Maybe it was born out of economic necessity as newsroom staffing has been cut. Maybe it has been driven by a sense that the press at-large is under attack and democracy itself is at stake.
News organizations are collaborating like never before. Lessons and best practices are starting to emerge. And the practice has potential to increase the public’s trust and support of journalists.
“News outlets have found that they’re not competing against each other as much as other forces that weren’t there 20 years ago, like Twitter and Facebook,” said Stefanie Murray of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. “So the TV station down the block isn’t their number one competitor anymore.”
Murray, former editor of Gannett’s Tennessean in Nashville and digital editor of the Detroit Free Press, leads an organization that promotes the concept of collaborative journalism nationally and has spearheaded journalism initiatives involving dozens of newsrooms in New Jersey. The Center for Cooperative Media offers publishers and newsrooms advice and ideas on how to partner with each other, outside organizations and their own readers. And it maintains a national database of examples of newsrooms collaborating.
The growth of nonprofit online news organizations has been one driver of collaboration, Murray said: “It’s much more built into their DNA.”
ProPublica launched in 2007 and started offering to work with specific newspapers on investigative reporting projects. It pursued national databases that local newspapers were invited to use for localization of its investigations into topics such as the money that pharmaceutical companies pay to doctors. ProPublica also offered its work to be republished at no cost by other news organizations, and numerous other nonprofit news startups have followed a similar model.
Learning from roadblocks and successes over the years, it has been able to launch collaborative projects faster and at a grander scale. Its “Documenting Hate” project was born after a spike in hate crimes during the 2016 presidential campaign, and enlists not only local news organizations as partners, but social organizations and the general public as well.
Over the summer, it partnered with BuzzFeed, Univision, The Intercept, the Texas Tribune, Frontline, Mexico’s Animal Político, El Salvador’s El Faro and Guatemala’s Plaza Pública to try to find hundreds of immigrant children who had been separated from their parents and deemed “missing” by the Trump administration.
Getting even two news organizations with their own Type A leaders and their own bureaucracies, editorial standards and systems for communicating is no easy feat, nevermind nine.
You must agree to “give up some control,” Murray said. “It’s going to be messy, especially the first few times.”
But at a time when press freedom is under attack, there’s an overwhelming amount of important news to cover, and newsrooms have shrunk, collaborating on important news stories might soon become the norm.
“…It’s born out of necessity in many places,” Murray said. “That’s why we see more commercial news operations getting on the collaboration bandwagon.”
She said collaboration also makes sense as the need for platform specialization rubs against the reality of newsroom staffing. A newsroom that has veteran Freedom of Information Act experts might want to partner with one that has data visualization specialists, or another that had invested in podcasting or video.
Dennis Anderson, the executive editor of the Journal-Star in Peoria, Ill., is accustomed to partnering with the editors of other GateHouse’s other dailies in the state, something that’s long been encouraged by newspaper chains who own clusters of newspapers in a particular region.
But he also doesn’t hesitate to pick up the phone to the editor of a non-GateHouse paper who has published a story—or might need one from him—in which someone from their coverage area is making news in his.
And recently, he used the occasion of Illinois’ bicentennial to take that kind of collaboration statewide in a much more formal way. Working through the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association, he organized Illinois 200, in which 21 newsrooms produced stories relating to the bicentennial—one a week for an entire year—that were run by more than 100 different publications in the state.
“It comes down to resources,” he said. “Before, maybe 10 to 15 years ago, the majority of us had the resources to do basically what we wanted for bigger things.”
After the success of Illinois 200, editors in the state are looking to collaborate on elections and perhaps some projects of a more investigative nature.
Murray said that the first few attempts at partnering can be a lot of work, but it does get easier as you learn more about each other’s needs and styles and settle into a routine. “Once you do it a couple times, you realize this isn’t so bad,” she said. “The next couple of times, that’s when the benefits really can start to pay off.”
Matt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, an organization that supports local independent online news publishers from across the country. He is a longtime former newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and corporate director of news.