Desert Sun reporter Gusatvo Solis (background, from left), Arizona Republic reporter Daniel González and Republic videographer David Wallace interview a human smuggler in Mexicali, Mexico. (Nick Oza/USA TODAY NETWORK)

8 key lessons we learned from funding collaborative reporting projects

Clear goals, plans and chains of command are critical

In 2017, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University funded six collaborative reporting projects across the U.S., thanks to support from Rita Allen Foundation and Democracy Fund.

Those projects began publishing in September 2017, and have continued to publish throughout this year. As they’ve rolled out, the Center has written case studies on each; so far, we’ve completed four of the six:

  1. Case study on Rattled: The Concussion Discussion (a collaboration between InvestigateWest, Pamplin Media Group, Agora Journalism Center and others).
  2. Case study on The Wall (a collaboration between The Arizona Republic and various other news organizations within the USA Today Network).
  3. Case study on Giving Away the (Wind) Farm (a collaboration between Flatland/Kansas City PBS and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting).
  4. Case study on a series about “Restart” schools in North Carolina (a collaboration between EducationNC and WRAL).
  5. Next up, we’ll complete a case study on Shallow Waters, an investigation about the nature of border water in an era of growing scarcity (a collaboration between Quartz and The Texas Observer).
  6. And after that, the last one will be a look at Local Controls, a series about municipal mergers in New Jersey (collaboration between NJ Pen and SNJ Today).

As we produce each case study, we’re asking folks involved to tell us about lessons learned; what were their main takeaways after the project ended? What would they tell colleagues who were considering a collaborative reporting project?

The following list is a compilation of the top responses we received from editors and reporters involved in the six projects:

1. Have a clear goal in mind, and be sure everything you do works toward that goal.

In the case of The Wall, the goal was to educate the U.S. about the impact, cost and feasibility of a border wall. So as the team made decisions, that goal gave them “guideposts,” as Nicole Carroll, editor of USA Today and leader of the project, told us. “Should we/could we map every piece of the current fence?” (Yes, this educates our audience.) “How can we be more transparent?” (Let’s do behind-the-scenes podcasts.)”

2. Build a clear plan with all expectations outlined and stick to it.

This includes defining each team’s roles and responsibilities, and setting internal deadlines at the various organizations that lead into shared deadlines.

These lessons were shared by nearly everyone we interviewed. Knowing who is doing what, when and why is critical. Having a game plan laid out from the beginning will also help ensure you take advantage of each other’s strengths and make sure your work complements one another.

3. Establish a clear chain of command — who is making decisions? And who is responsible to whom?

Not all of our projects had one singular project editor, but in the case of The Wall, Carroll was the clear leader. For Rattled, Lee van der Voo was the project manager. Knowing where the buck stops and who will decide when a decision needs to be made will make the project flow much more smoothly and help keep it on track.

4. Agree on standards for quality control.

Are interviews taped, and if so, using what technology? Are we using AP style? How will stories be fact-checked? How will the editing process work? Van der Voo told us that on collaborative projects with various reporters filtering in and out, it’s even more important than normal to have and uphold quality control standards. On Rattled, for example, they recommended reporters use the TapeACall phone recording app so that all the reporters could record their interviews to be fact-checked later if needed.

5. Relationships matter. It will help to collaborate with people you get along with and trust.

Pick your collaborators like you pick your friends, if you can help it — trust is critical. And being able to talk openly, laugh sometimes and enjoy the work will enhance the end product. “I think one of the key lessons learned is the value of a strong working relationship between collaborating organizations,” Laura Lee, editor of EducationNC, told us.

Quartz had to change partners mid-project, and its partnership with the Texas Observer was built off of a prior professional relationship. “That familiarity and desire to work together helped make it happen at the start, and push through challenges along the way,” said Elijah Wolfson of Quartz.

6. Maintain open lines of communication.

“There’s a lot more down-in-the-weeds production coordination than you might expect,” Wolfson said. That means being able to easily and openly discuss every minute detail is important.

7. A long-distance relationship can work.

Folks who worked on The Wall didn’t have the benefit of being able to see each other IRL or have a happy hour drink to talk out their differences, said Kevin Poortinga, innovation VP at the USA Today Network. Although it was tough-going at times, “we prevailed, and we’re so much better off now for future projects, as it immensely eases that outreach going forward,” Poortinga said.

8. No matter how well you plan, things will go wrong.

Adjust your expectations accordingly. As Poortinga noted, you might want the project to flow in a nice straight line, but it will ultimately always end up like this:

If you’re interested in learning more about collaborative reporting, we’re starting to stockpile resources at collaborativejournalism.org, and we send a newsletter on this topic twice a month — subscribe here.


Stefanie Murray is director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Contact her at murrayst@montclair.edu.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab Fund of the Community Foundation of New Jersey and the Abrams Foundation. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.