Collaborative Journalism Summit: How nonprofit and commercial newsrooms can work together

Attendees at the Collaborative Journalism Summit this month got a sneak peek at the results of a study on how nonprofits can partner with commercial newsrooms, as Jason Alcorn presented findings from a year-long research project by the American Press Institute.

The session was part of the Collaborative Journalism Summit, which took place May 4–5 and was hosted by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

The American Press Institute study focused on three questions: what makes the partnerships successful, how news organizations can replicate such partnerships and the ways collaborations change how journalism is done. Alcorn, an independent nonprofit consultant, was commissioned by API to do the study.

“Nonprofits and commercial partners often come into this with an idea of what they want to get out of it. They have a clear need that they can’t do something and they’re trying to solve it,” Alcorn said. “That’s not quite good enough. It’s a lot more nuanced to put these deals together.”

These kind of partnerships can be challenging. Among some of the issues that Alcorn noted can arise: time-consuming processes, resistance to working in groups, disagreements in values, clashes in journalistic standards and lack of trust between newsroom staffs.

This, however, doesn’t imply that partnerships can’t work. Alcorn said that when people are looking for solutions to their needs they should think strategically and actively seek out potential partners.

Alcorn defined a successful partnership as one where both parties give and receive something of worth. He then discussed the advantages that both nonprofits and commercial organizations bring to the table when collaborating.

In addition to addressing their own needs, newsrooms must also consider what they can contribute to the partnership. Successful partnerships often begin by asking themselves this question: “What do you offer that’s valuable?” Answering that prompt pushes news organizations to assess their own unique assets and how their skills can help remedy the problems their partners are experiencing.

Alcorn noted that the current trend in collaborative news reporting is to utilize specialized reporting skills. It often means reporters who have beats focused on certain areas such as criminal justice, education, or the environment are teamed up with others who have disparate skills.

Often, the advantages that a commercial news organizations brings to collaborative projects includes funding, staff and a wide distribution network. Nonprofits are often more highly skilled at collaborative projects, however, since partnerships tend to be more common in that sector than in the for-profit space.

Especially in arrangements where money or staffing is involved, signing a contract is an important detail that shouldn’t be overlooked. Putting the partnership in writing — whether through the use of a legal contract, a memorandum of understanding or even an email — can help news outlets avoid problems down the road.

“The most successful partnerships between nonprofits and commercial news organizations are treated as business partnerships,” Alcorn said. “They’re taken that seriously.”

Author Aimee La Fountain is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.

About the Collaborative Journalism Summit: The Collaborative Journalism Summit took place May 4–5, 2017 at Montclair State University. It was an international symposium on collaborative reporting projects and cooperative news networks. The summit was hosted by the Center for Cooperative Media and presented by Google News Lab and the Rita Allen Foundation, and is sponsored by the Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Montclair State University and the Rita Allen Foundation.

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

Featured image: Tim Griggs (left) on stage with Jason Alcorn (right) to discuss their work on inter-organizational collaboration.



An initiative of the School of Communication at Montclair State University

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