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Here’s what ProPublica learned about managing a collaboration across hundreds of news organizations
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April 26, 2010, noon

Reading between the lines: Collaboration panel all smiles, but subtext tells more nuanced story

The New York Times hasn’t had a single bad experience partnering with another news organization. Neither has ProPublica, or California Watch. The same is true for NPR and PBS Newshour.

At least that’s the impression one could be forgiven for taking away from a panel at this year’s Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium at UC Berkeley. Leaders at these major journalism shops were all overwhelmingly positive about the potential of cross-organization collaboration.

But all that enthusiasm was tempered by a more nuanced discussion about collaboration’s challenges and limitations. Is the extra work of bridging the work of news organizations really worth it? Is what we’re seeing a real solution to the economic problems facing the news industry? How truly collaborative are some of the projects after all? From the panel and discussions following it, I took away three questions, each of which involve places where the promise of collaboration gets thorny:

The Paul Steiger factor: Are old connections building the next model?

When news broke last year that Paul Steiger was earning $570,000 running ProPublica, you could almost hear the collective gasp in the journalism world. But that pay buys an editor with extraordinary stature and clout in the field. ProPublica’s success, including its recent Pulitzer Prize, is based largely on partnerships with major news outlets — the kind of partnerships made infinitely easier by having someone with Steiger’s background. The Pulitzer ProPublica picked up was for a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, the sort of prime placement ProPublica frequently receives in newspapers across the country. Elite, high-profile collaborations can give credibility to the rest of the new nonprofit, collaboration-seeking journalism world.

“The New York Times doesn’t have to collaborate with us,” Steiger said, “but they do.” Steiger said he thinks the “the changed economic environment has changed everybody’s attitudes,” but that doesn’t mean the Times is taking calls from just anyone.

The efficiency question

Does collaboration require half as much work for two news organizations, or twice as much? The panel agreed that collaboration takes more work, but that the labor can be worth it: The journalism generally reaches a broader audience, giving it a greater potential for impact.

Different organizations take different approaches to efficiency. While ProPublica and California Watch have many surface similarities. As California Watch editorial director Mark Katches said: “If we did everything by the ProPublica model, we’d be on our third story right now. Instead we’re on our 16th.” Katches explained that they partner with multiple outlets on each story, unlike ProPublica, which typically teams up with one other outlet at a time. California Watch tends to produce a finished product, seeking sign off from editors at the story’s end. In the last nine months, California Watch has placed their stories with 55 news organizations. They’re in growth mode, trying to add a partner with each new story.

While Katches considers efficiency a matter of reaching a large audience, Steiger offered a different description of his organization’s mission, saying they want to get “information to the ‘right’ part of the public that can most lead to change. I measure success by impact” — not audience.

What is true collaboration?

Of the examples of collaboration the panel offered up, some were more collaborative than others. Katches said California Watch’s work is more collaborative at the editing stage than before: Stories are tailored to various lengths and needs of partner outlets. That makes California Watch, Katches said, more of a “boutique wire service.” That’s the model he says allows them to produce the most work, even if it might not feature cross-organization teamwork the whole way through.

Susanne Reber, NPR’s deputy manager of investigations, talked about the struggles of collaborating even within a single news organization. She said it takes a certain willingness and openness on the part of reporters to share information and sources. At this point, Reber, who was just hired by NPR in January, looks for teams that want to do the work: “It’s not conscription. If it’s not you, don’t join the team.”

Photo by Álvaro Canivell used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 26, 2010, noon
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