Students and journalists work together to cover the 2016 Presidential Election as part of ProPublica’s Electionland project. (Photo credit: Simon Galperin)

National and local news collaborations: 3 key ways to partner now

If you’re a journalist at a national news organization, you’re struggling with big, meaty questions right now about trust, power and access. You’ve just been through the most unique election in American history and you’re feeling disconnected from big swaths of the country.

If you’re a journalist at a local news organization, you’re dealing with an incredibly unforgiving marketplace. For so-called “legacy” newsrooms, you’re doing more with less; for startups and newer digital enterprises, your small team is likely fighting for sustainability.

What if there were creative ways to give both national and local news orgs access to some of the resources they lack and, in turn, help produce more meaningful journalism that reaches broader audiences? Such is the goal of the local/national news partnerships initiative by the Center for Cooperative Media (graciously funded by the Democracy Fund and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation): to evaluate and foster more and better collaboration between national and local news organizations.

The project launched last fall and, since then, we’ve been gathering best practices, looking for potential tools or utilities that make collaboration easier, and opportunistically facilitating potential relationships between local and national news organizations. New Jersey has been our local news testing ground.

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing our findings through a series of posts like this one. Some of what we found was no surprise, to be sure. But documenting how and why partnerships between news organizations work or don’t work is instructive, we think, especially now.

How partnerships work now

In examining different ways that national and local news organizations currently collaborate, three key areas quickly emerged:

1. Distribution/syndication: In other words, greater reach. National news organizations have a practical where-mission-meets-business opportunity here: Because they’re not bound by geography, they need distribution to reach and connect with new audiences. Many of the national news organizations I’ve spoken to say audience development is their core strategic challenge — namely “how do we reach more of the people that matter for our mission and our revenue?” There are many components of building an audience, of course (social, search, email, great digital products, “sticky” user experiences, etc.). Distribution relationships can also fuel growth. For example, the Washington Post’s partner program provides complimentary digital subscriptions as a perk to subscribers of a large number of local papers across the country and is one of the contributing factors to its huge digital audience growth of late. Distribution arrangements can also work in reverse (local news on national sites), although achieving any sense of scale is less valuable to local sites that are typically more focused on engagement in their communities. Ways to partner on distribution:

  • Re-publishing: Step one is to simply run the work of others with proper attribution. ProPublica essentially gives away its content via Creative Commons. Pew’s Stateline distributes freely to any news organization. Others, like Reveal and Mother Jones, work with a wide range of distribution partners.
  • Linking or link exchanges: Aggregating relevant coverage is common practice informally or formally.
  • Paid syndication: Of course there’s still a home for paying for content from wire services (like, say, the Associated Press).

2. Localization: “All stories are local” is a cliche because it’s true. It was once (and still is in some newsrooms) common practice for an editor or producer to scan national headlines for stories that could be localized. But local newsrooms today aren’t always aware of national stories that have local relevance nor are they necessarily equipped to report on local ramifications. The challenges are obvious but genuine: Some local newsroom leaders said they wish they had known about a particular national trend piece, but missed it; others said they don’t have the resources (“if it didn’t happen here, we don’t touch it.”) There are several flavors of localization, with varying degrees of complexity:

  • Adding context: In conjunction with a national story, reporters can add local flavor or re-craft to highlight local issues. For example, a national piece on immigration could include links to local archival stories or it could be topped with local immigration data.
  • National story as springboard: A national trend piece can be used as an opportunity to dive deeply into the local effect and impact with a locally produced story.
  • Localizing data: Using nationally reported data sets (like campaign finance records) and highlighting local statistics of interest, or (better!) using that data as the start of local reporting on the issue. Some news organizations, like ProPublica and the AP (via this project), are working to make data more accessible to local newsrooms.

3. Shared reporting: The mother of all newsroom collaboration is working together on reporting, data gathering, editing, and/or storytelling. Like any good partnership, the key here is that the whole must be worth more than the sum of its parts. In other words, the project benefits from more than one entity’s involvement. And that, of course, is really difficult. (In future posts, I’ll write about why collaboration like this is so hard and some ways to mitigate the inherent problems.) Here are some of the many ways locals and nationals can partner on reporting projects:

  • One-to-one: One national and one local newsroom, such as this endeavor between ProPublica and the New Orleans nonprofit The Lens or this one between CIR and NJ.com. The national sites in these cases brought data reporting expertise and reach; the local sites brought deep local sourcing and institutional knowledge.
  • Multi-site: Bringing together numerous partners, typically with an anchor or host organization, and including print, broadcast, niche, and others (like academia or philanthropy) such as The Next Mayor project in Philadelphia or The Texas Standard. The more partners, the more complex. (“I’m interested in going on dates, not group dates,” one editor told me.) But the rewards can be rich, with potential for audio, video, data, multimedia and print storytelling and varied audiences.
  • Network: A single entity that uses a web of institutional or individual contributors toward a common project. ProPublica’s Electionland, for example, gathered reports from dozens of partners about voter fraud in their jurisdictions on Election Day. And the site is now applying the lessons learned from that initiative toward a longer-term “Documenting Hate” database project.
  • Institutional: Existing partnerships, particularly between locals and nationals in the same company or same affiliate network, make it easier to systematize content sharing and ongoing shared reporting relationships. NPR, for example, has a specific process for local content to flow up to national platforms.

It’s important to note that for the purposes of this initiative in its first year we’ve focused more on content collaboration ideas like those cited above. There are, of course, an infinite number of other ways local and national news organizations can work together, like licensing technology (e.g. the Post’s CMS which can be used by local newsrooms), freelance networks to make it easier to connect national editors to local stringers (another Post example), shared editing and design (e.g. this GateHouse center), and shared business initiatives (like Voice of San Diego’s membership hub).

What other ways should local and national news organizations collaborate? What’s working in your neck of the woods? Do you have ideas for ways to make partnerships easier or more effective? I’d love to hear from you.

Next up: The challenges and opportunities in local-national partnerships for local newsrooms.

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Tim Griggs is an independent consultant and advisor to media companies (and others). He can be reached by email (gunnertg@gmail.com) or via Twitter (@HeyTimGriggs).