The Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, based at the University of Missouri, is finding creative ways to navigate a perpetual struggle: how to make our free, collaborative content so available and relevant that it’s a no-brainer for any local newsroom to join in
Within a few weeks of putting out our first story at the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent journalism collaboration between the University of Missouri and Report for America, a few of our local newsroom partners came to us with a request we didn’t expect.
These 10 newsrooms host the Report for America corps members who produce the regional environmental journalism that the Desk team edits and distributes for free to local news outlets across the country. Together we produce regional coverage on issues like river flooding, farm runoff and climate change that are relevant for audiences throughout the 31 states in the Mississippi River basin. Then we give it away for free so that papers and radio stations can pick it up and share with their audiences.
Early on in the project, our partners saw an obvious extra opportunity to use the Desk’s fledgling sharing platform to exchange hyper-local stories directly with each other — stories like this trip down Minnesota’s Crow River, or this Wisconsin PFAS investigation. We had not anticipated this possibility, but were thrilled with the idea. After a scramble to plan a new process and update our systems, we invited our partners to share their own content on our AP StoryShare hub, which we use thanks to RJI support.
Now, we’ve expanded our mission from producing and disseminating our own journalism to helping the newsrooms we work with share more of their own work with millions of new readers. This kind of pivot has been a hallmark of our small team’s work to build the Desk from scratch these past few months. We’ve learned that to do this work successfully, we have to strive to be nimble, willing to try lots of approaches at once to meet the needs of newsrooms of all stripes.
As we chip away at this ongoing challenge, we’re preparing for a big test: the launch of our first big reporting project in October. It’s a multimedia series involving nearly all of our journalists, with help from Mizzou students, on the impacts of increased rainfall and flooding in the basin.
Since the Desk began distributing stories in June, our reporters have produced more than 100 stories. We’ve put out nearly 20 original pieces, including many that featured radio versions or Spanish translations and several co-bylined by journalists from multiple newsrooms. Our newsroom partners have shared more than a dozen of their own local stories with each other.
Along with the outlets hosting our journalists, we’ve signed up at least two dozen more that can access and run all our stories for free, reaching an estimated 45 million people in the basin. Our stories have run in national outlets like Inside Climate News and on the front pages of local and rural newspapers with small staffs and the audiences we most want to reach.
We’ve found that we can’t wait for these partners to come to us — instead, we’ve built systems to attract and recruit outlets that we know will benefit from an extra source of free, high-quality ag and water coverage. Direct outreach to editors has proven to be a crucial tool, as well as public-facing newsletters, social media and good ol’ word-of-mouth. We’ve focused on forging partnerships to reach diverse audiences — such as Indian Country Today — and in shrinking local news markets that most need the help.
It isn’t easy to grow a project like this. For every outlet that joins our distribution list, there are others that we’re missing or struggling to reach. It’s a perpetual struggle for collaborative journalism leaders – how to make your content so available, so relevant and so easy to run that it’s a no-brainer for the widest possible set of newsrooms to get on board.
As we chip away at this ongoing challenge, we’re preparing for a big test: the launch of our first big reporting project in October. It’s a multimedia series involving nearly all of our journalists, with help from Mizzou students, on the impacts of increased rainfall and flooding in the basin. We hope you’ll see it in your local news outlet — and if you don’t, we hope you’ll tell them just how easy it is to make our stories their own.
The Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk is an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. It works in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, funded by the Walton Family Foundation with support from the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Reach the Desk at email@example.com.