Keys to successful local-national news collaborations: What can you do today to be a Partnership Guru?

This is the final installment in a series for the Center for Cooperative Media (generously funded by our friends at the Democracy Fund and the Geraldine Dodge Foundation) about collaboration between local and national newsrooms. You can find the other posts here:

This post is about brass tacks: What can you do today from within your newsroom — of any size or type — to make collaboration work? The recommendations here are drawn from dozens of interviews with newsroom leaders and partnership gurus, as well as my own experience dealing with partnerships from both the local and national perspective.

People & relationships

When I first started studying this space, I had expected — based on my experience wrangling partnerships at a local newspaper, statewide news site, and global news brand — that the key to any collaboration is pretty simple: People. While it’s true that there are a couple dozen other key ingredients I hadn’t thought about (or committed to writing) it really does all start with having the right people in place. And that’s something you can focus on right now, in your newsroom, without spending a nickel.

No productive collaboration is possible without flexible, detail-oriented, ego-free people who have the right spirit of cooperation, who can work to find common objectives and shared values, and who can build lasting relationships with other news organizations.

Some people just get it. They have an innate ability to bring folks together, to network, to build relationships, to seek common ground, to keep forging ahead even when partnerships get complicated.

We talk a lot about attracting unicorns in newsrooms: brilliant, data-driven journalists who can code. It might be time to start talking about collabricorns (but, please, let’s not actually use this as a word — let’s call them Partnership Gurus)— the kind of reporter/editor/producer/publisher/marketer/etc. who understands the complexity of partnerships from all perspectives, can navigate all the land mines, and ultimately get it done.

There are quite a few great ones (including a few folks you’ve read about in this series), like Cole Goins at CIR/RevealJim Schachter at WNYC, Tom Meagher at The Marshall ProjectNatalie Choate at the Texas Tribune, Steve Myers at The LensScott Klein at ProPublica, and Stanford fellow Heather Bryant, to name a few.

And, of course, there are so many other great examples of collaborators outside the narrow view of local-to-national: Look at what Brian Wheelercreated at Charlottesville Tomorrow with the Daily Progress (local digital with local print); or what Mary Walter-Brown is building at Voice of San Diego (membership services hub among nonprofits); or Sandy Shea at the Philadelphia Media Network (collaboration within a legacy news org and with others); or Dave Lesher at CALmatters (statewide digital with local print); or Andy Hall at WisconsinWatch (statewide digital with university and broadcast); or any one of talented speakers at the Collaborative Journalism Summit.

The skills required here can also be learned, of course. I loved this line from a recent CJR piece, written by Ryan Craggs, about common pitfalls of social news headlines:

Writing bulletproof headlines and selecting dynamic images isn’t rocket science. It’s more like lawn-dart science. Like any other task, the more you do it, the better you get at it.

That’s so true of many things, including the art of collaboration.

So you want to be a Partnership Guru? Start by having the right mentality. WNYC’s Schachter described it as a “getting over yourself” and “adopting a do-what-we-do-best-and-partner-for-the-rest” approach. Kristen Hare at Poynter wrote about ditching your preconceived notions about competition.

The most important tip I can give you? You have to be tireless, because collaboration can be exhausting. You need to want to roll up your sleeves, keep plugging away and, ultimately, get shit done.

I once heard Vivian Schiller, then the head of digital at The New York Times, listen to a colleague complain about the sometimes-lengthy process of getting internal buy-in, then navigating through partners and vendors. “It’s so frustrating,” this person said. “It’ll take a thousand meetings to actually get it done.”

Schiller deadpanned: “Then maybe you should start scheduling a thousand meetings.”

(I mentioned this to her years later and she doesn’t remember saying it, by the way, but it was totally brilliant and a great lesson about stamina and the resolve to turn ideas into action.)

Strategy

Once you’ve got that licked, start thinking strategically. What are you trying to accomplish? Strategy has to come first. Newsroom leaders and partnership experts repeatedly told me that partnership by fiat doesn’t work, and collaboration without a clear and meaningful purpose won’t work (or, at least, won’t last.)

So, for local newsrooms, what’s your goal?

  • Reaching readers you can’t reach on your own?
  • Providing more context — in the form of national news/trends/data — for your audience?
  • Earning credibility from audiences by having a connection to a national news brand?
  • Getting paid (via syndication arrangements)?
  • Getting access to resources/capabilities from national newsrooms (like data, investigative reporting, sources)

For national newsrooms, what’s your goal?

  • Attracting new readers in targeted local markets?
  • Reaching underserved markets for mission reasons?
  • Growing your digital subscriber base?
  • Getting access to local expertise?
  • Spreading out from the proverbial coastal bubble?

Let your strategy dictate what path you take. If you work in a local newsroom and your goal is to get access to skills you don’t have in-house, it makes no sense to pursue a partnership with a national news outlet that wants broader distribution but isn’t interested in contributing to the reporting.

An important point I’ve yet to cover here: “Local” can mean many different things: “Hyper local,” neighborhood, community, city, metropolitan region, state, etc. National can mean lots of things, too: it may mean serving many geographies or a single subject. A state news organization, for example, may need to think about the strategies from both the local and national perspective (e.g. working with local journalists for local context and distributing through local news organizations, but also partnering with national news organizations for brand credibility and paid syndication deals, for example.)

Tactics

Armed with a clear purpose, and the right people in place, you can actually start to build productive local-national partnerships. Here are some tips we’ve gathered along the way:

Easy

  • For locals, aggregate relevant national content. If you’re a local newsroom who cares about providing context, this is a no-brainer — and it costs you nothing. One interesting way to do this, even off-site via social, courtesy of Steve Myers at The Lens: He encourages beat reporters to post relevant links daily as a way to keep tabs on national stories of local interest, and to underscore to audiences that local reporters are your “window to the world.”
  • Look to national news organizations that provide their data and/or coverage for free. ProPublica is notable example, and makes it easy. And, if it suits your strategy, share your own content openly via Creative Commons. (The Center for Cooperative Media, by the way, is compiling a list of news organizations who do this. Stay tuned.)
  • Start building relationships. Make it a point to reach out to potential partners once a quarter. Make a conscious effort at industry events (IRE and ONA, for example) to meet peers at like-minded newsrooms. And stay in touch with the Center for Cooperative Media. Summits like this one are great places to meet fellow collaborators at both the local and national level.
  • Consciously lose any sort of competitive concerns, particularly with your partners. There seems to be a shifting of the tides in a lot of places around competition, but I still hear a great deal of hand-wringing about how collaboration might ruin exclusive scoops. Again, let strategy dictate your course: Will an initiative — and, more importantly, your audience — be better served by working with others? If so, do it openly and honestly. Holding back is a good way to make a partnership more cumbersome than it needs to be.

Medium

  • Connect people who would actually do the work (data journalists, for example, who can speak the same language and understand what it actually takes to work together.)
  • Make sure colleagues responsible for things like audience development and revenue are involved from the beginning. If you can’t collaborate internally, fix it; you’re going to have a much more difficult time collaborating externally.
  • Talk — early and often — about editorial missions, philosophies and methods. If there isn’t a common set of values, partnerships will often be dead on arrival.
  • Of course, you also need to talk fairly early in the process about the million thorny details: How are you going to handle credits, visuals, promotion, roles and responsibilities, publication timing/embargoes? Make it easy on yourself and keep a partnership checklist that’s shared with both teams.
  • For nationals who are interested in distributing content to help with reach and audience growth, create a “budget” for partner news orgs. A digest of all the stories and/or data you want to disseminate (by email, RSS, social group, Slack, etc.) makes it much more likely that local news organizations will publish your work.

Hard

  • Hire — or dedicate time from an existing staffer — to “own” partnerships.
  • For national news organizations, tap into existing networks. Feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of a bunch of one-off partnerships? Look to organizations that can galvanize a wider set of locals: the Institute for Nonprofit News, Local Independent Online News publishers, NPR, corporate chains, etc.
  • Help keep the collaboration strong. Involve an increasingly wider group of people (architects of the collaboration will inevitably move on.) And create a communication vehicle that works for both parties (Slack, for example) to keep in regular contact.
  • Create how-to guides for partners. For data-intensive projects in particular, make it easy to localize. The Marshall Project, for example, did a national story on private prison transfer companies, regulations (or lack thereof), and problems that arise. They published a step-by-step guide for how to do the same story in any town or county. CIR and ProPublica do this regularly as well.
  • Provide coaching and editing. For a 2012 story on veterans waiting for disability benefits, CIR shared the national dataset that broke down wait times for each VA office. “This was a national issue that was everywhere, affecting different places in different ways,” Goins, a prototypical Partnership Guru, said. They conducted a national campaign to get it to partners in key places and provide hands-on guidance to any and all.
  • Find other ways to make it easy on yourself and your partners: Back-end data entry tools (and public-facing widgets) can make larger projects, like Electionland, possible. And to help prevent being overwhelmed by a broad set of partners, ProPublica’s Scott Klein suggests scheduling dedicated office hours.

The bottom line is that for many news organizations, collaboration and cross-entity partnerships are a way to grow reach, enhance the brand and build capacity. Local-to-national news partnerships are one subsection of that kind of work that can be fruitful when the right kind of collaborations are put into place.

The Center for Cooperative Media intends to continue to study this issue and hopes to dive deeper into experiments in the next year. You’ll be able to follow this work at www.centerforcooperativemedia.org.

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Tim Griggs is an independent consultant and advisor to media companies (and others). He’s the former publisher of the Texas Tribune and former digital product and strategy executive at The New York Times. He can be reached by email (gunnertg@gmail.com) or via Twitter (@HeyTimGriggs).

Featured image: Photo by Chris-Håvard Berge via Flickr (edits made in compliance with Creative Commons)

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