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Sept. 28, 2016, 2:10 p.m.
Business Models

Collaborate or die: A new initiative wants to make it easier for national and local outlets to work together

“Where you find resistance to collaboration is where you’re finding news enterprises hastening their own demise.”

If you want an idea of what it’s like to get news organizations to collaborate, try herding cats.

That’s how Tim Griggs describes it, anyway, and he would know. Over the past ten years, in big roles at The New York Times, the Times-owned Wilmington Star-News and, most recently, as publisher of The Texas Tribune, he’s spent a lot of time navigating what he calls the “sticky, complicated process” of getting big and small newsrooms to work together on projects. And while the process isn’t easy, it’s clearly worthwhile — even vital — for many.

“The tremendous financial pressure on the industry right now makes collaboration essential,” he told me. “Where you find resistance to collaboration is where you’re finding news enterprises hastening their own demise.”

Collaboration is at the heart of Griggs’ new role at Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media, which earlier this month named Griggs as head of its new Local/National News Partnerships Project. Announced in June, the project aims to explore ways to make it easier for national and local news organizations to work together — whether through efforts as ambitious as co-reporting projects or as simple as content sharing. The project’s funding comes via the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Democracy Fund. (Griggs, who will continue his work as an independent consultant for media companies while at Montclair, is also innovator in residence at Knight Center & School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.)

While the Center for Cooperative Media hopes that the project’s findings and efforts will have implications for organizations all across the U.S., it is, perhaps fittingly, starting local. Its early efforts will be focused on its home state of New Jersey, where it hopes to find new ways to help local organizations partner with their national counterparts. The center already operates a version of this idea with the NJ News Commons, a network of dozens of organizations that partner on stories and republish each other’s work.

Stefanie Murray, director of the center, said that New Jersey is a viable test bed for the project, thanks to its long history of being underserved by regional media companies, which have traditionally been based out of the larger markets of New York City and Philadelphia. “Historically, there have been few large media outlets or television stations that cover solely New Jersey,” she said. “Our mission today is to support local journalism, and we think the best way to do that is through collaborative networks.” The problem has gotten worse in recent years, as even those big media companies have downsized and reduced their focus on New Jersey, she said.

Both Murray and Griggs agreed that it’s a ripe time to launch the effort: Big or small, one thing that unites all news organizations today is that they all face constraints. No one publisher, not even those as large as The New York Times or The Washington Post, can do it all. Those big outlets may be able to reach a lot of readers, but they also each have their own coverage blind spots and resource limitations that prevent them from putting enough resources where big local stories are happening. Likewise, smaller, more local news organizations, while adept at on-the-ground coverage of local issues, often struggle with getting distribution and having enough cash to tackle more ambitious stories.

While Griggs says he hasn’t yet started conversations with potential partners, he knows going in that no two partnerships — and no two motivations driving them — will be alike. Some will be as simple as republication or syndication deals. On the more intimate side of the spectrum will be deals like the one The New York Times put together with the San Francisco-based Bay Citizen, which created the Bay Area Report, a biweekly two-page section of The New York Times focused on issues in the region. The effort’s goal was not only to increase the Times’ print circulation in the San Francisco region (its second-largest market) but to turn that increased local relevance into more local advertising dollars. That relationship ended in 2012, when Bay Citizen folded into the Center for Investigative Reporting, but its lessons lived on. (The Times launched an in-house variation on the idea with California Today earlier this year.)

“For the Times, there was a journalistic purpose to [the Bay Citizen partnership], which was ‘give us access to really good, smart, high-quality Timesean local journalism’,” said Griggs. “On the business side, there was a clear measurable circulation bump when we did those kinds of partnerships.”

Griggs saw similar benefits to collaboration, albeit on the state level, during his time at The Texas Tribune. When the paper launched in 2009, it faced the same challenges that every new news organization does: Getting more people to be aware that existed and, in turn, turning a financially significant portion of those people into paying subscribers, event attendees, or eyeballs for local advertisers to reach. Its strategy in reaction to this challenge was straightforward. Any local paper, radio station, or television network was able to freely republish Texas Tribune content as long as they gave the newspaper credit for the reporting. “That was critical to growing all sorts of lines of revenue,” Griggs said.

Partnerships have been core to the Texas Tribune’s strategy over the years. Like Bay Citizen, It also had a regional partnership with the Times, the longest lasting of the newspaper’s (it also had one in Chicago). Soon after that ended, in 2014, the newspaper inked a similar deal with The Washington Post, which agreed to partner with the paper on content, events, and marketing. The Texas Tribune even embedded a reporter in the Post’s D.C. newsroom.

Another potential model for collaboration comes from the likes of ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which have created many national/local reporting collaborations on big stories about criminal justice, education, and the environment. For ProPublica, the latest of these came earlier this month when it launched Electionland, a joint project between six other organizations that will focus on local election issues around the country. Griggs said that he sees particular promise for local collaborations with single-subject national news organizations such as The Marshall Project, Chalkbeat, and InsideClimate News.

Of course, even the most well intentioned collaborations don’t come without their share of challenges. Many organizations simply lack the bandwidth or resources — human or otherwise — to start and sustain these kind of partnerships. This is why a major part of the Local/National News Partnerships Project is creating processes and offering best practices to reduce the kind of friction that naturally emerges from different organizations working together. “So much of this is asking: How can we make it easy for organizations to collaborate with one another and make the entire process more systematic?” Murray said.

And then there are the human challenges. In many newsrooms, there’s “often an unwillingness to collaborate, for whatever reason,” Griggs said. “That’s not true everywhere, but it’s true in some places.” In that sense, the first step towards making collaboration happen is winning over reporters and editors and making the case for why collaborating will do more than just another duty to their workloads.

Whatever form these collaborations take, and despite their challenges, Griggs says they’ll continue to be an essential part of the industry. And those unwilling reporters and editors will have to fall in line.

“By this point, it’s clear that news organizations need to partner to expand their capacity. You have to be a more collaborative player culturally, in the market, and nationally. That’s just the reality, Griggs said. “Anyone who thinks something different is nuts.”

Photo of a handshake by katherinemuchadoo used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 28, 2016, 2:10 p.m.
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