How Journalism Collaborations Are Changing the Way the News is Made

This post originally appeared on PBS' MediaShift site as part of its Collaboration Central hub.

When we say the word “collaboration,” are we all talking about the same thing? Or is that word, and the practices it encompasses, still being negotiated and hashed out in newsrooms and communities? The journalism partnerships emerging around the country vary in size and type, and the practices that define those partnerships are still being negotiated and hashed out in newsrooms and communities. 

Some partnerships bring together very different news organizations to provide expanded coverage, while others coalesce around similar newsrooms to cut down on duplicative efforts. Some focus on local or hyperlocal news, while others focus on regional and national reporting. Some bring the resources of multiple organizations together to focus on one issue in depth, while others partner with the public to capture a range of different angles on one issue.

This diversity in approaches to collaborative journalism is one of its strengths — and one of its great challenges.

A Collaboration Framework

Journalists, editors and managers at news organizations are trying to navigate the parameters of these new kinds of partnerships as they happen. Developing a framework to categorize journalism collaborations is useful as practitioners look for lessons and models to replicate and build on. The dynamics between different newsrooms, and their various motivations for partnering, shape how a given collaboration is structured. While some collaborations may defy categorization, a few basic partnership models have emerged:

  • Commercial News Collaborations: These partnerships tend to be contractual agreements between commercial news organizations such as television stations and newspapers. They are often defined by the legal deals that structure them: Shared Services Agreements, Local News Sharing Agreements, Newspaper Broadcast Cross-Ownership, Joint Operating Agreements, etc. Many of these agreements consolidate resources, equipment, production and even newsroom staff. These kinds of commercial partnerships and near-mergers pre-date the larger collaborative trend we've witnessed across newsrooms since 2008.

  • Nonprofit and Commercial Collaborations: These partnerships are usually between public or noncommercial entities and a private news organization. This model gained significant attention during the Comcast-NBC merger debates because Comcast promised to expand local news coverage on NBC stations through partnerships with nonprofit journalism organizations. Other examples include the New York Times' news partnerships with nonprofits in major media markets and sites like California Watch, whose model is based on these partnerships. In these arrangements, the commercial news outlet often serves as the distributor of content the nonprofit produces. However, more complex and expansive nonprofit and commercial reporting collaborations are also emerging.

  • Public and Noncommercial Collaborations: These partnerships connect multiple public media outlets or bring public radio and TV stations together in collaboration with other nonprofit newsrooms. The networked nature of the U.S. public media system, in which stations across the country are both producers and distributors, has meant that partnerships within the system are built into the organizations' DNA. In recent years, innovative public media producers have built on that history and taken collaboration to the next level. We have also seen inventive partnerships between public media broadcasters and nonprofit digital news startups.

  • University CollaborationsUniversity partnerships with local news organizations are engaging journalism and mass communications students in hands-on reporting efforts that are producing some great journalism. This model takes many forms, from curricular-based service-learning efforts to campus-based investigative reporting workshops, and involves both commercial and noncommercial news organizations.

  • Community and Audience Collaborations: Journalists are also collaborating with their communities in new and important ways. Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding — as exemplified by projects at the Guardian, ProPublica and public media's Public Insight Network and Spot.Us — are finding new ways for audiences to contribute to the funding, research and editorial decisions that shape the news. At their best, these projects are not just transactional, wherein the audience hands over something (money, information) and gets something in return (a story or other journalistic product). They are transformative for both journalists and participants — as in the case of Departures, a Web-based documentary series about Los Angeles developed by public media station KCET in close partnership with community members.

These categories focus primarily on editorial collaborations around the production of specific news products; however, each collaborative model listed above also encompasses cases in which news organizations can and do collaborate around shared infrastructure. Examples of infrastructure-driven collaboration include: broadcasters sharing equipment, such as news helicopters; two nonprofits sharing the costs of developing a mobile app; and universities acting as fiscal agents for journalism organizations. Organizations like J-Lab, the Media Consortium and the Investigative News Network are all helping facilitate both editorial and infrastructural partnerships.

No One-Size-Fits-All Solutions

Too often, in debates over the future of journalism, we get caught up looking for a silver bullet — the one business model to rule them all. Some debates about collaboration echo this narrow focus, assuming there will be a universal set of practices or guidelines that newsrooms can replicate and scale across the country. The categorization above should highlight the vastly different approaches to journalistic collaboration that exist.

We are still at the early stages of experimentation with large- and small-scale collaboration across the news and journalism ecosystem. Partners differ, motivations differ, needs differ and funding differs. This list isn't meant to suggest that news organizations draw lessons only from partnerships that most closely resemble their own. Indeed, quite the opposite is true: We should be drawing on the lessons from across models, but we should do so with an awareness of the unique context of each collaboration. Each of the various models outlined above present unique challenges and opportunities that deserve to be unpacked and detailed in more depth.

Do you think these five categories are comprehensive or would you add others? Or would you suggested categorizing collaboration more by the type of journalism than the structure of the newsroom? For example, we might reorganize the list above to highlight similarities and differences among collaborations organized around investigative reporting, niche journalism, beat reporting, etc. Let me know how you would organize the field in the comments below.  

UPDATE (4/3/12): After publishing this post on MediaShift, I realized there was another model of collaboration that is becoming more and more prevalent and isn't well captured in the categories described above. More and more newsrooms are partnering with nonprofits that are not themselves journalism organizations. In some cases these public interest organizations are actually advocacy groups. Increasingly, public interest and civic organizations are producing significant amounts of original content, crunching large datasets, and helping highlight new issues facing communities. These partnerships leverage that role, and help bring new expertise to newsrooms that may not have concrete skills or experience covering a given topic or wading through certain kinds of data.

Newsroom and Advocacy Collaborations: Partnerships between commercial or noncommercial newsrooms and public interest organizations that go beyond using information from the nonprofit group as a "source." The most prominent example of this kind of collaboration may be Wikileaks' partnership with a range of major news organizations around the release of their files. Similarly, over the weekend the New York Times worked closely with the ACLU on a story about the use of cellphone tracking in law enforcement. An even more in-depth example would be This American Life's partnership with NPR's Planet Money and the Sunlight Foundation on their in-depth look at money in politics. The Sunlight Foundation helped analyze huge datasets and create maps and graphics for the show and for Planet Money's blog.

People + Policy

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people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good