Lessons and Questions from New News Collaborations

On the last day of the Journalism Innovations conference a group of journalists gathered around a table at the University of San Francisco to talk about struggles and opportunities related to collaboration. The group was a diverse mix of new and old media including Salon, Mother Jones, San Francisco Public Press, Spot.Us, The San Francisco Chronicle, California Watch and others. The conversation was part storytelling, part Q&A, and part troubleshooting.

At first, people were most interested in sharing their experiences with collaboration and describing the projects they were working on currently. However, before long the conversation took on a much more critical tone and the results were a fairly frank assessment of new news collaborations and some initial lessons from those on the front lines of this work.

Here are a few of the key takeaways:

1) Knowing Who’s 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 meant having one project lead, for others it meant having a clear understand of who was the point person at each partner newsroom. Interestingly, in most cases this person was most important, not as a decision makers, but as a facilitator. They helped manage communications, ensuring everyone was on the same page, tracking the various distinct pieces of work, mediating and predicting conflicts, etc…

2) Content is King, Collaboration is Queen, but Communication is Everything

Early in the session, David Cohn of Spot.Us quipped that “Content is King and Collaboration is Queen,” but what became clear through the discussion is that the most important part of collaborations was communications. Partnerships rise and fall on how well those involved can communicate. Participants noted that this was in part about the culture of the newsroom, part about an openness and willingness to share information as a story is developing, and part a logistical question about tools like listservs, shared Google documents, wikis, etc. Everyone agreed that these details are at once the most important and most difficult part of collaborations. Hence, as noted above, having a liaison to manage communications is so important.

3) Different Challenges, Different Benefits: Public Collaborations and Newsroom Collaborations

Those in the room tended to be engaged in two distinct kinds of collaborations. The one we spent the most time talking about was editorial collaborations between newsrooms and journalists. However, at the end of the session we also began digging into collaborations with the public. Interestingly, both kinds of collaborations can be a response to dwindling resources and the desire to cover an issue better than any one person or organization could do alone. However, these two kinds of collaborations present unique opportunities and challenges. For example, the group talked about how crowdsourcing questions can give a newsroom incredible reach or breadth about an issue (such as parking rates across a city), whereas newsroom collaborations can help take a story deeper than it might have otherwise gone, by drawing on different expertise across organizations.

4) Further Questions and Next Steps

We only scratched the surface during this brief Sunday morning discussion, but everyone agreed there’s a need for more exploration of some these and other issues. A few of the other questions that were raised include:

  • What stories lend themselves to collaboration, and what don’t? One participant noted that collaboration is a type of strategy, not the only strategy. There are some stories (stealthy, sensitive stories like “mafia investigations”) that don’t lend themselves to open collaborations. Similarly, there are some stories that are best covered from a multitude of competing viewpoints. However, more could be done by looking at what kinds of reporting and stories have been most and least successful as collaborations.
  • Can we always serve our audience and serve our collaborations equally? This question sparked a series of other questions: What are the different opportunities in collaborating around shared distribution versus shared writing? And related to that, how does editing by committee potentially water down a piece? As each outlet cultivates its audience and engages its communities do collaborations with other outlets risk producing content that isn’t relevant for your audience?
  • How are collaborations different at newsrooms where partnering is in the organizations DNA versus at legacy media outlets? Many of the participants reported very different experience and expectations when partnering with new online newsrooms versus traditional print publications. Both kinds of collaborations were useful, but presented very different benefits and challenges.

One question no one discussed at the session was how we fund collaborations and how we negotiate the rocky shores of joint funding for projects. Some organizations sell their stories to their partners, others have a “prenuptial agreement” before any work is done together. Some foundations like funding collaborations that can expand their reach, others want to fund projects that are contained and easy to brand and evaluate.

Skyping in from Guatemala where she is building a citizen journalism website, Kara Andrade told the group, “What we really need is more case studies of what’s happening and what’s working.” Here at SaveTheNews.org we are going to be doing just that this summer. We’ll be building on the inventory of news collaborations I have been collecting, to answer some of these questions as well as look at how we can measure the impact these new collaborations are having on the state of local news and information.

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9 comments

  1. Sounds like a great conversation, all. One thing I’d add to the mix: a question about the preconditions for successful collaboration. Probably goes w/o saying that pre-existing trust relationships that have been tested and found durable dramatically increase the chances that the collaboration will be successful (or if it isn’t, that the number of times people go ballistic due to misunderstanding will be limited). That means there’s a whole ecosystem of support and nurturing that needs to be in place – for instance, the fact that you were all at the JI conference talking face to face. I just think it’s incredibly difficult to pull off a collaboration w/o this sort of investment in “trust capital.” Can be done, but such headaches…

  2. Here are the things that I often say are needed for a good collaboration (I have a slide of this in a power point – but I decided not to break it out for that discussion).

    1. Trust – we want to work with folks that we can trust and who trust us.

    2. Never forced: In the interest of all parties.
    “Buy in” with decision makers.
    Statement of expectations.
    3. Key liaison – somebody from every party who is tasked to the project.
    4. Commitment of time/resources and/or money from both parties. It does not need to be all three.

    5. The story/project. We are looking for good stories – that has to be at the heart of it all.

    Since the talk – I have added communication to this list.

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