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Jan. 8, 2020, 12:23 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Six months in, here’s how the Florida news outlets’ climate change partnership is going

“On this one issue, we’ve decided to drop the guns and share consistently.” “Our readers are getting 10 times more stories about climate change than they otherwise would.”

What started out last summer as a partnership among six Florida news organizations to cover climate change in the state has now tripled in size, with 18 organizations — usually competitors with one another — now working together.

“On this one issue, we’ve decided to drop the guns and share consistently,” said Alex Harris, the climate change and hurricanes reporter at The Miami Herald. (This past November, Harris spoke about the Florida Climate Reporting Network at a Nieman Foundation conference on covering climate change.)

The Network is led by the anchor newspapers in Florida’s two largest metro areas, the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times; other participants include founding members the Orlando Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, and WLRN, and those who’ve joined since launch: The Bradenton Herald, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Centro, The Daytona Beach News-Journal, InsideClimate News, El Nuevo Herald, Politifact, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, El Sentinel, the public media stations WUSF and WJCT, and the University of Florida.

Further expansion is likely this year. “Most of the larger GateHouse papers have joined, and with the merger between Gannett and GateHouse, I wouldn’t be surprised if we add several more,” said Mark Katches, the executive editor of the Tampa Bay Times.

Eleven of the participating organizations are each expected to produce two stories a month, which works out to some advantageous math: “We deposit two, we get to withdraw 20,” Katches said. (The Spanish-language news organizations’ role is to translate the stories; organizations like the Center for Investigative Reporting and PolitiFact jump in when they can contribute to a project.) “We don’t publish every single one, but we’re publishing most of the stories. Our readers are getting 10 times more stories about climate change than they otherwise would.”

“Having these newsrooms and these different geographies talking to one another is going to set the stage for some important journalism we can provide to audiences across the state,” Tom Hudson, the VP of news at WLRN, told Nieman Lab in July. “It’s going to help us see how some of our environmental challenges are common, and how some may be interrelated.”

The organizations in the network share a Slack channel to discuss and amplify each other’s coverage, and they hold a phone meeting every two weeks to discuss upcoming stories. While six-plus months of working together is a relatively short time, there are still some early lessons (and challenges) to share, which may be helpful for news organizations in other states trying to do the same thing.

Do collaborations pay? Well, kind of. Okay, on one hand, they don’t: Participating news organizations obviously aren’t paying each other to run content. And newspapers are relying on pageviews for advertising money — and if you’re sharing a story “with nine papers who are all running a variation of it in print and online, then fewer people are clicking on your version of the story,” the Miami Herald’s Harris said. “It’s sort of like a free wire service.” It’s not really possible to pinpoint exactly how much less traffic a story gets on one site when it’s shared on other sites, but there’s a sense that it is less.

On the other hand, the Florida news organizations have found that it’s easier to get grant funding for climate change stories when they’re done as part of a partnership. “When we created a network that is going to bring climate change coverage to all the major news outlets in Florida, people were very happy to give us grant money for that,” Harris said. In October, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting awarded the partnership grants via its Connected Coastlines program; other money has come through Poynter and via private donors.

Set ground rules for who can publish when, and how. There’s technically a 24-hour embargo on original stories: Generally, the other outlets can republish a day after the original outlet posts its story. It’s usually been easiest for the participating news outlets to share stories by pasting their full text into Slack, with images shared separately. When one of the participating news outlets runs another’s story, the partnership requires it to tell Google not to index it so that all search engine traffic goes straight to the news organization that ran the story originally — an attempt to prevent the traffic losses mentioned earlier. (Though there can be glitches: Republished stories can still pop up in Google Alerts and other channels. On the flip side, it’s difficult to use Google to find multiple versions of the same story for, say, promotional purposes.)

All participating news outlets can share the stories, with their own headlines and links to their own sites, on social media; they can also get permission to switch out anecdotes, statistics, and so on to make the republished stories more specific to their own regions.

— Figure out how not to double the work. There’s still room for the partnership to expand in terms of logistical details. “‘I’m planning on covering this event, so you guys don’t have to’ hasn’t been part of the conversation yet, but it would be helpful,” Harris said. Sometimes, several participating news outlets still want to write their own versions of the same story — that was the case when NOAA released new data on high tide flooding, for instance.

— It’s so satisfying to fill in gaps. Over the holidays, a lot of newsroom folks took time off. During that period, “it’s been a really nice feeling to be able to go into the story bank and have fresh, interesting, relevant content we can pull out, instead of the same old wire story,” Harris said.

— Now go start your own. Some Georgia news outlets approached the Florida Climate Reporting Network asking if they could join it — the Florida folks recommended instead that they just start their own statewide network. Other efforts have taken place nationally.

“Open a Slack and make your editors do it,” Harris said.

Photo of high tide flooding (a.k.a. nuisance or sunny day flooding) in downtown Miami by B137 used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 8, 2020, 12:23 p.m.
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