A project of Democracy Fund

March 1, 2017

Hurdles to collaboration: Local newsrooms cite resources, lack of interest and not knowing who to ask


Sea of hurdles at a track meet.

To quote Sarah Koenig, if this is the first time you’re joining us, stop. Go back and read our first post, about ways local and national news organizations can collaborate right now – and why now is exactly the right time to do so.

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

For the last several months I’ve studied national and local news partnerships on behalf of the Center for Cooperative Media, as part of a project funded by Democracy Fund and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. We started to share the findings from this project earlier in February; this article is the second in that series.

This post focuses on the barriers that local news outlet say they face when it comes to collaboration with national news organizations – along with potential ways to overcome them. (In our next post, we’ll do the same for national newsrooms.)

Hurdle #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 our next post.)

Here’s the thing about resource limitations: Everyone’s got ‘em. I’ve worked for a tiny community weekly, a mid-size daily, a statehouse reporting site and a global news powerhouse 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!’,” Schachter said.

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 #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 #3: “We only care about what’s happening locally.”

As mentioned in our last post, 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 #4: “The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”

In any collaboration, 1 + 1 must equal more than two. 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.

Coming next: National newsroom obstacles and ways to overcome them, plus the advantage of the network model.

(Lead photo by Phil Roeder, Creative Commons)

This piece was originally published by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, and republished with permission.

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timgriggsTim Griggs is an independent consultant and advisor to media companies (and others). He can be reached by email (gunnertg@gmail.com) or via Twitter (@HeyTimGriggs).