yes, most recent collaboration between radio and television has been event-driven. The drought this summer led to a website with UW-Extension (of which we are a part) agriculture experts to consolidate coverage and resources. Similarly, the H1N1 scare led to collaboration that included a broadcast call-in special on both services. We also did some online collaboration during the mortgage crisis.

A collaborative team was formed when we were selected to be part of KQED Quest expansion to other local stations to emulate their multimedia approach. I was involved for television; there was a radio producer, and a web team from another unit that’s also part of UW-Extension, Instructional Communications Systems (ICS). Our state partner, the Educational Communications Board, was onboard as well, with Finn Ryan responsible for educational materials. I think the Quest experience really showed us the degree of investment needed to make a collaboration successful beyond just paying lip service to the concept.

Wisconsin Vote’s greatest success in collaboration was in its recent redesign and relaunch. The site has been around since 1999, and for most of that time it was largely television’s project. We on the TV side were happy to have and promote radio’s content because they create so much more of it than we do, but radio did not necessarily see the site particularly as a WPR-owned asset. I think that changed somewhat as the site became more established and started to have tens of thousands of visits around election day.

A true joint team was established for the relaunch, with WPT Online staff providing project management and design expertise and WPR Online staff tackling hosting and programming. They worked in record time, meeting daily, and responding quickly to feedback, I think, in the case of the relaunch, the secret to success was a finite timeline, a clearly articulated objective for the end product, and well-defined roles.

Collaboration Central: What has the public’s reaction been like? What’s the best feedback you’ve received and/or evidence of impact you’ve seen to date?

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Adam Hirsch

Hirsch: The public’s reaction has been … I’ll call it “positive but subdued.” When I joined in with the project, it quickly became clear that Wisconsin Vote was primarily what I’ll call a “reference site.” People came to it via search engines, seeking a particular link or piece of information, and having found it, left. We got some nice feedback on the debate chats (mostly on the “that was fun!” level), and we get periodic notes from people looking for information on how and where to vote. Just after the state had a somewhat unusual primary election shortly after a very unusual recall election, I got into an involved email conversation with a listener on whether or not a particular party’s turnout was low enough to warrant a story. I wound up pulling voter turnout reports from elections going back to the late ’80s before we both agreed — that was a fun afternoon.

Soth: The best feedback has been in the site being used. As mentioned previously, traffic is fantastic around an election, and much more time is being spent on the site. Personally, I’m very glad when we hear from a user with a voting question and are able to connect them with the resources they need to make a decision and to vote.

Collaboration Central: What has surprised you most about the project?

Soth: Knowing the multiple demands on our Online staff’s attention, the speed with which the site was redesigned and programmed, including changing to new content management system, astounded me.

Hirsch: I’ve been surprised at how big a portion of the direct contact we get from the public is for voting and registration instructions that local and state governments provide. It’s great, to my mind, that the state government agency responsible for Wisconsin’s voting put up a new and more user-friendly website just last month … but we’re still fielding questions on their rules and steering people to their specific voting instructions.

Collaboration Central: What’s been the hardest thing about collaborating on Wisconsin Vote? What unforeseen challenges have you encountered?

Hirsch: Because the project is somewhat unusual in being shared, I’ve occasionally seen it treated as neither fish nor fowl by the two organizations. Save for Andy and me, it’s neither WPR nor WPT’s sole or primary responsibility, and with each organization running already busy news and public affairs departments, Wisconsin Vote has occasionally had to tug at shirtsleeves to try and get more content than the stories already produced for radio or television. We’ve gotten some great stuff, mind you! Certainly from the national conventions onward, the awareness in the building that Wisconsin Vote was going to be the clearinghouse for political content got much higher. From that point on, I saw more work go up on WV that had been specifically produced for it, rather than simply gathered from the existing radio or TV content flows.

Soth: A big plus has been the automation of content. We launched WPRNews.org at around the same time, and content there tagged as “politics” gets pulled into Wisconsin Vote. But there can be a downside, as it means giving up some editorial control. Automation means recency is the sole criteria for placement. Editorially, there are stories I definitely think deserve more attention than others, but don’t really have control over.

Related to that, was our concern on the TV side that with radio’s much more frequent coverage, video stories would quickly disappear as new radio reporting came on site. We mitigated that by keeping some dedicated spots on the homepage that we could assign.
From my spot on the TV side, radio seems much more complicated. Not only is there the large news department churning out daily content, WPR’s Ideas Network has seven hours a day of local talk, often about elections, or featuring candidate interviews. Navigating who is responsible for what content, as well as the management of all that data, can be a challenge when questions arise.

Collaboration Central: What’s your biggest lesson learned to date? Is there something you’d do differently if you had the project to do over again?

Soth: Wisconsin Vote has become a great asset for the voters of our state. But I think it took us awhile to take ownership of it. We were pleased to fulfill the public service mission, but it was frequently clear that users had no idea that it was a public media service. Often, I think, from messages I received, users saw it as a government function.  We’ve recently become more sophisticated about associating Wisconsin Vote with Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio. We’ve done this both by better identifying the site’s content with our brands, placing it on the site where users will find it most useful, and by using the Wisconsin Vote brand in our broadcasts. Definitely, collaboration has helped in this regard because there is a much greater sense of ownership and shared stewardship across both radio and television.

Hirsch: I’d want to sit down with reporters and producers from both sides of the house early on, before the political campaign heated up, and describe the goals and resources for the site. Winning hearts and minds, even within your organization, can be key! People are of course used to doing things the way they’ve always done them, but with a clear conversation to get early buy-in, I think we wouldn’t have had to wait for the conventions to increase awareness and in-house enthusiasm for the site.

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this post, the pull quote above right was mistakenly attributed to Adam Soth, and the words “unique visits” were mistakenly omitted. We apologize for these errors.

Amanda Hirsch is the editor of Collaboration Central. She is also a writer, performer and social media strategist who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she blogs at amandahirsch.com and spends way too much time on Twitter.

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