If there’s one lesson I’ve learned over 25 years in digital journalism, it’s that new ideas, new opportunities and new technologies are no match for old habits.
An example of this habitual stasis is the glacial pace with which local newsrooms have embraced collaboration. No matter how bad the economics got, or how much thinner the coverage combover got, the idea of collaboration remained anathema in many newsrooms.
Sure, most newsrooms were happy to work with national non-profits like ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity or the Marshall Project. But when it came to working with neighboring newsrooms, it was different.
For more than a decade, I’ve been calling this the “huddling for warmth” phase of journalism. Like groups trying to scale Everest who encounter a whiteout, we have two choices: Work together and take advantage of the heat of others, or wander off alone into the abyss and die. And I was saying this long before COVID-19 became the extinction-level event every struggling newsroom has feared for the past decade.
The time to collaborate isn’t now. It was a decade ago. But now will do.
To be clear, the kind of collaboration I’m talking about here is not merely running the work of other news organizations, the way many news organizations run Texas Tribune or Kaiser Health News content. The kind of collaboration I’m talking about means sometimes working directly with other local newsrooms or agreeing on broad topics you’ll cover collectively.
When I was overseeing Billy Penn, we participated in two collaborative efforts funded by The Lenfest Institute and supported by the Solutions Journalism Network and Temple University’s Klein College. In the first year, 13 Philadelphia newsrooms collaborated on The Reentry Project. This was such a success that in Year Two, 24 newsrooms participated, combining to produce Broke in Philly. And this was in Philadelphia, mind you, a city that didn’t exactly have a long history of newsrooms playing nice together.
Liza Gross of SJN has been a leader in the collaborative space, and she published a piece this week on how three collaboratives are tackling COVID-19. And two weeks ago, the Pulitzer Center opened up a grant application for COVID collaboratives. Montclair State’s Center for Cooperative Media, which organized one of the largest collaborative groups, NJ News Commons, maintains a nifty database of collaborative efforts. At this moment, I’m consulting on two nascent collaborative efforts that seem likely to get off the ground in the next 60 days.
Part of the reason this shift is starting to occur is that I see a change coming in how local media will be funded. I have had conversations with a number of foundations in the past year, and sense most want to move away from funding specific newsrooms and toward projects with broader potential. Collaboratives fit snugly into that model.
Part of the reason funders are moving in this direction is because too much of what they’ve given to news organizations have ended up being short-term gifts rather than building blocks to sustainability. Funding an investigative reporter for a year is wonderful. But if the host newsroom can’t support that reporter when the funding runs out, then what’s the point? Foundations want new ways to support local journalism, and their eyes light up at the word “collaboration.”
For newsrooms who have not embraced collaboration, COVID-19 must be the turning point (if they survive this tumult). Any local news organization that went into this crisis thinking it could still go it alone has either been disabused of that notion or suffers from a stubbornness that borders on insanity.
Local media needs many things to change if we’re to survive; I’m not suggesting that collaboration is the only one. But it can help address many of the broader problems local journalism faces. Here are five areas where collaboration can help:
Collaborating with newsrooms that provide deeper coverage of certain topics allows you to use their coverage and either reduce expenses or, at a minimum, reallocate your resources to areas where your newsroom can excel.
If you have business sides willing to collaborate (no small ask, I know), collaboratives can create new revenue opportunities beyond philanthropic funding. For example, if a local collaborative covers public education for one year, that can be sold as a sponsorship, especially if that effort includes events — which it should. And because any smart collaborative effort allows its partners to run everything it produces, it creates additional inventory for advertising and expands the depth of the news product, thus enhancing your pitch for subscriptions or membership. Newspapers have been doing the opposite for the past five years: Charging more for subscriptions while the product gets smaller and narrower. That’s not sustainable because, eventually, you run out of ways to get smaller or narrower. Getting editorially stronger without adding expenses is hard, and collaboratives are a way to do that.
Reaching underserved communities
If you’re having problems reaching underserved communities because of reduction of staff or coverage area, a collaborative is a perfect way to reverse that trend. This is why any smart collaborative effort includes ethnic media, organizations covering LGTBQ issues, foreign-language publications and various other partners. This assures a wider impact for the collective work.
Access to specialized resources
Many collaboratives include funding to hire specialists normally outside the range of most local newsrooms’ pocketbooks. This means you get to benefit from the work of developers, data journalists, audience specialists or product experts that you’re not paying for.
Collaboratives also allow for inclusion of partners outside the daily journalistic world. The Chicago Independent Media Alliance, for example, not only includes more than 55 sites covering an impressive range of neighborhoods and demographic communities, but also documentary filmmakers, photographers, podcasters and other creative types.
If there’s an issue in your city that isn’t getting the kind of attention local media thinks it should, what better way to send a message than to cover it as a group for a sustained period of time? The tried-and-true crisis method of newsmakers waiting out a tough story is a lot harder when there’s another one right around the corner.
All this begs the question: So why aren’t there more local collaborative efforts? The answer is simple-but-familiar: It’s about control. Newsrooms are proud. Most prefer to go it alone. And they don’t always share the same editorial values or policies as other newsrooms.
But, let’s be honest, we’ve already lost control, and if the last month hasn’t proven that, I don’t know if anything will. We cannot be all things to all people anymore. There are too many things, and we don’t employ enough people. As for editorial standards, one of the wonderful things about a collaborative is that, while you can use anything it produces, you don’t have to. If you’ve got issues with a member of the collaborative, don’t use their work. And please don’t say you’re not comfortable using content produced by others because you don’t know their sources or how they reported their stories. Because newspapers run a ton of Associated Press stories every day, and the same knowledge gaps apply there. But they run those stories because, rightfully, they trust the AP. So do your homework on other news organizations in a collaborative and decide who you’re comfortable working with. Not working with other newsrooms in town because you’re unfamiliar with them is just lazy.
History has taught us that it sometimes takes an emergency to force the right things to happen. COVID-19 needs to be that emergency for local media. It is imperative that this collaborative momentum remain in place once we’re past the immediate peril.
Because if old habits don’t start dying, a lot more media organizations will.