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May 1, 2012, 1 p.m.

A lesson in collaboration: How 15 news orgs worked together to tell a single education story

Education Week, The Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association led a 15-organization collaborative reporting assignment.

Shared bylines are common enough. But what about a story with the names of 15 reporters and more than a dozen news organizations attached to it?

Last month, Education Week, the Education Writers Association, and nonprofit news organization The Hechinger Report jointly produced a lengthy story that had a single byline — Alyson Klein’s — but listed 14 other reporters from 12 additional news organizations as contributors. Check it out:

This article was produced by Education Week, The Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association. Additional reporting was contributed by Liz Bowie and Erica Green of the Baltimore Sun, Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago, Antoinette Konz of The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Jennifer Brown of The Denver Post, Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press, Nancy Mitchell of Education News Colorado, Rachel Cromidas and Philissa Cramer of GothamSchools, Scott Elliott of The Indianapolis Star, Paul Takahashi of the Las Vegas Sun, Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinel, Jennifer Jordan of The Providence Journal, and Brian Rosenthal of The Seattle Times.

This is the second such collaboration between Ed Week, EWA, and Hechinger. Education is a beat that’s national — with federal policies and research — but intensely local, with thousands of school boards making decisions at a community level. So the idea is to have local and national reporters join forces to cover a major education story that’s playing out in different areas of the country, and at various levels of government. Ed Week produced an overview story with a national angle, then local partners — who helped feed state-based information for that national story — could reprint all or part of it in their regional publications. In this case, the assignment was to track the local use of $3 billion in federal School Improvement Grant stimulus money.

While Ed Week handled much of the writing and editing, EWA executive director Caroline Hendrie says it made sense for her organization to serve as the link to reporters participating from newsrooms around the country. “We work with reporters and editors across the country — these are our members and they’re already actively engaged with us,” Hendrie told me.

Davin McHenry, web producer and news editor at The Hechinger Report, says he handled project logistics like enforcing deadlines and “making sure the project was on track, getting information out to everyone.”

It may be true, as Hendrie told me, that we as journalists are “better together.” But it’s also true that a project of this scope presents a host of challenges. Here are some of the things Hendrie, McHenry, and Ed Week assistant managing editor Mark Bomster say they learned along the way, and the advice they’d give others who are considering a similar undertaking.

Find likeminded partners

McHenry: Our main thrust up to this point has been collaborating with newspapers, and providing them with content. We’re kind of that midpoint between the Education Writers Association and Ed Week…At the same time, we know how to provide high-level news content that’s accepted by the largest and most stringent news orgazantions.

Hendrie: It was very much a three-way collaboration from the beginning, with the idea that we would work to define clear roles for each of the organizations. That meshed well with our different but somewhat complimentary audiences and activities.

This kind of collaboration won’t work for every story

Bomster: You have to be sure you actually have the will and resources to follow through with it. Then you have to find a subject that will really resonate, and still hold up given such a long reporting and planning cycle…It has to be something that’s sort of a perennial topic, but also at the same time newsworthy, and something that hasn’t been plumbed as deeply as you might think.

Establish clearly defined roles, and cede control

Hendrie: It makes total sense for us to take the lead on the recruitment…Our community is comprised both of the national reporters and editors and local. We have news outlets of every stripe in all media — not just print, not just online, not just radio, not just TV, but all of those things. To the extent that we can pool our resources, we’ll all produce better information for the public.

Bomster: It’s kind of unusual because those of us who are news editors and reporters tend to be such control freaks. We had to cede a certain amount of that control. The way that it really turned out, we each decided we were going to play our positions.

Think big, but start small

McHenry: The first time around, we went out and recruited as many papers as we could in one big fell swoop…We asked them to dedicate a reporter for a week, maybe two weeks, to investigate the topic. I think at our high-water mark, I want to say we had 50 news outlets that had initially signed on. But what we ran into was, a lot of these places, they had eyes bigger than their stomachs and very quickly that number started dwindling. [The fix this time around, McHenry said, was to allow time-strapped news organizations to help with certain stages of the project, without feeling bad about not being able to commit from start to finish.]

Know your limitations

Hendrie: Always be aware of just how overtaxed journalists are today in the modern newsroom. One lesson that we’re learning is always to simplify, and find more streamlined ways to communicate. People are so pressed for time and pulled in so many directions…Put extra time into thinking how you’re messaging.

Realize the potential reward

Bomster: This model puts a big premium on collaborative work. We all maximize our resources, and there’s a lot of leverage you can get out of that with just a couple of organizations who are in tune about coverage philosophy and expertise.

Hendrie: So much of education policy and practice happens at the state and the local level, but there’s huge commonalities and, more and more, the national and federal impact is increasing. So it’s very important that education journalists compare notes, learn from each other, help one another know what’s going on in other communities because there is so much — the overall context varies, certainly, but there are threads running through that are the same everywhere.

Photo by Twix used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 1, 2012, 1 p.m.
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