How to get buy-in for collaborative journalism in your newsroom

Shifting the culture is hard, but it can be done; here’s how

During one of our introduction to collaborative journalism webinars this month, a participant asked me a question I get often: How do I get buy-in from my newsroom for collaboration?

As I answered the question, I also decided to write about it.

One of the top reasons why collaborations either never get off the ground or fail entirely is a lack of buy-in at the top of the organization. (Other reasons include the lack of a project manager, lack of funding, personality conflicts, editing disagreements, and workflow/tech problems.)

Especially for journalists who work inside large, corporate structures—and the majority of journalists employed full-time in the U.S. still do—getting approval, let alone enthusiasm, from top editors can be daunting.

But it can be done. Here’s how.

Educate the bosses

This is something you can start now. Top editors are busy (I know, I was one) and they may not be able to keep on top of collaborative journalism trends.

You can, however:

  • Share articles with your editors and colleagues. When there’s an interesting collaboration announced or published, share the link. When a collaboration wins a major award, share that. On Slack, via email—use whatever channel your newsroom prefers to communicate. You can keep on top of these articles by subscribing to the Center for Cooperative Media’s biweekly collaborative journalism newsletter, which points out trends and tracks projects.
  • Share articles on social media. Do the same thing as in the bullet point above, but do it publicly.
  • Let your colleagues know about training opportunities. The Center for Cooperative Media has been hosting a webinar series including an “Introduction to Collaborative Journalism” that would be a good primer, for example.

Go to a conference

I’m biased, but I think sending someone from your newsroom to the Collaborative Journalism Summit is the best way to get them bought-in to the practice. The 2020 Collaborative Journalism Summit is set for May 14–15 in Charlotte, N.C. Click here to register.

If you can’t send someone to the Summit, nearly any other journalism conference will do, because almost all of them have presentations on collaborative journalism. Find those sessions and encourage your editors to attend them.

Know what makes your organization tick

You probably already know what your organization values and what incentivizes your leaders. Look for opportunities to propose collaborations that capitalize on those things.

Perhaps your colleagues are very focused on investigations. Maybe you have a new audience engagement strategy that everyone is working on. Or your organization is adamant about catalyzing and tracking impact. Would securing outside funding for a collaboration make a difference? Or perhaps awards are something folks strive for.

Figure that out and then base potential ideas on those areas—and when you point out successful collaborations that other newsrooms are doing, be sure to highlight those that hit on your company’s key areas of focus.

A selection of tip sheets for different types of collaborative reporting projects.
Click the image to view full versions of each collaborative journalism tip sheet.

Develop relationships + be a connector

If you’re not already doing it, you should make an effort to get to know your colleagues at other news organizations in your geographic or topic area.

One of the key reasons why journalism collaborations work when they do work is because of relationships. I often tell people starting a new collaborative to first get to know each other: find common ground, understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and hey, you can even be friends.

If you can start doing this now, you’ll be ahead of the game by the time you get to pitching a project. Likewise, think about peers for your top editors or leaders. Who do they know? Who do they trust? You might start with those people and the organizations they run when you first propose a collaborative.

Also think about your top editor’s peers when it comes to successful collaboratives. Reach out to people who worked on collaborations you admire and see if they’d be willing to talk to you and your colleagues about the experience.

Pitch an idea!

Don’t be afraid to pitch an idea for a collaboration to your editor, but make sure you’ve done some homework first.

I often tell novice collaborators they should have some early conversations with their potential collaborative partners before pitching a project, but don’t go too far: I’ve seen projects struggle where reporters got too far ahead in the project before informing their bosses, and that can be a problem.

What should you be prepared to say when you pitch? Like any story pitch, be sure your story idea is clear and concise, and explain why it’s relevant and how it will be impactful. But since it’s a collaborative story pitch, you’ll also want to propose collaborators and explain why working with them will greatly increase the story’s reach, influence or diversity. Explain how combining resources with an outside—often competing— news organization will make the story better. Give examples of similar efforts in other parts of the country. If you have identified a potential funding source, now is the time to mention that.

Have any other tips for getting buy-in from leadership? Let me know! I’d love to add them to this post. Email me at murrayst@montclair.edu.

Good luck!

👋 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.

Stefanie Murray is director of the Center for Cooperative Media. 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. 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.

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