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July 15, 2013, 12:18 p.m.
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For public radio and television stations, collaboration around the news proves challenging

Public media invested significant resources into building Local Journalism Centers that could unite multiple stations in reporting on the same topic. The results have been a mixed bag.

Tanya Ott is used to editing news. Right now, she’s waiting for some of her own: a yay or nay from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting about funding for the public radio collaboration she oversees, the Southern Education Desk.

“We have job descriptions ready to go — from an HR standpoint, we’re ready to pull the trigger,” said Ott, the vice president of radio at Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Whether she’ll get the chance to execute it is unclear. Eight stations across five states were previously involved, but just Ott and one reporter are now keeping the Southern Education Desk brand alive, since its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ran out in March.

As part of a big bet on regional collaboration, seven Local Journalism Centers, including the Southern Education Desk, were born in 2010 and 2011, joining public radio and TV stations across chunks of the U.S. to report on big topics: agriculture in the midwest (Harvest Public Media), energy and the environment in the Northwest (EarthFix), immigration and the border in the southwest (Fronteras Desk), and education in the southeast, among others. They started with $8.1 million from CPB, and a few of the projects received additional third-year funding — a significant investment, especially when you compare it to NPR’s $3 million Project Argo, or the $4.8 million NPR spent to support StateImpact, two other prominent public media collaboration efforts.

The partnerships were hailed as a way to improve local journalism, help stations battle shrinking budgets, and experiment with collaboration. They produced high quality work in many areas; one collaboration won awards for its coverage of coal’s environmental impact in the northwest, and another has produced impressive series on both retirees and the local drug wars in the southwest. But momentum also ground to a halt in others, when relationships between stations soured, the projects faced delays getting off the ground, and stations couldn’t find the support to continue the projects.

As CPB weighs the Southern Education Desk’s future, the organization is also preparing to announce two new centers. Three years after its first announcement, I asked reporters and editors: What lessons can be learned from the experiments, and what would you tell the new collaborations on the block?

Figure out who’s in charge

Collaboration is hard — particularly in the uniquely networked environment of public media, where stations both stand on their own and are part of a mesh of institutions and entities. At most Local Journalism Centers, reporters for the project answer to the LJC’s editor, usually based in another city. That structure played out in different ways, since the reporters’ involvement in day-to-day coverage ranged widely. In a number of cases, stations’ own news directors ended up feeling alienated from the collaboration, and reporters got caught in the middle.

Dalia Colon recalled tension about her role when she was a reporter for HealthyState.org, a collaboration which focused on health issues in Florida and was one of the first LJCs to close down. “I’m sitting in a newsroom, but the news director is not my boss,” she said. “So I felt sort of useless to the newsroom sometimes. If there was a big event, they’re looking around saying, ‘Who can cover it? Dalia can’t cover it — she can only cover health stories.'”

Micheline Maynard went from being a New York Times senior business correspondent to the editor of Changing Gears, which shut down last April. Not coming from a public radio background meant she underestimated how different the personalities of the stations were, she said, and how difficult it would be to make content that was relevant to audiences in Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Cleveland. “I sort of thought it would be more of a news bureau situation, where people would say, ‘You can do whatever you do and we’ll take it,'” she said. “We were learning to get along with each other, learning what the stations wanted, and reporting the news at the same time,” she said. “To anyone doing collaboration: Get on the same page as soon as possible.”

The sum of the reporting must be greater than its parts

Turning TV content into radio content is not always an intuitive process, and turning radio into TV can be even more difficult, editors said. The collaborations that worked had clear reasons to work together — issues that united a region, and gaps that others could fill.

Public radio station WSKG in Binghamton, N.Y., decided years ago not to put their limited resources toward a news operation. But when fracking became a huge issue in their backyard, the reporter based at WSKG who was a part of the Innovation Trail collaborative — now in its third year covering tech, business, and energy in upstate New York — picked up the story. As community demand grew for more information on fracking, the Innovation Trail operation became more important to the station, and it’s now building up its own news operation to supplement that reporting. “It’s massively increased the quantity of reporting that’s been done,” Innovation Trail editor Matthew Leonard said of the collaboration’s effect on the region.

A lot hinges on the topic that brings the collaboration together. Many reporters cited Fronteras Desk’s border focus as a topic that benefits from reporting from many different cities. Meanwhile, the Southern Education Desk was tackling a topic where policy varies immensely between states, with stations in cities that ranged in size from Monroe, La. (population: 50,000) to Atlanta.

Christine Jessel, an education reporter based in Tennessee who worked for the Southern Education Desk, said the regional approach made her coverage better, pointing to a situation when covering a battle over teachers union negotiations in the state capital informed later coverage in Knox County, where her station is based. Still, Ott — who only began overseeing the collaboration in January — called the scope of the project “a huge challenge.” Her solution? Have everyone focus on education through the lens of race and poverty. Former reporters say the narrowed focus was helping, but the funding clock just ran out too soon.

Time is precious

“This job didn’t come with a standard operating procedure manual,” David Steves, the editor of EarthFix, said. Even so, his collaboration had an easier time getting off the ground quickly. It was in the second round of LJCs, launching in 2011, so Steves was able to look into what was and wasn’t working around the country. Second, some of its stations had already worked together on the Northwest News Network, another public radio collaboration that had existed in its current form since 2003.

“That was a big advantage coming right out of the blocks, having that collaborative nature,” Steves said.

For other centers, getting started was more difficult. At Healthy State and Southern Education Desk, it was months into the project before some positions were filled, and Maynard at Changing Gears said it was about eight months or so before things started to gel between the stations. For a permanent newsroom, those hurdles wouldn’t be impossible to overcome — but with only two years of guaranteed funding, delays ate into the collaborations’ room for success. “It took us a while to get on the same page in terms of what was expected of them, when stories would be on the air, what the specific focus would be of the stories,” Maynard said.

Funding is difficult to come by

CPB has recognized the challenges many of the Local Journalism Centers faced, commissioning a report about their strengths and weaknesses in 2011. (CPB wouldn’t share the full report with me, but here’s a summary.) In response to some early difficulties, the guidelines that CPB distributed for this year’s would-be collaborators include explicit best practices, like weekly calls for everyone involved on the project and the creation of a five-year business plan.

The centers’ biggest challenge has been not knowing how they will continue after the initial funding runs out, and few of the collaborations have a clear idea whether they will be able to sustain their work. The CPB funding was never supposed to sustain the projects for longer than three years, but editors said they had expected to be able to find outside grant funding — and no one’s biting when it comes to the LJCs.

“People just see the content out of their radio like it’s Morning Edition or All Things Considered, so it’s very hard to sell the LJC as a brand,” Leonard, the editor of Innovation Trail, said. “You’ll likely hear people say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do a 10-part series around universal pre-K’ — around a story idea — then you can get that. But around the LJC itself: ‘Isn’t that attractive and appealing to you as an underwriter?’ Not so much.”

Earning traditional support from listeners isn’t an easy proposition either, since the difference between news produced by the LJC and the news they’re used to getting from their station isn’t always clear. Some stations cross-post projects to their own websites, while others keep all of the LJC’s work on a separate site, which can mean confusion for those looking to view that content (and donate to its creators).

The evolution of Innovation Trail is an example of one solution. Leonard said that he’s still not sure where all of the funding will come from to support Innovation Trail next year, when its CPB funding concludes. But the participating stations have indicated they’re willing to each put in some money to support a looser coalition, where reporters spend only half of their time on collaborative work instead of being full-time Innovation Trail reporters, and the project’s focus is expanded to include more social issues and data-driven reporting. The plan is for those reporters to work together on regional projects — some hopefully sponsored — with the understanding that covering local news events is a part of their jobs, too.

When longtime public media news director and consultant Mike Marcotte heard that CPB was looking to start new collaborations this year, he was interested in getting involved. But when he asked stations if they were interested, he heard crickets. “I don’t know if it’s collaboration fatigue, or just that those who are predisposed to do collaborations have already got theirs going, but there was no hubbub, no buzz,” he said.

There is still momentum behind the project, though. CPB got five applications from a total of 15 TV stations and 15 radio stations this year, and CPB’s senior vice president of radio, Bruce Theriault, said they still believed strongly in the power of collaboration in an age of limited resources.

“I think we start with the premise that our journalistic workforce is small in public media and it’s going to require a greater scale and greater capacity to play the role we think is needed in society,” Theriault said. “A typical way is to hire your way through it, but everyone acting individually — that is a very hard thing. Only every couple of years adding a reporter isn’t going to get the job done.”

He said that CPB has focused on learning from the initial group of fundees: “one, to look at the impact of our funding, but more importantly to help shape adjustments in the current group and provide good feedback. We tried to bake in the learning up front so we would save some time and missteps for anyone new.”

CPB has given significant grants to other types of collaborative projects in the last two years, including Localore. Theriault wasn’t eager to promise more resources for existing LJCs, though. “I think our expectation is they need to take on most of the responsibility for that, and let that evolve naturally,” he said.

Most of the reporters agreed that the model of the Local Journalism Centers has the potential to make local coverage more meaningful — but only if the partners are set up to succeed. “From a listener’s perspective, the benefits are huge,” Ott said. “What we’re figuring out is the station side of things — how do we actually make this work.”

Image by OCV Photo used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 15, 2013, 12:18 p.m.
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