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Applying for awards as a journalism collaborative can be frustrating; here’s how you can plan ahead

By Yael Grauer

As the number of collaborative reporting projects under way in the U.S. has soared in recent years, the industry’s most prestigious awards have been slow to catch up.

Collaborative reporting projects have won big awards including the Peabody and Pulitzers, but getting a collaboration over the hurdles of qualification for such honors can be difficult. Not to mention that there’s currently only one major awards program that includes a separate category recognizing collaborative efforts, and that’s the Online Journalism Awards.

Consider the Pulitzer Prize: Although a Pulitzer can be awarded to collaborations, collaborations between eligible organizations (newspapers, magazines or news sites that publish regularly) working with ineligible media (broadcast media and websites) are only considered if the eligible organization “does the preponderance of the work and publishes it at least simultaneously with the ineligible partner.”

For many collaborative reporting projects, working with a variety of media organizations is a key factor for success.

“There are just so many different layers of collaboration,” said Andy Donohue, a managing editor at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting “Sometimes there’s two organizations doing all the heavy lifting together, and sometimes there’s a publishing partner that will also do the data visualization.”

As collaboration increases among U.S. news organizations, Donohue says that says that specifically dealing with awards in contract or MOU language is one way to get ahead of potential problems. Thinking through everybody’s role early on can help prevent hurt feelings or confusion when it’s time to collect awards or get credit.

That’s what Donohue and his collaborators did for Case Cleared, a collaboration between Reveal, ProPublica and Newsy, investigated how police make it seem like they’re solving more rape cases than they actually are.

Ellen Weiss, Vice President and Bureau Chief at Scripps Washington Bureau, who oversaw the partnership for Newsy, said that each group would check with the others on award submissions, and made a point to list all the organizations.

“In some cases, we submitted in different categories (audio, print, video) and named one partner in the lead,” she wrote in an email. “In some cases … partners might have submitted other projects, so Newsy was able to submit for everyone — even while, for example, Reveal and ProPublica were submitting other stories.”

All organizations would review each other’s entries prior to submission. “Awards are just the kind of things that can spoil a great project — so we just had this in place from the start,” she wrote.

The type of scenario to avoid would be one like the Center for Public Integrity’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize for the series “Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine.” It led to controversy and a public dispute over whether or not ABC News should also have received credit in a moment that should’ve been purely celebratory.

The Online News Association added an Excellence in Collaborations and Partnerships award to its annual Online Journalism Awards in 2018, becoming the first major U.S. awards program to do so. That award was created in part due to feedback from the ONA community, said Trevor Knoblich, the organization’s chief knowledge officer.

“People were giving us feedback that even something as simple as filling out the forms — if there was a partnership, our forms didn’t make sense,” Knoblich said. “We ask for a parent organization and the reporter that worked on the project, but if they worked with a different organization, then that became kind of tricky for people to fill out.”

While receiving emails and calls from the community asking for more flexibility in the forms, ONA was also looking at deeper trends as part of a strategic planning process and noticed that there were more new partnerships happening. Recognizing projects like Electionland and the Panama Papers — both of which included a massive consortium of partners and had complex digital file storage, sharing and security components — fit in well with what ONA is trying to do as an organization.

“The trend is increasing and that’s something we wanted to be paying attention to,” Knoblich said.

ONA’s collaboration award category focuses on the process itself of collaboration, but Knoblich says that collaborative projects can apply to other awards focused on the finished project and strength of the stories.

In New England, the New Hampshire Press Association began offering an award for Excellence in Collaboration and Partnership in 2018 to honor news organizations that work together.

“We want to encourage collaboration in the state, (and) we decided one way to do that would be to create an award that would recognize excellence in collaboration,” said Executive Director Phil Kincade.

👋 Want to learn more about collaborative journalism?

You can subscribe to our collaborative journalism newsletter for more updates and information. And of course, we invite you to visit collaborativejournalism.org to learn more about the topic of collaborative journalism — including our growing database of database of collaborative journalism projects, which is currently being updated.

The production of this story was supported by a grant from Rita Allen Foundation.

Yael Grauer is an investigative tech reporter based in Phoenix. Find her on twitter @yaelwrites, on yaelwrites.com or on yaelgrauer.contently.com.

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

Center for Cooperative Media

An initiative of the School of Communication at Montclair…

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