The future of nonprofit journalism is collaborative, not competitive — but making it happen will take hard work, a positive attitude and imaginative problem solving.
That's the verdict of an afternoon panel on "News Collaborations: Multi-Platform Approaches to Building Capacity," staged at the 2013 National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference in San Francisco.
Trust But Verify
The panelists — including INN CEO Kevin Davis, Tiffany Shackleford of the Association of Alternative News Media, Sandy Close and Jacob Simas of New America Media, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser of The Media Consortium, and Sally Kane of KVNF-FM and Rocky Mountain Community Radio — dug into the topic, looking at a variety of different collaborative models across platforms and geographic regions.
INN's Davis got the conversation started with the frank advice that "collaboration is hard work. You have to know what you want, you have to pull together partners, and everyone has something different to offer."
Davis advised managing this diversity with a written agreement that defines guidelines for roles, quality control and indemnification.
Beyond any paper agreements, an open-minded attitude about sharing content is essential, he said. Every partner will have different ways to use the content, and different audiences to present it to.
"The end user is multi-platform," he noted, and thus the idea of "owning audiences" is preposterous. This diversity can be leveraged in different ways, he said: "Partnerships should be discussed in ways that are imaginative and have a user-centric approach."
He described three types of editorial collaboration he's encountered through his work at INN:
- Distribution collaboration, with content given to partners.
- Interdependent collaboration, with partners each making part of the whole — a difficult process, especially between organizations that have different production schedules, processes and chains of command.
- Shared reporting resources, such as INN's new Director of Data, a postion that will be based at Investigative Reporters and Editors, that will but working in support of all INN network members.
Kaiser of the Media Consortium, a community of politically active news outlets, said her member organizations have total control over what they do and don't use from a given collaboration. She also agreed that a written agreement and planning conversations are essential to get all collaborators in agreement about outcomes, timelines, etc.
And with trust established, she said the inherent risk-taking of collaborations gets a little easier, and more rewarding, even if the collaboration doesn't succeed.
"You have to take chances, because we're in this crazy media environment," she said. "You have to be on the same page regarding what you get if a collaboration doesn't work. Each collaboration is better than the one before, because we're adding to the learning."
Kaiser also advised news organizations that foundations appear to be more and more interested in supporting newsroom collaborations, opening up new territory for fundraising.
Water in the News Desert
Jacob Simas, from New America Media, reiterated a theme also articulated by KVNF's Sally Kane: Collaborations are opportune in places where there's a news desert.
In other words — a lack of public-interest information in neglected communities indicates an opportunity to partner with peer organizations to leverage shared resources and fill the information gap.
As an example, Simas described NAM's partnership with "community storytellers" in economically and socially marginalized immigrant communities to create relevant narratives where there isn't significant journalistic infrastructure.
Sandy Close, NAM's founder, said that a lack of coverage of police brutality in immigrant communities indicated another type of news desert, and a significant opportunity for collaboration.
"Ethnic news media may not know how to cover local police," Close said, "but they have access to sources, stories and issues."
She said New America Media's collaborative role in this case is to provide reporting skills, support and visibility to ethnic news outlets in her network.
Originally, Close said, she simply wanted to provide translations of ethnic news-media articles through Pacific News Service.
But the need for greater partnership with those news outlets eventually resulted in the creation of an entirely new organization, New America Media, focused on aggregating information, partnering in fundraising, and sharing relevant news across diverse but previously disconnected communities.
If collaboration is indeed iterative, then the Investigative News Network and its peers are creating vital infrastructure and best practices for a more robustly connected and diversified news ecosystem.