After Fits and Starts, Collaborative News Is Finally Making Headlines

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For years, there’s been a lot of earnest talk about digital news sites collaborating to produce editorial content that had more value for users — and to help the collaborators make their often-precarious operations sustainable. But the talk produced as many fits as starts.

That’s changing, and for the better. Numerous examples of new and productive partnering are happening seemingly everywhere. Success stories — with the not few bumps along the way — were presented at the recent Collaborative Journalism Summit put together by the Center for Cooperative Media under Director Stefanie Murray at the Center’s home base at Montclair State University in suburban New Jersey.

In her keynote remarks, Martha M. Hamilton, an editor at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (and a byline partner with me at the Washington Post in earlier days), described how her organization collaborated with 300 big and small news operations from around the world to produce the Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers, whose leaked documents showed how the super-rich hid their money offshore. Such collaboration is putting how news is developed in “the midst of a revolution,” Hamilton told Summit gatherers.

One part of the revolution is taking place in New Orleans — at The Lens, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public-interest newsroom that says it’s “dedicated to unique in-depth reporting projects, as well as exclusive daily stories.” Collaboration is central to The Lens’ news strategy.

I put these questions to The Lens Publisher and CEO Steve Beatty, who is on the board of the Local Independent Online News (LION) publishers association:

Much of the collaboration to date has been on a larger scale, between local and national even international news organizations. Can it work just locally?
Local news partnerships can and do work well, and I believe they’ll continue to grow. In the past few years, The New Orleans Times-Picayune has teamed up with the Fox affiliate in New Orleans on stories, and The New Orleans edition of the Baton Rouge Advocate teamed up with the CBS affiliate. This kind of cooperation was unheard of even five years ago. The Advocate buys stories from The Lens, and has an agreement with Uptown Messenger, a for-profit hyperlocal covering several neighborhoods in New Orleans. And we work with Uptown Messenger when our interests cross.

We have also produced “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” local features for the New Orleans outlet of National Public Radio and also co-reported with national news providers ProPublica, Slate and the Weather Channel.

We’re very promiscuous. We partner with as many nonprofit and for-profit news outlets as we can. We do so both to increase our reach and to gain expertise from our partners.

The Lens get paid for some of its collaborative work. Any other benefits?
While some for-profit and some nonprofit publications have paid us for our work, they also may pick up the cost of hiring freelance photographers, or offer the use of their info-graphics departments. These are two areas where we don’t have staffers. So while it might not be cash money, it’s a great enhancement to our coverage that we don’t have to pay for.


I also had a couple of questions for Sarah Stonbely, Research Director of the Summit-sponsoring Center for Cooperative Media, who has researched news collaboration back to the 19th century, when local newspapers banded together to form the Associated Press:

Can and should local news publishers pursue collaboration more ambitiously?
More and more newsrooms are looking at collaboration. For small local publishers in particular, the benefits are obvious: supplementary resources that give them the ability to tackle larger investigative or accountability stories, greater reach via multiple outlets/platforms, and greater legitimacy or recognition via affiliation with larger/better known news brands.

For small publishers one of the biggest challenges to collaboration seems to be convincing larger newsrooms that they are “legit;” meaning, that they adhere to the same journalistic standards and can report to the level of these more established newsrooms. The irony of this is that many, if not most, local news publishers have long legacy backgrounds themselves, and are often the products of the numerous rounds of layoffs the larger newsrooms have experienced. So for local-regional/national collaborations, it’s an education campaign as much as anything.

We have seen in our research that a key impetus to successful collaborations is the availability of some funding up front – either from foundations, government grants, or otherwise – which allows news operations to justify making the initial investment in the collaborative effort, especially if they are new to collaboration. One of the other keys is equality – in the amount of say organizations have, and the amount of work that is expected of them. Regular and open communication between participating journalists and organizations is also crucial.

Is anything holding back local publishers, especially at the entrepreneur level, that should change?
For small local publishers, there is little downside to a successful collaboration. The main thing holding them back is usually a combination of their resource constraints and fear of the unknown. Part of our mission here at the Center for Cooperative Media is to facilitate collaborations between organizations of various shapes and sizes. Another is to funnel the money that’s out there for journalistic experimentation to such projects. Because what we’ve seen is that once a newsroom has one successful collaboration, they are much more likely to do more; and we see collaborative journalism as holding great possibility for local news ecosystems.

At the Summit, we announced an open funding call for collaborative reporting projects. We’re accepting proposals through June 30. Three reporting projects will be selected to win a $7,000 grant. The three grants are being funded by the Rita Allen Foundation.


Jim Brady, founder and CEO of Spirited Media, which launched the new-wave news sites Billy Penn in Philadelphia (2014) and The Incline in Pittsburgh (2016) and recently merged with the similar mobile-first, user-friendly news site Denverite in the Mile High City, has also been getting involved in collaboration. He told me:

“We share back-end, back-office services and vendors with Denverite and the intent is to continue to build that base to help with cost mitigation.

“More broadly, we just completed a months-long reporting project with the Philly Inquirer, and we just did a mayoral candidate forum with WESA in Pittsburgh. So we believe deeply in collaboration, but it has to be about something meaningful and where both sides get clear benefits. We don’t collaborate for the sake of collaboration, i.e. dropping headline widgets on pages, posting links to each other on some kind of schedule, etc. It’s got to be something that really helps everyone.”

Brady is also doing some ownership collaborating with Gannett, which has a minority interest in his Spirited Media.


Finally, I went to Scott Brodbeck, founder and Publisher of Local Now, which publishes the news sites ARLnow in the Northern Virginia inner suburb Arlington and RestonNow in the planned community of Reston in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County. Brodbeck, like The Lens’ Beatty, is also a LION board member. His quite independent view on collaborative journalism:

“I can potentially see the value for prestige journalism projects but for day-to-day coverage of local communities it is not necessary,” said Brodbeck. “At this stage I think it’s better for most small, for-profit hyperlocal sites to keep their heads down and do the unheralded journalistic yeoman’s work that readers value, day after day, rather than chasing big time-consuming projects.”

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.