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June 26, 2015

All Together Now: Best Practices in Journalism Collaboration

This post was adapted from a presentation I gave on journalism collaboration to public radio news directors gathered in Salt Lake City for their annual conference. 

Collaboration is at the heart of the work we are doing through the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s Journalism Sustainability project which is focused on developing a statewide model for a more connected, inclusive, sustainable news ecosystem in New Jersey. We believe that quality local news is critical to healthy communities and that sustainability for that kind of reporting depends in part on collaborating across news organizations and with your community.

Why Collaborate?

I have been building and studying journalism collaborations for years. Back in 2012, I conducted a series of interviews with journalists in a range of very different newsrooms about what was motivating them to explore collaboration. The answers I got then still hold true today:

  • Rapid Technological Change: Journalism practice has always been tied to technological development. The telegraph ushered in the inverted pyramid, the telephone begat the phone interview, and the always-on cable news channel sparked the 24-hour news cycle. Today’s participatory, Internet driven media gives us better tools than ever to share, connect and collaborate. There are tons of examples, but projects like the Public Media Platform, tools like Slack, and networks like Facebook are obvious ones.
  • Economic Factors: This new era of collaboration is not just a function of new technology, it’s also fundmentally wrapped up in the economic challenges in American newsrooms. Journalism collaborations present opportunities to share resources, but partnerships are not without their own costs too. Collaboration is not only driven by dwindling resources but also by targeted investments from foundations (and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) that increasingly make collaboration a focus of their grantmaking.
  • Better Journalism: Collaborations can create better stories too, otherwise we wouldn’t be interested. Through collaboration you can tap into skills and expertise outside your organization, uncover new story angles, bring in diverse perspectives, and extend the reach and influence of your work. Collaborative journalism projects regularly win awards and have local and national impact.
  • Strength in Numbers: All the factors above have encouraged an ethos of openness in journalism which some have called “Show Your Work.” By sharing code, project design, engagement models, revenue strategies, and more, we can build on each other’s work, our failures and our successes, to help strengthen the entire field and serve our communities better. Showing your work shifts the industry from partnerships inspired by scarcity to collaborations that leverage abundance.

Newsroom should have discussions about their own motivations for collaboration and what your specific goals are. It’s critical to have agreement internally before your start negotiating a partnership externally. Talk about when not to collaborate: If you have a sensitive scoop should you collaborate? If you are worried about the safety of your source or staff should you collaborate? Understand your collaboration red flags and approach partnerships strategically with buy in and shared values across the organization from management to business to the newsroom.

Collaboration Best Practices

Based on my interviews and case studies here are some of the lessons I’ve gathered from people reflecting on their own collaborations.

  • Have Clear Goals — Know what you want to get out of it before you go into it. Are you pursuing this collaboration to save resources, enable new forms of reporting, reach new audiences, etc?
  • Find a Fit — It can be useful to partner with organizations who are different from you, but you need to have some connection to make collaboration work. This is especially true around fundamental ethical issues and values. Collaborations can often feel uncomfortable, but if they feel downright uneasy you may need to walk away.
  • Build from Trust — A key to finding a fit is establishing trust. Trust in the people, trust in the editorial product, trust in the process.
  • Relationship Building is Part of the Work of Collaboration — Don’t assume you’ll just build a good working relationship by working together. You actually need to plan for how you will build those relationships as you plan the project. Create space for team building.
  • Document Your Agreements — A Memorandum of Understanding doesn’t have to be a formal legal document, it can be simply a vehicle to make sure you have the conversations you need to have before the project launches.
  • Communication is Key — Partnerships rise and fall on how well those involved can communicate. Communicating well comes down to both culture and logistics — there needs to be a willingness and good tools in place. Ensure there is one person tasked with managing communications and keeping everyone informed and engaged.
  • Know Who is in Charge — It seems contradictory to the idea of collaborations, but every successful collaboration — whether it was a one-to-one partnership or a project involving 15 different newsrooms, benefitted from a clear understanding of who the buckstopper was. For some, this means having one project lead, for others it might mean having a clear understanding of who the point person at each partner newsroom is.
  • Encourage Ownership of Pieces of the Project — Collaboration is rarely about a total sharing of every aspect of a project. Outline who owns which pieces of the project so there are clear roles mapped out from the start and everyone knows how to bring their skills to bear.
  • Recognize All The Partners — Be a gracious and generous partner and regularly acknowledge your parters. I’m often amazed by how hard this is for newsrooms.
  • Have Shared Financial Plans — If you are jointly fundraising around a project, or selling sponsorships alongside it later, be sure to have discussed financial agreements with partners early on.
  • Agree to Timelines — For both the project and the collaboration make sure everyone agrees on timelines and create opportunities for reflection and gut-checks.
  • Start Small and Build Up — Create many small chances to work together with partners before tackling a big high stakes collaboration. Make mistakes early on small projects so you can iron out the challenges before big projects.

Other Resources for Newsrooms on Creating Successful Collaborations


Public Media Collaborations, coverage from Current.org:

Other Blog Posts:

*Pieces of this talk appeared previously in posts at PBS MediaShift and on my personal blog.