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Collaboratives are making the most of newsrooms that share their content

Non-profit organizations can be the bind that brings in revenue

The word collaboration in journalism circles means different things to different editors and producers, kind of like the word innovation, but one important meaning — as a non-profit newsroom that produces content to share with established news outlets — seems to be taking hold.

Reynolds Journalism Institute interviewed eight purveyors, coordinators and champions of collaborations to put together some basic data and best practices about the art of collaboration. They come from the following collaboratives: NJ News Commons, Harvest Media, Word in Black, Side Effects Public Media, Seeking Conviction, Wisconsin Watch, Climate Central and Granite State News Collaborative.

“Newsrooms seem to have woken up and realized your neighboring newsroom is no longer your biggest competitor,” said Stefanie Murray, the director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Now, newsrooms are in competition with influencers and social media channels for audience attention.  Great content is the key to attention.

The best of these types of collaborative newsrooms utilize and maximize existing infrastructure, communicate regularly, and update collaboration expectations as new issues and barriers arrive for newsrooms. Overall, in order to successfully collaborate, “All parties have something to gain and something to offer,” said Climate Central Partnership Journalism Editor John Upton. 

Types of collaboration

There are three categories of collaboratives: minimal, unified, and third-party collaboration. 

In minimal collaboration, partners share content or costs, the latter most often through a grant. The setup is effective for newsrooms without bandwidth for more time and staff. Newsrooms aren’t forced to submit any of their content or required to publish any content from the partners. Instead, full content is made accessible to partnering newsrooms and interested parties with an embargo date before publication. 

Word in Black, for instance, is a partnership of 10 Black newspaper publishers who sought to digitize their content and bring in additional revenue. They came together through the Local Media Association to “address financial hardship as some of our peers closed their newsrooms in the last five to 10 years,” said Nick Charles, the managing director of Word in Black. 

Harvest Media works in the public media space. It has five participating newsrooms spread among Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois and Oklahoma. One director coordinates with the newsrooms, runs weekly meetings, and sends weekly email updates. The content is made available through the platform PRX, allowing for automatic notifications to be sent to the media partners. Harvest Media also publishes stories on its website. 

In a unified newsrooms model, not only are the participating newsrooms sharing content or information, they are also following the lead of a fellow newsroom and coordinating their production and research efforts. 

Side Effects Public Media is a health-based collaborative of five public broadcast radio stations. Its goal is to produce two feature stories weekly.  Side Effects developed a content sharing collaborative after initial foundation project funding ended. The small staff manages the collaboration through a virtual newsroom of six reporters based in Indiana and a variety of part-time reporters in six states. The staff produced a podcast called “Sick” that was downloaded more than 1.5 million times. 

The “pre-journalism” third party participation model allows newsrooms to focus on the production side of news. The third party is generally not a newsroom, but tries to be a support branch of the newsroom through harnessing existing infrastructure. 

Climate Central is a good example.  It collaborates with newsrooms and scientists, harnessing citizen journalism by communicating with local experts to contextualize complicated datasets for journalists and newsrooms. 

The Granite State News Collaborative has found success by using  a coordinating editor. They facilitate the collaboration by coordinating meetings and pitching stories for distribution to appropriate newsrooms.

 “When the editor (of a partnering newsroom) doesn’t have to do all the work, it makes collaboration and communication easier,” said executive director Melanie Pelinda. 

The Granite State News Collaborative struggled to gain buy-in from New Hampshire newsrooms until the pandemic hit, Pelinda said. The collaboration went from “three or four editors” to 10, and  between March and December of 2020, the collaboration produced more than 1,700 articles with over 400 freelance journalists. 

“All partners need to buy in at the very beginning and be ready that things could change; there will always be recessions, election sessions, and job vacancies to fill,” said Dave Rosenthal, managing editor with Side Effects Public Media. “All those things can be roadblocks to the original plan, but building trust helps to figure out ways and means to get around roadblocks.”

Interested in a collaboration of your own? Here’s what you should know

The first and most important steps: Gain trust and build interest. One of the most effective ways to get started is to hold listening sessions with newsrooms and other stakeholders to understand what resources are available and learn how the collaborative could be most impactful for everyone involved. 

The sessions build trust and relationships through transparency and active discussions. TIP: Utilizing a survey at the listening session is an easy way to gather crucial information like emails of invested community members and editors. 

In the spirit of collaboration, here’s a sample listening session survey RJI has developed to give you a sense of the type of information that might be helpful as you think about your focus and strategy.

Generally, with these types of collaboratives, newsrooms need to join by invitation only. Some collaborations will post their content and encourage reuse by any news organization with or without prior permission.

According to our research, the most effective organizations meet weekly and aim to avoid additional stress and workload on editors in partnering newsrooms. Wisconsin Watch digital and multimedia director Coburn Dukehart suggests “checking in frequently to see if it’s working and asking their opinion on things.” 

Most met weekly between 15 minutes and an hour to check in about completed and future work.  Several of the organizations also hold weekly editorial and publisher meetings. These meetings can be the key to increased content distribution and building a collaborative relationship. 

In terms of content distribution, while some newsrooms use existing content management systems, others opt for a password protected website. Wisconsin Watch uses a Mailchimp email list daily to notify editors of new content on its password-protected collaborative hub.

However, if the collaboration is small or if frequency of publication in the collaboration is closer to weekly or monthly, a shared Google drive folder and Slack channel may suffice. 

Collaborations that tend to build trust don’t force newsrooms to share or cross-publish content. All content for cross publication is donated to the collaboration, and cross publication is always voluntary. 

Eventually, voluntary collaboration leads to voluntary coordination. For example, if a statewide publication is covering a statewide election, a hyperlocal organization could cross publish their reporting and instead focus on hyperlocal election issues.

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