Hey, journalism is hard, let’s collaborate!

May 28, 2015 01:30

By Vincent Duffy, RTDNA At-Large Director

Depending on the experiences in your own newsroom, that headline either filled you with hope, made you cringe, or did a bit of both.

With many newsrooms continuing to “right size” their reporting staff (especially at newspapers), while simultaneously adding numerous “multi-platform duties” to those that remain – collaboration is often the only remaining way to muster the resources necessary to undertake a big project.

Grant makers like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Knight Foundation often encourage and fund collaboration projects between public media partners. My station has received funds from both organizations that helped us create and sustain collaborations, and we’re in the process of asking or more. Even some commercial news outlets are beginning to collaborate with partners on coverage and projects that are more cooperative in nature than the back office mergers that dominated commercial partnerships in the past.

I recently spent a few days in Miami to discuss an ongoing, successful collaboration called the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.  The cooperative is supported by the Knight Foundation and it joins many of the non-profit and ethnic news organizations that cover Detroit to tell the story of the city’s recovery from financial collapse.

Not all of the collaborations our station has undertaken have worked out so well. Different newsrooms have different cultures, and they don’t always mesh well. There can be different expectations of what is news, how long it should take to complete a story, and different standards for editing and ethics. But the right collaboration with the right partners can benefit everyone, and allow you to cover more complex issues or tackle a bigger project than you would be able to do on your own.

For example, the Detroit Journalism Cooperative began as a way for smaller, non-profit and ethnic news outlets to provide in-depth coverage of Detroit’s bankruptcy process to our audiences. The largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the country was a huge story, and combining the collective experience, knowledge and resources of our newsrooms allowed us to present much better information across all platforms to our audiences. We even set up a collective website to consolidate all our stories in one place.

The DJC is working so well, we’re continuing it for at least two more years to jointly cover Detroit’s post-bankruptcy recovery, and we have grant requests out to hopefully make it last even further into the future.

After participating in many successful and a few failed collaborations, I have five tips you can use to help your collaborations be more successful.

Focus on collaborations that will make things better for your audience, not for your newsroom
I used to think collaborating with other news outlets would make things easier. Our station would have access to other news outlet’s material, and in return could provide work that we were already going to do anyway. It was, I thought, like adding staff without having to pay them.

It’s never worked out that way, and if even one of the partners approaches the collaboration with this attitude, you’re in trouble from the beginning. Successful collaborations are going to take more work. It can be worth it in the end because you can have more and better stories for your audience, but a good collaboration is going to require more meetings, more coordination, more editing, more reformatting of material, and more “cooks in the kitchen.” The DJC has been a fantastic collaborative, but we have joked that we spend as much time in meetings with our partners as we do airing DJC stories.

Keep the scope of the collaboration specific
The editorial focus of a collaboration can quickly go in different directions for participating newsrooms if the focus isn’t very specific and clear to all partners from the beginning. Our station had a very successful partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting on a series of stories about arsenic in Michigan ground water.This collaboration worked because the story drove the partnership. CIR needed a news organization with sources and knowledge in Michigan, and we needed a partner with sources in Washington DC and the ability to gather and crunch very specialized data. Together we produced a week-long series, a documentary, a community forum, and the desire to work again in the future when the story is right.

You must remain in frequent and redundant communication
You probably wouldn’t run your newsroom without a daily editorial meeting, because it’s important to know what everyone is working on so projects can stay on track. It’s the same with collaborations.With the DJC, we have formal meetings in offices, informal meetings at bars, and near daily communication online. Without this consistent communication, stories could fall through the cracks, and partners could stray from the agreed upon mission.This communication is best when it involves reporters and editors. Don’t create a collaboration and then hand it all off to your reporter and assume they will keep things focused.

A project coordinator can make the difference between “good” and “great”
One of my frustrations with the DJC is that it is an additional responsibility for everyone involved, but not the primary responsibility for anyone. If there was someone who came to work every day whose primary responsibility was tending to the collaboration, such as a project administrator or a central editor, the work would be even stronger and provide a better service to the audience. This can be difficult with grant funded projects, because most grants don’t like to pay for new employee salaries.

Know when to stop
A good collaboration should have a reason to exist beyond the belief that collaboration is a good thing. When a project has reached completion, sometimes the best thing to do is call the project a success and wrap it up.

A few years ago we were involved in a collaboration called Changing Gears with two other major market public radio stations. The goal of the project was to produce stories detailing the economic transformation of the industrial Midwest for our audiences in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio. The collaboration was a success and the stories produced were award winning and well received, but after two years, we had exhaustively explored the topic. Rather than pivot or transition to a new topic, all the partners agreed we had accomplished what we set out to do with our specific goal, and brought the collaboration to an end.

The good working relationships between the stations still exist, but it was time to stop the Changing Gears collaborative.

Have you been part of a successful collaboration that has produced great stories for your audience? Let us know in the comments below.