D&C marks new era with a public experiment in media

I once worked with a client whose primary message read, “Change inspires innovation.” The words captured the spirit of perseverance through constant — and many times disruptive — change. The message could serve as a mantra within the world of media. For publishers, complacency is no option as consumer behavior and media consumption continues to evolve amid an emergence of new platforms, both digital and offline.

In 2012, public media affiliate WXXI acquired The Little, an independent movie theater located in downtown Rochester. The merger bridged the broadcast world of radio and television with the arts and culture of films and live events.

Six years later, another Rochester-based media organization literally left behind its roots to establish a new home and a refreshed mission. D&C Digital, formerly known as the Democrat and Chronicle Media Group, moved across town to a brand-new building marking the end of a long-term transformation and the beginning of a new chapter for the news and media organization.

The D&C wasted no time in fulfilling the promise of a new approach to media. Within days, the D&C launched “Finding Tammy Jo,” a podcast co-produced with WXXI News. The weekly series takes an in-depth view on a decades-old murder case of a teenage girl found dead in rural Caledonia. The collaboration features WXXI reporter Veronica Volk and D&C reporter Gary Craig.

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Credit: D&C Max Schulte/Angie Nassar

Podcasts have gained renewed traction from the recent popularity of the NPR-produced “Serial” and the longtime format of “This American Life,” made famous by storyteller Ira Glass. In many ways, “Finding Tammy Jo” serves as a local derivative of the podcast medium. From the ambient noise and indie music, “Tammy Jo” takes its cues from an aesthetic listeners have come to expect, especially from public radio. At times, the reporters’ delivery and their choice of details can be described as incredulous, a tone that’s fairly common on NPR. Yet, in less than 15 minutes (a length that received scrutiny from some listeners), Volk and Craig achieve a high-quality production. As a media and marketing professional, “Finding Tammy Jo” remains most interesting when viewed as a public experiment conducted by two local media organizations.

Contemporary publishers and their staff are challenged by a myriad of issues: reader and consumer fragmentation, equally fractured advertising opportunities to drive revenue, and increased pressure to more rapidly run stories to combat the 24-hour news cycle exacerbated by the digital landscape. Gone are the days of a morning and evening issue delivered to an ample subscriber base — not only in terms of scale, but consistency as well. Contemporary publishers compete for consumers’ attention across television, radio, print, mobile, social, digital video as well as traditional desktop. And that’s what makes “Finding Tammy Jo,” as an experiment in media, most compelling. In addition to a dedicated website, the podcast’s visual and text-based content is featured across Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. WXXI and D&C also plan to host an in-person community event later this month. It’s within the use of these platforms that “Finding Tammy Jo” sets a new path for local journalism and reporting.

Sam Altman, founder at Silicon Valley-based accelerator YCombinator, warns against the investment in derivative ideas. For example, he argues, when investors sank capital into “the next Google,” they should have been looking for Facebook. And when people were looking for “the next Facebook,” they should have looked for Uber. In short, derivatives rarely succeed in surpassing the market already established by the original.

For “Finding Tammy Jo” to avoid this fate, its creators and stakeholders should monitor, evaluate, and analyze the available data linked to listener behavior. The data may reveal new insights that open opportunities beyond the podcast as medium to develop, maintain, and share extended narratives with their audiences. While many listeners may continue to “tune in” based on the story behind “Finding Tammy Jo,” I will continue to listen and engage to learn more about how community-based media institutions will innovate for the future and transcend the trends of the day.

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