A conversation with a collaboration entrepreneur: Heather Bryant

In this issue, we feature an interview with Heather Bryant, tip sheets for creating collaborative projects, and information on contributing to the database of journalism collaborations.

Heather Bryant knows that collaboration can be logistically challenging for newsrooms.

A recent John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, Bryant has been studying collaborative efforts between newsrooms to better understand when and why newsrooms collaborate with each other, and what pain points exist throughout the process. On her Medium blog, she’s profiled how public media stations in Alaska frequently work together, described why collaboration matters, detailed how collaborative efforts can help newsrooms built trust with their audiences, and outlined the many forms collaboration can take.

Bryant has also been working on the technological pieces of the collaboration puzzle: she’s the founder and lead developer of Project Facet, a dashboard that’s designed to make it easier for newsrooms working together to communicate, share files, edit and write copy, and track their progress.

We recently spoke to Heather about her work and what she’s learned through talking with dozens of newsrooms about their collaborative efforts.

You’ve been thinking about how newsrooms can better collaborate with each other. What traits do successful newsroom collaborations share with each other?

I think there are a few consistent things that we see across successful collaborations.

There needs to be a shared set of goals that everyone is really invested in and that there is buy-in for. Collaboration can be a lot of work and it can be time-consuming and it’s a change of flow to include other people in your process, and to keep doing that work is made a lot easier by having a real goal that everyone is working toward and that’s only really achievable by working together.

Communication and clear, shared expectations are key to success. You need to know what your partners are doing, they need to know what you’re doing and everyone needs to be on the same page in terms of what their responsibilities are. I think it’s important to work out those expectations and responsibilities in advance of the work, in as much as that is possible. It’s very rare to find two or more organizations that will be perfectly matched in terms of capacity and ability to do things, so everyone needs to be aware and onboard with what and how much each partner is contributing so that there’s not confusion or miscommunication about it later. When you can set the parameters for that in advance, that gives you options later should something come up and you need to deal with it.

And I think the last important thing is to trust each other’s intentions until there’s a real reason not to. A lot of folks are still adjusting to the idea of journalism being a more collaborative endeavor. It’s a change to be open about what you’re doing, and how and to include other people in the decision process or editing process for it. It’s a big change when someone you might have previously categorized as a competitor is now a partner.

People will get busy and will drop in and out of communication. We lose tone and inflection when communication happens via email and Slack and that gets even more complicated if you don’t have a long-running relationship with them so you can’t really guess and you have to take it at face value. Priorities on any given day can be quite fluid depending on the news cycle. All of this means being flexible and communicative and giving people the benefit of the doubt is important and it’s also how you would want people to treat you.

What are the major blockers that newsrooms have when it comes to collaborating?

The infrastructure, protocols and systems for collaboration is being built literally as we speak. The vast majority of newsrooms were created to operate in competition with other newsrooms, as the hub to which all information flowed or as if other news organizations don’t exist. We weren’t designed for collaboration and now we’re all working out the best practices for doing so.

I’m process and logistics-oriented so that’s where my brain is and why I’m working on Facet. I’m invested in building the infrastructure, protocols and ecosystem that can support collaboration.

I think the other challenges I see are around communication and planning. The more planning you can do at the get-go, the more smoothly collaborations can run because most people operate more comfortably when they have the framework for doing so. ‘This is who I talk to for this. This is where this goes. That is where I do this other thing.’ Giving people the information they need use and then access to the people they need to speak to is very important.

Otherwise, I think a lot about blockers in discovery of partners and the establishment of collaborations. And this part of it is pretty expansive because it’s how newsrooms can better partner with freelancers and contractors. It’s how we can encourage collaboration between newsrooms and non-news entities and what that looks like. It’s how we can encourage partnerships between national and regional with local newsrooms for content created in partnership rather than in place of. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to be more thoughtful and deliberate with how media can work collectively to cover things like shootings and other major incidents rather than competitively.

Can you share one collaboration that you’ve particularly admired in the past year?

I’m a huge fan of what Solutions Journalism Network is doing. I think there’s a lot to be explored and learned from in the methods of Solutions Journalism. I’m a huge fan of the partnerships that the Economic Hardship Reporting Projects does, especially the work that’s been published with the Guardian.

I also very eagerly follow how ProPublica manages its partnerships like Electionland and Documenting Hate because it’s such an excellent example of how a newsroom with a lot of public recognition and expertise can leverage that to drive and support excellent local journalism rather than trying to do everything themselves.

You’ve been working on Facet, an editorial tool that will help newsrooms work together. In June, you wrote out a list of what you’ve learned about partnerships and collaboration so far. Can you talk a little bit about what’s happened in the past several months?

In terms of Project Facet, I’m excited about this experience of collaboratively building the tool set that we need to facilitate collaborative journalism. Tools, I think, are a complicated topic for journalism. Depending on tech companies to create what we need or to try and duct-tape various platforms together doesn’t always work that well for us and sometimes it puts us into compromised or dependent positions. And every time we turn around, we hear about a new tool, for a while and only a few go past that initial time frame and become things we keep using. I want Facet’s development and functionality to be as collaboratively designed and created as the content and projects that are managed on it. I think that’s how we end up building something that can innovate along with newsrooms. Facet isn’t about building tools for newsrooms, it’s about building them for journalism and doing that with newsrooms.

Facet is infrastructure and ecosystem. The project gets its name from the idea that journalism itself is an exceptionally multi-faceted endeavor and making it come together in a beautiful way and in a way that doesn’t crack or break requires the right tools and setting. It’s a place to do the work of collaborative journalism and facilitate the project management, the people management, communication and the shared workflow that we need. It’s a place where you can find partners and quickly communicate and share information and content and assets without having to run all over the place.

It’s a priority to me that we do it in a modular way so that it stays accessible and nimble enough to evolve in functionality so that it can keep up with what newsrooms need. That’s also how we ensure it’s accessible to the widest range of newsrooms in terms of their resources and capacity to use tools like this.

Facet is partnering with a few projects over the next couple months to work through some last user testing before opening it up more broadly. Some are using to manage content creation and distribution amongst partners in collaborative project, another is using it more for project management and keeping the details and communication coherent and another partner is looking at using it to manage freelancers and contractors.

I look forward to partnering with more newsrooms and doing what we can to help support organizations that want to collaborate and need the infrastructure to do so and I’m also interested in hearing what folks are thinking about and the problems they need help with in this area.

Contribute to the database

Over the past year, we’ve been collecting information about dozens of collaborative reporting projects involving hundreds of newsrooms around the world. We used that information to identify six distinct models of collaborative journalism, which are based on how long newsroom and information organizations worked together, and how they integrated their work and workflows.

Now, we’re creating a comprehensive database with the information we’ve collected about both those projects and others we don’t know about yet. Please fill out this short form with information about your project.

Have you worked on a collaborative project? Tell us about it!

Collaboration in the News

Tip Sheets

Use the following tip sheets to help you plan:

Editor’s note: Both the author of this piece, Melody Kramer, and the director of the Center for Cooperative Media, Stefanie Murray, are members of Facet’s advisory board.

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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 and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.