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May 4, 2017, 12:11 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Hands across America: How to make local/national journalism collaborations work

Working together doesn’t always come easy to news organizations. Here are the hurdles — and how best to get around them.

Editor’s note: The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University is dedicated to encouraging collaborations that can strengthen local journalism. Tim Griggs, the former publisher of The Texas Tribune and now an independent consultant, has taken an extended look for the center at what the major opportunities and challenges are for news organizations that might benefit from greater collaboration. Here are his findings. (The center is holding the Collaborative Journalism Summit today and tomorrow; you can catch a livestream here.)

If you’re a journalist at a national news organization, you’re struggling with big, meaty questions right now about trust, power and access. You’ve just been through the most unique election in American history and you’re feeling disconnected from big swaths of the country.

If you’re a journalist at a local news organization, you’re dealing with an incredibly unforgiving marketplace. For so-called “legacy” newsrooms, you’re doing more with less; for startups and newer digital enterprises, your small team is likely fighting for sustainability.

What if there were creative ways to give both national and local news orgs access to some of the resources they lack and, in turn, help produce more meaningful journalism that reaches broader audiences? Such is the goal of the local/national news partnerships initiative by the Center for Cooperative Media (graciously funded by the Democracy Fund and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation): to evaluate and foster more and better collaboration between national and local news organizations.

The project launched last fall and, since then, we’ve been gathering best practices, looking for potential tools or utilities that make collaboration easier, and opportunistically facilitating potential relationships between local and national news organizations. New Jersey has been our local news testing ground.

In this piece, we’re sharing our findings. Some of what we found was no surprise, to be sure. But documenting how and why partnerships between news organizations work or don’t work is instructive, we think, especially now.

How partnerships work now

In examining different ways that national and local news organizations currently collaborate, three key areas quickly emerged:

1. Distribution/syndication: In other words, greater reach. National news organizations have a practical where-mission-meets-business opportunity here: Because they’re not bound by geography, they need distribution to reach and connect with new audiences. Many of the national news organizations I’ve spoken to say audience development is their core strategic challenge — namely “how do we reach more of the people that matter for our mission and our revenue?” There are many components of building an audience, of course (social, search, email, great digital products, “sticky” user experiences, etc.). Distribution relationships can also fuel growth. For example, The Washington Post’s partner program provides complimentary digital subscriptions as a perk to subscribers of a large number of local papers across the country and is one of the contributing factors to its huge digital audience growth of late. Distribution arrangements can also work in reverse (local news on national sites), although achieving any sense of scale is less valuable to local sites that are typically more focused on engagement in their communities. Ways to partner on distribution:

  • Re-publishing: Step one is to simply run the work of others with proper attribution. ProPublica essentially gives away its content via Creative Commons. Pew’s Stateline distributes freely to any news organization. Others, like Reveal and Mother Jones, work with a wide range of distribution partners.
  • Linking or link exchanges: Aggregating relevant coverage is common practice informally or formally.
  • Paid syndication: Of course there’s still a home for paying for content from wire services (like, say, the Associated Press).

2. Localization: “All stories are local” is a cliche because it’s true. It was once (and still is in some newsrooms) common practice for an editor or producer to scan national headlines for stories that could be localized. But local newsrooms today aren’t always aware of national stories that have local relevance nor are they necessarily equipped to report on local ramifications. The challenges are obvious but genuine: Some local newsroom leaders said they wish they had known about a particular national trend piece, but missed it; others said they don’t have the resources (“if it didn’t happen here, we don’t touch it.”) There are several flavors of localization, with varying degrees of complexity:

  • Adding context: In conjunction with a national story, reporters can add local flavor or re-craft to highlight local issues. For example, a national piece on immigration could include links to local archival stories or it could be topped with local immigration data.
  • National story as springboard: A national trend piece can be used as an opportunity to dive deeply into the local effect and impact with a locally produced story.
  • Localizing data: Using nationally reported data sets (like campaign finance records) and highlighting local statistics of interest, or (better!) using that data as the start of local reporting on the issue. Some news organizations, like ProPublica and the AP (via this project), are working to make data more accessible to local newsrooms.

3. Shared reporting: The mother of all newsroom collaboration is working together on reporting, data gathering, editing, and/or storytelling. Like any good partnership, the key here is that the whole must be worth more than the sum of its parts. In other words, the project benefits from more than one entity’s involvement. And that, of course, is really difficult. (Later in this piece, I’ll write about why collaboration like this is so hard and suggest some ways to mitigate the inherent problems.) Here are some of the many ways locals and nationals can partner on reporting projects:

  • One-to-one: One national and one local newsroom, such as this endeavor between ProPublica and the New Orleans nonprofit The Lens or this one between CIR and NJ.com. The national sites in these cases brought data reporting expertise and reach; the local sites brought deep local sourcing and institutional knowledge.
  • Multi-site: Bringing together numerous partners, typically with an anchor or host organization, and including print, broadcast, niche, and others (like academia or philanthropy) such as The Next Mayor project in Philadelphia or The Texas Standard. The more partners, the more complex. (“I’m interested in going on dates, not group dates,” one editor told me.) But the rewards can be rich, with potential for audio, video, data, multimedia and print storytelling and varied audiences.
  • Network: A single entity that uses a web of institutional or individual contributors toward a common project. ProPublica’s Electionland, for example, gathered reports from dozens of partners about voter fraud in their jurisdictions on Election Day. And the site is now applying the lessons learned from that initiative toward a longer-term “Documenting Hate” database project.
  • Institutional: Existing partnerships, particularly between locals and nationals in the same company or same affiliate network, make it easier to systematize content sharing and ongoing shared reporting relationships. NPR, for example, has a specific process for local content to flow up to national platforms.

It’s important to note that for the purposes of this initiative in its first year we’ve focused more on content collaboration ideas like those cited above. There are, of course, an infinite number of other ways local and national news organizations can work together, like licensing technology (e.g. the Post’s CMS which can be used by local newsrooms), freelance networks to make it easier to connect national editors to local stringers (another Post example), shared editing and design (e.g. this GateHouse center), and shared business initiatives (like Voice of San Diego’s membership hub).

What local newsrooms see as the hurdles to collaboration: Resources, lack of interest, and not knowing who to ask

But just because you can collaborate doesn’t mean you will. Partnerships are hard. Like, really hard.

These are some barriers that local news outlet say they face when it comes to collaboration with national news organizations — along with potential ways to overcome them.

Hurdle No. 1: “We don’t have the bandwidth.”

In dozens of interviews with newsroom leaders on this subject, almost all say they would be more likely to collaborate if they just had more time or more staff.

Partnerships can be incredibly complex. They can be time-consuming. And it’s easy to waste time if lots of talk leads to little action. For newsrooms with limited resources, there’s an opportunity cost at play: Taking on a reporting partnership — or even thinking about one — can feel like a distraction.

Many local newsrooms told me they’re leery of collaboration without hiring a partnership manager. (Large news organizations often have dedicated business development teams, and even some smaller national newsrooms are now hiring for such roles. More on that in a bit.)

Here’s the thing about resource limitations: Everyone’s got ’em. I’ve worked for a tiny community weekly, a mid-sized daily, a statehouse reporting site, a global news powerhouse, etc., and can say from experience: Whether you have three people or 3,000, your ambitions will always be bigger than your ability to accomplish them.

So what makes some newsrooms better at collaboration than others? The answer, it seems, is part attitude, part strategy.

Jim Schachter, the vice president for news at WNYC, says it’s a mindset. He advises newsrooms to adopt a “do-what-you-do-best-and-partner-for-the-rest” attitude.

“Maybe it comes more naturally for people at a radio station who a) have never had a news staff as big as they would like and b) where everyone is used to getting people on air. ‘Good story, let’s get your reporter on the air!’,” said Schachter, who previously collaborated from the other side as an editor at The New York Times.

The best collaborators know that working with others can, in so many cases, expand capabilities more efficiently than hiring more people. It can lead to better, more innovative, solutions. It can decrease risk. It can lift the constraints of what’s possible. Newsrooms that recognize the strategic advantages are less likely to look first for reasons that collaboration won’t work and instead start with “yes.”

Hurdle No. 2: “We don’t have the right contacts.”

Partnerships are like marriages. You have to meet the right person, see eye-to-eye (mostly), share expectations from the beginning, communicate well, and put in the work when things get rocky. A lot of marriages end in divorce, of course, and so do partnerships.

Why? They’re incredibly relationship dependent.

First, many local editors, reporters, station managers, etc., just don’t have relationships with their peers at national institutions. When connections do work, they’re often opportunistic: that is, former colleagues who find themselves in new roles, bumping into friends at industry events or conferences, or introductions from colleagues in the field. Local newsrooms who partner well tend to prioritize networking — reaching out to like-minded reporters and editors at national newsrooms — as a matter of practice rather than coincidence.

Second, they require trust, which takes time to build. Steve Myers, managing editor of the New Orleans-based site The Lens (itself a model for local collaboration, having co-reported projects with ProPublica, Slate, the Weather Channel and recently this project, a fascinating three-way partnership between The Lens, FERN (the Food & Environment Reporting Network), and Gravy, a site that explores food cultures of the South) says mutual respect is key.

“More than a name, you need to know what the other people are about,” he said.

“I think there are some cases where if something doesn’t go forward it could be that the other org just doesn’t know enough about you to trust you.”

Myers suggests addressing this pointedly and clearly up front, in a discussion about journalism values. More often than not, you’ll find common ground. But better to kill potential projects early than invest a lot of time and energy into a bad fit. Potential culture clashes need to be addressed directly and hashed out ahead of time.

Among the issues to address: Your respective missions, your reporting and editing methods, roles and responsibilities for both parties, how and when you’ll publish, how you’ll handle credit and attribution, how you’ll manage distribution and promotion, etc.

Third, partnerships tend to fall apart when key players leave. Building a process for ongoing collaboration — even if it’s as simple as a standing meeting or dedicated Slack channel — can help. National and local newsroom leaders we’ve spoken to emphasize their desire for long-term relationships (to avoid “reinventing the wheel” each time). Over time, these relationships must involve a wider circle of involvement, to keep partnerships alive when original architects of the collaboration inevitably move on.

Hurdle No. 3: “We only care about what’s happening locally.”

As mentioned in the last section, some of the most obvious ways for local publishers to work with national news organizations are to localize existing national coverage or simply republish (or link to) those stories.

That happens less than it once did for a couple reasons:

  • This used to be someone’s job. In a newspaper newsroom, a role on the news desk or copy desk was to identify what was happening elsewhere and nudge the local or metro desks to pursue it. In many newsrooms, these jobs don’t exist or the function has been de-emphasized.
  • Local audiences have much broader access to national news, so some local news organizations see themselves less as a window to the world.

Myers sees these dynamics as an even greater reason for local beat reporters to serve as the eyes and ears for their audience. His approach: Ask reporters to post via social any story they’re reading that’s relevant to their beats.

“We’re moderately successful at keeping an eye on national news,” although it’s not yet routine, he says. But the idea theoretically allows reporters to keep on top of stories that might deserve more attention or localization.

Further, he says paying attention to national trends — and the experience of writing with a national perspective in co-reporting partnerships — forces his team to provide more context for local audiences. “When writing about charter schools for a national audience, for example, we take the time to explain things we assume our local audience already understands — even though they probably don’t. We should change our writing so it’s more accessible for everyone” with more explanation, context and background.

Hurdle No. 4: “The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”

In any collaboration, 1 + 1 must equal more than 2. Leaders of local newsrooms that frequently partner say it’s much more important to identify a gap in your organization’s capability — say, data reporting — and fill that gap via partnerships rather than partnering out of a general desire to work together.

The key is to think strategically: What are you trying to accomplish? Who could you approach to help you make that idea a reality?

Further, many of the local newsroom leaders I spoke with say they’re not interested in national partnerships without financial compensation. Paid relationships are infinitely more complex, of course. It may make more sense to seek out non-monetary compensation — access to photo archives or specific distribution efforts, for example.

Despite these four hurdles, there are still real benefits for local newsrooms in partnering with national organizations. Here’s a roundup of my top recommendations for local outlets to better collaborate with their national brethren, based on what I heard from folks who do it well:

  • Adopt a “do what you do best and partner for the rest” mindset.
  • Start with yes.
  • Make friends and actively seek out potential partners.
  • Build trust, starting with mutual respect.
  • Talk — early and often — about editorial missions, philosophies and methods.
  • Discuss in advance the details about credit, roles and responsibilities, and publication timing.
  • Find ways to make it easy for reporters and editors to keep an eye on national news on their beats.
  • Be specific and strategic about what value you’re getting from collaboration.

What national newsrooms see as the hurdles to collaboration: Size, bureaucracy, and a “do-it-ourselves” mentality

We’re complicated, we have trust issues and we can just do it ourselves, anyway.

Those may sound like complaints from a relationship-gone-wrong. They’re also reasons national news organizations cite for why they don’t pursue collaborations with local journalism outlets more frequently. But there are ways to tackle each one.

In conversations with leaders across the industry — at newspapers, corporate hubs, digital-only sites and in public media — here are the challenges I’ve heard most from national sites:

Hurdle No. 1: We have a “do-it-ourselves” preference.

The inclination — which is understandable — is to use your own staff and comfortable processes. But doing so misses at least two big opportunities: Expanding your reporting into areas you otherwise would miss and widening reach.

But there’s a palpable mood change happening now in regard to collaboration: Leaders in national newsrooms who have historically avoided working outside their own walls are more likely to do so today, in part due to economic conditions and in part because the election showed them they may be out of touch with some parts of the country.

Still, it may be hard to follow through.

“The spirit may be willing but the flesh is often weak,” said WNYC’s Jim Schachter. “You may say “oh, we’re going to have a partnership” but it has to translate to the day-to-day and the people who execute who don’t spend their days thinking about media strategy. Their histories and personal viewpoints can get in the way of things operating smoothly.”

Schachter and I worked closely together a few years ago while at The New York Times, experimenting with regional and local partnerships (like this one involving New York City schools, this one on hyperlocal coverage in the East Village, and these with partners in Chicago, San Francisco, and Texas). There were a couple goals, particularly to deepen reporting in key markets and to see if we could get measurable audience improvement (in print and digitally) in those places.

But there was a third, just-as-important byproduct: To learn how to partner.

Schachter’s view of local-national collaboration is borne out of experience on both sides of the equation. At The Times, he had to figure out whether and how to bend the “do-it-ourselves” preference. How do you do that in a large and established newsroom?

“I’m not sure I was smart enough to think of it this way at the time, but it’s helpful to frame it in terms people understand,” he said. “For example: Where’s the newsroom that hasn’t dealt with freelancers? Dealing with freelancers is different than dealing with staff correspondents. It’s a different set of conversations. Early in the relationship, you might look at everything with greater care. You have to learn to trust each other. It’s not such an alien concept.”

Schachter’s advice in a nutshell: “Get over yourself…If the benefits are there, put those values higher than your stubborn adherence to the way you always do stuff,” he said.

Hurdle No. 2: It’s too complicated to navigate the labyrinth.

“Getting to yes” can be tricky in any partnership, but particularly exhausting when working through matrixed organizations whose cultures or processes demand lots of meetings and layers of approval.

Several established organizations overcome this by tapping an individual — either as a dedicated job or an ongoing assignment — to serve as a partnership manager.

As mentioned in our last section, having a lot of resources does not make a big newsroom immune to feeling the constraints of time, energy and people. A single (or initial) point of contact for collaboration can help reduce inevitable friction, particularly when relationships are just getting going.

Cole Goins fills such a role at the Center for Investigative Reporting. CIR is among the most partnership-friendly national news organizations you’ll find. Collaboration is in its DNA (and literally on its About Us page): “We partner with numerous other media organizations, prioritize impact over exclusivity, engage with the public and track results.”

“Our philosophy is that national stories are taking place somewhere, and we want to get (the stories) in the hands of the people most affected,” Goins said.

Partnership managers like Goins help turn that ambition into reality. They have the time to think through what a partnership might look like. They can facilitate editor-to-editor or reporter-to-reporter relationships. They can nudge, prod, and nag a little easier since everyone knows it’s their job. Over time, they become master collaborators; they understand the pitfalls to avoid, the tradeoffs to consider and the approaches that work best.

Hurdle No. 3: We have a size bias.

Journalists at some national news organizations, without ill intent, often assume this: Smaller news organizations just aren’t as good.

Good collaborators know that’s not true — or at least not typically true. (Here’s a list of great work in 2016 by nonprofit news organizations, for example, many of which are local newsrooms with just a reporter or two.)

Size bias works both ways, of course. Journalists at small newsrooms have a tendency to assume large organizations can’t possibly have the speed and agility for a partnership to work.

Related: Familiarity bias. I chatted with one editor, from a large and respected news organization, who put it this way: “At the risk of sounding like a snob: Is the quality there? I don’t know you so I don’t trust you. It’s the fear of the unknown.”

No amount of looking at clips and past work will overcome this. Only the act of working together can smooth that fear.

Schachter said it’s critical to be open-minded about the potential in local partnerships but also open and honest about differences in quality and approach.

“You have to get buy-in on every level,” he said. “It’s going to insult and annoy people if you say you’re going to use college sophomores to replace writing of seasoned professional journalists, for example. Don’t pretend it’s something it isn’t. Proudly embrace what it is and explain why you’re doing it.”

Hurdle No. 4: Partnerships are too exhausting.

How many times have you heard this: “It’ll take longer to explain how to do it than to just do it myself.”

The institutional equivalent? Avoiding collaboration out of fear of hand-holding.

National partners can take some of the strain away by the aforementioned partnership manager role — again, as a specific job or part of an existing job. Another way to make life easier for you and your local counterparts: Write a partnership checklist.

When I was at The Texas Tribune, we created a “director of media relations and partnerships” role, filled by the very talented Natalie Choate. Her job is to get Tribune content in the hands of local newsrooms across the state and to build ad hoc and ongoing partnerships. In her first few weeks on the job, she created a simple but powerful one-pager titled “What can the Texas Tribune do for you?” It outlines ways organizations (including, but not limited to newsrooms) could work with us: co-promotion, trial subscriptions, shared events, co-reporting, etc. It wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a starting point to a conversation.

Bill Gray, who held a similar post at the Center for Public Integrity, found a checklist accelerated the conversation

“I thought it was important to have questions prepared for editor-to-editor conversations,” he said. “Are we agreeing to an open-notebook policy? What resources will each org bring to the project? Who owns what piece? How will it be promoted/shared?”

Once a partnership is established, Goins and CIR aim to make the process as easy as possible. They even share with partners a 12-page guide that outlines the process, technical specs, production tips and answers to frequently asked questions.

Hurdle No. 5: Partnerships are too fleeting.

Everyone I speak with on this subject — from the big established national newsrooms to the smallest hyperlocal sites — expresses a desire to build long-term, lasting relationships, as opposed to one-and-done projects, for obvious reasons. Why put all the time and energy into something that isn’t repeatable?

Goins emphasizes the importance of building a structure for ongoing collaboration. Have a process, build trust over time and have enough people connected — “enough touch points” — so if someone leaves it doesn’t kill the partnership.

A good principle is to get the people talking to each to be as close to the work as possible. “It’s perfectly fine for senior people to negotiate an arrangement,” Schachter said. “But success is really going to lie in how people doing the work and needing to collaborate day-to-day get along.”

An example: WNYC has worked several times with The Guardian. The station has a digital editor who handles the relationship, and a protocol for shared reporting (including things like using the WNYC branded audio player, embedding at the top of a story not the bottom, giving the reporter credit, etc.) which allows for a “good, clean, non-exploitative relationship.”

During the 2016 campaign, it became clear that a story WNYC reporter Andrea Bernstein was pursuing about Hillary Clinton and 9/11 was similar to one being worked on by a Guardian reporter. They got permission to work together, and the story was published in The Guardian with co-bylines and WNYC’s audio player embedded.

From a reach perspective, the collaboration was a huge success: More than 200,000 listens (more than any other co-publishing project in the WNYC newsroom’s history), 136,000 shares, 2,100 comments.

“And it started at the ground level. People working together have to figure out the contours of how they work together,” Schachter said.

There is an another approach that helps alleviate many of these concerns: Universal ownership or established networks.

NPR and member stations, for example, have a long-established process for getting local news on national shows. NPR has regional bureau chiefs — plus topic desks for health, education, etc. — who are responsible for gathering news from across the country. Gannett’s USA Today Network, similarly, makes it easier for local news to flow up to a national desk and vice versa, and it takes on national projects that lend themselves to localization.

But even in a network model, partnerships by fiat don’t work. They require trust, flexibility, and respectful working relationships.

“If you think you’re an equal partner but your partner thinks you’re there to do their bidding, for example, that’s not healthy,” Schachter said. “Sometimes in relationships between large nationals and small locals, it can feel like that. It requires ongoing effort. Nurturing for the long term is required if you want them to last for the long term.”

Why does The Marshall Project’s ‘The Next to Die’ collaborative data initiative work so well? It’s easy.

Tom Meagher, the deputy managing editor of The Marshall Project, has engaged in collaborative projects with a who’s who of national news brands: The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, the Guardian.

As for local partnerships? A lot of squeeze, not a lot of juice.

Generally speaking, the process to conceptualize a project is slower, editing takes longer and, once published, there’s less promotion. It can be even harder with newspapers trying to figure out the Internet, he said.

But Meagher and his team at The Marshall Project, the innovative nonprofit criminal justice site, are on to something.

The Next to Die project has a relatively simple goal: To create a single database of upcoming executions from 10 states (there are 30-plus states with capital punishment laws on the books, but a smaller subset actually do it) and make it easy to search, sort and share.

It was conceived in 2015 by Meagher and The Marshall Project’s former managing editor, Gabriel Dance, along with others throughout the newsroom. It launched in September that year, just before Oklahoma was scheduled to execute Richard Glossip. Of the 10 states with data, The Next to Die project has partnered with local news organizations in eight of them: The Houston Chronicle, Tampa Bay Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Virginian-Pilot, The Frontier (Tulsa), St. Louis Public Radio, AL.com, and Cleveland.com.

What makes this concept work where others have struggled? To put it simply: The Marshall Project makes it easy.

1. It starts with good relationships, based on shared values and skills (in this case, data reporting)

Meagher said he wanted to find people “who are invested in watchdog reporting and appealing to their idealistic journalistic self.” All of them were approached either through existing relationships or through contacts at Investigative Reporters and Editors. And all had a shared interest in putting a spotlight on capital punishment and a shared sensibility about good data journalism.

“As impartial news organizations, The Marshall Project and its journalistic partners do not take a stance on the morality of capital punishment, but we do see a need for better reporting on a punishment that so divides Americans. Whether you believe that execution is a fitting way for society to deplore the most heinous crimes, or that it is too expensive, racially biased and subject to lethal error, you should be prepared to look it in the face.” Learn more here.

2. The relationship is low-friction

The concept was modeled after Homicide Watch in Washington, D.C., a community-driven reporting project that, among other things, tracks murder cases. Meagher and team provide an easy-to-use tool for inputting data, making it easy for The Marshall Project to get structured data and making life easier for local partners. “If you’re a courts reporter in a state, you probably have all the information we’re asking for or you can easily get it,” Meagher said. “So we try not to ask them to go out looking for something else.”

“The tool was well designed and the guidelines were clear,” said Lise Olsen, the deputy investigations editor and a senior reporter at the Houston Chronicle. Texas, of course, has plenty of reporting to do on the death penalty, and had a dedicated reporter assigned to the beat for years. “We do most of the reporting that it requires anyway so it hasn’t been burdensome,” she said

3. Local partners get content (and tools) they wouldn’t otherwise have

In addition to the internal data-entry tool, which saves time and energy for some partners, The Marshall Project also provides a Next to Die widget for partner sites: an embeddable iframe with a state-specific (or national) countdown clock for the next scheduled execution, nationwide data on executions by year, etc.

4. The Marshall Project gets access to local expertise

“Some of this (data) we can get ourselves, but the most valuable thing we get is someone telling us what’s happening there,” Meagher said. With no reporters or sources in these states, The Marshall Project isn’t likely to get a call when news breaks. Collecting data is part of that, but they also get background on each case from partners who have been on the beat for, in some cases, 20-plus years.

5. The end result is a “network effect”

As essentially the curator of a nationwide pool of data, The Marshall Project is naturally better positioned to spot trends than any one local newsroom would. “There are eight different places working within their own sphere,” Meagher said. “When we roll them all together we can share it nationally, and highlight content they’re (creating) on case pages and state pages.” So, if there have been, say, three stories written about Ricky Gray in Virginia, there will be links back to stories in the Virginian-Pilot.

Where it could work better

The “network” works best when, as mentioned in the last section, reporting from local and national newsrooms flows both ways and leads to better, more collaborative reporting. That hasn’t happened yet, although folks involved think it’s possible.

“We’ve tried to use it as a springboard to other projects,” Meagher said. “We’ve had several of the partners on a call together to talk about ideas. It’s a good support group but hasn’t led to any shared reporting projects. We do want to find a way not just for everyone to pitch in data but to find stories for the whole group or some subset of the group. The hope is that it’s going to lead to the Panama Papers, some huge collaboration. But it’s a huge amount of work just to maintain the base level, you never quite get to the big pieces.”

The value of informal collaboration

And while collaboration across a network of partners is the ultimate goal, just the knowledge that there is a group — and associated calls and emails — have led to a type of less-formal collaboration and idea sharing.

The Next to Die relationship led to a broader co-reporting project between the Marshall Project and AL.com about the sentencing power of Alabama judges. And a conversation with their partner at the Tampa Bay Times led to this story about Florida’s unique law that allows juries to recommend the death penalty by a simple majority vote, which the Times reported on its own.

“When a story comes across (from one of the partners) we can spot trends and look at examples of other stories and keep up with what’s going on around the country,” Olsen said. “It’s inspiring to read what other people are doing.”

Keys to successful local-national news collaborations

What can you do today from within your newsroom — of any size or type — to make collaboration work? The recommendations here are drawn from dozens of interviews with newsroom leaders and partnership gurus, as well as my own experience dealing with partnerships from both the local and national perspective.

People & relationships

When I first started studying this space, I had expected — based on my experience wrangling partnerships at a local newspaper, statewide news site, and global news brand — that the key to any collaboration is pretty simple: People. While it’s true that there are a couple dozen other key ingredients I hadn’t thought about (or committed to writing) it really does all start with having the right people in place. And that’s something you can focus on right now, in your newsroom, without spending a nickel.

No productive collaboration is possible without flexible, detail-oriented, ego-free people who have the right spirit of cooperation, who can work to find common objectives and shared values, and who can build lasting relationships with other news organizations.

Some people just get it. They have an innate ability to bring folks together, to network, to build relationships, to seek common ground, to keep forging ahead even when partnerships get complicated.

We talk a lot about attracting unicorns in newsrooms: brilliant, data-driven journalists who can code. It might be time to start talking about collabricorns (but, please, let’s not actually use this as a word — let’s call them Partnership Sherpas)— the kind of reporter/editor/producer/publisher/marketer/etc. who understands the complexity of partnerships from all perspectives, can navigate all the land mines, and ultimately get it done.

There are quite a few great ones (including a few folks you’ve read about in this series), like Cole Goins at CIR/Reveal, Jim Schachter at WNYC, Tom Meagher at The Marshall Project, Natalie Choate at The Texas Tribune, Steve Myers at The Lens, Scott Klein at ProPublica, and Stanford fellow Heather Bryant, to name a few.

And, of course, there are so many other great examples of collaborators outside the narrow view of local-to-national: Look at what Brian Wheelercreated at Charlottesville Tomorrow with the Daily Progress (local digital with local print); or what Mary Walter-Brown is building at Voice of San Diego (membership services hub among nonprofits); or Sandy Shea at the Philadelphia Media Network (collaboration within a legacy news org and with others); or Dave Lesher at CALmatters (statewide digital with local print); or Andy Hall at WisconsinWatch (statewide digital with university and broadcast); or any one of talented speakers at the Collaborative Journalism Summit.

The skills required here can also be learned, of course. I loved this line from a recent CJR piece, written by Ryan Craggs, about common pitfalls of social news headlines:

Writing bulletproof headlines and selecting dynamic images isn’t rocket science. It’s more like lawn-dart science. Like any other task, the more you do it, the better you get at it.

That’s so true of many things, including the art of collaboration.

So you want to be a Partnership Sherpa? Start by having the right mentality. WNYC’s Schachter described it as a “getting over yourself” and “adopting a do-what-we-do-best-and-partner-for-the-rest” approach. Kristen Hare at Poynter wrote about ditching your preconceived notions about competition.

The most important tip I can give you? You have to be tireless, because collaboration can be exhausting. You need to want to roll up your sleeves, keep plugging away and, ultimately, get shit done.

I once heard Vivian Schiller, then the head of digital at The New York Times, listen to a colleague complain about the sometimes-lengthy process of getting internal buy-in, then navigating through partners and vendors. “It’s so frustrating,” this person said. “It’ll take a thousand meetings to actually get it done.”

Schiller deadpanned: “Then maybe you should start scheduling a thousand meetings.”

(I mentioned this to her years later and she doesn’t remember saying it, by the way, but it was totally brilliant and a great lesson about stamina and the resolve to turn ideas into action.)

Strategy

Once you’ve got that licked, start thinking strategically. What are you trying to accomplish? Strategy has to come first. Newsroom leaders and partnership experts repeatedly told me that partnership by fiat doesn’t work, and collaboration without a clear and meaningful purpose won’t work (or, at least, won’t last.)

So, for local newsrooms, what’s your goal?

  • Reaching readers you can’t reach on your own?
  • Providing more context — in the form of national news/trends/data — for your audience?
  • Earning credibility from audiences by having a connection to a national news brand?
  • Getting paid (via syndication arrangements)?
  • Getting access to resources/capabilities from national newsrooms (like data, investigative reporting, sources)

For national newsrooms, what’s your goal?

  • Attracting new readers in targeted local markets?
  • Reaching underserved markets for mission reasons?
  • Growing your digital subscriber base?
  • Getting access to local expertise?
  • Spreading out from the proverbial coastal bubble?

Let your strategy dictate what path you take. If you work in a local newsroom and your goal is to get access to skills you don’t have in-house, it makes no sense to pursue a partnership with a national news outlet that wants broader distribution but isn’t interested in contributing to the reporting.

An important point I’ve yet to cover here: “Local” can mean many different things: “Hyper local,” neighborhood, community, city, metropolitan region, state, etc. National can mean lots of things, too: it may mean serving many geographies or a single subject. A state news organization, for example, may need to think about the strategies from both the local and national perspective (e.g. working with local journalists for local context and distributing through local news organizations, but also partnering with national news organizations for brand credibility and paid syndication deals, for example.)

Tactics

Armed with a clear purpose, and the right people in place, you can actually start to build productive local-national partnerships. Here are some tips we’ve gathered along the way:

Easy:

  • For locals, aggregate relevant national content. If you’re a local newsroom who cares about providing context, this is a no-brainer — and it costs you nothing. One interesting way to do this, even off-site via social, courtesy of Steve Myers at The Lens: He encourages beat reporters to post relevant links daily as a way to keep tabs on national stories of local interest, and to underscore to audiences that local reporters are your “window to the world.”
  • Look to national news organizations that provide their data and/or coverage for free. ProPublica is notable example, and makes it easy. And, if it suits your strategy, share your own content openly via Creative Commons. (The Center for Cooperative Media, by the way, is compiling a list of news organizations who do this. Stay tuned.)
  • Start building relationships. Make it a point to reach out to potential partners once a quarter. Make a conscious effort at industry events (IRE and ONA, for example) to meet peers at like-minded newsrooms. And stay in touch with the Center for Cooperative Media. Summits like this one are great places to meet fellow collaborators at both the local and national level.
  • Consciously lose any sort of competitive concerns, particularly with your partners. There seems to be a shifting of the tides in a lot of places around competition, but I still hear a great deal of hand-wringing about how collaboration might ruin exclusive scoops. Again, let strategy dictate your course: Will an initiative — and, more importantly, your audience — be better served by working with others? If so, do it openly and honestly. Holding back is a good way to make a partnership more cumbersome than it needs to be.

Medium:

  • Connect people who would actually do the work (data journalists, for example, who can speak the same language and understand what it actually takes to work together.)
  • Make sure colleagues responsible for things like audience development and revenue are involved from the beginning. If you can’t collaborate internally, fix it; you’re going to have a much more difficult time collaborating externally.
  • Talk — early and often — about editorial missions, philosophies and methods. If there isn’t a common set of values, partnerships will often be dead on arrival.
  • Of course, you also need to talk fairly early in the process about the million thorny details: How are you going to handle credits, visuals, promotion, roles and responsibilities, publication timing/embargoes? Make it easy on yourself and keep a partnership checklist that’s shared with both teams.
  • For nationals who are interested in distributing content to help with reach and audience growth, create a “budget” for partner news orgs. A digest of all the stories and/or data you want to disseminate (by email, RSS, social group, Slack, etc.) makes it much more likely that local news organizations will publish your work.

Hard:

  • Hire — or dedicate time from an existing staffer — to “own” partnerships.
  • For national news organizations, tap into existing networks. Feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of a bunch of one-off partnerships? Look to organizations that can galvanize a wider set of locals: the Institute for Nonprofit News, Local Independent Online News publishers, NPR, corporate chains, etc.
  • Help keep the collaboration strong. Involve an increasingly wider group of people (architects of the collaboration will inevitably move on.) And create a communication vehicle that works for both parties (Slack, for example) to keep in regular contact.
  • Create how-to guides for partners. For data-intensive projects in particular, make it easy to localize. The Marshall Project, for example, did a national story on private prison transfer companies, regulations (or lack thereof), and problems that arise. They published a step-by-step guide for how to do the same story in any town or county. CIR and ProPublica do this regularly as well.
  • Provide coaching and editing. For a 2012 story on veterans waiting for disability benefits, CIR shared the national dataset that broke down wait times for each VA office. “This was a national issue that was everywhere, affecting different places in different ways,” Goins, a prototypical Partnership Sherpa, said. They conducted a national campaign to get it to partners in key places and provide hands-on guidance to any and all.
  • Find other ways to make it easy on yourself and your partners: Back-end data entry tools (and public-facing widgets) can make larger projects, like Electionland, possible. And to help prevent being overwhelmed by a broad set of partners, ProPublica’s Scott Klein suggests scheduling dedicated office hours.

The bottom line is that for many news organizations, collaboration and cross-entity partnerships are a way to grow reach, enhance the brand and build capacity. Local-to-national news partnerships are one subsection of that kind of work that can be fruitful when the right kind of collaborations are put into place.

Tim Griggs is an independent consultant and advisor to media companies (and others). He’s the former publisher of the Texas Tribune and former digital product and strategy executive at The New York Times. He can be reached at gunnertg@gmail.com. This piece appeared in slightly different form as a series of posts on Medium.

Photos of handshakes by Julia Taylor, Tim Ellis, Namor Trebat, Photocapy, and Vilmos Vincze all used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 4, 2017, 12:11 p.m.
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