National newsrooms say size, bureaucracy and ‘do-it-ourselves’ mentality are biggest obstacles to collaboration

We’re complicated, we have trust issues and we can just do it ourselves, anyway.

Those may sound like complaints from a relationship-gone-wrong. They’re also reasons national news organizations cite for why they don’t pursue collaborations with local journalism outlets more frequently.

But there are ways to tackle each one, which we will explore in this post, the third in a series of stories about national and local news partnerships.

For the last several months I’ve studied national and local news partnerships on behalf of the Center for Cooperative Media, as part of a project funded by Democracy Fund and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Previous posts covered ways local and national newsrooms can partner right now and hurdles and opportunities for locals.

In conversations with leaders across the industry — at newspapers, corporate hubs, digital-only sites and in public media — here are the challenges I’ve heard most from national sites:

#1: We have a “do-it-ourselves” preference

The inclination — which is understandable — is to use your own staff and comfortable processes. But doing so misses at least two big opportunities: Expanding your reporting into areas you otherwise would miss and widening reach.

But there’s a palpable mood change happening now in regard to collaboration: Leaders in national newsrooms who have historically avoided working outside their own walls are more likely to do so today, in part due to economic conditions and in part because the election showed them they may be out of touch with some parts of the country.

Still, it may be hard to follow through.

“The spirit may be willing but the flesh is often weak,” said Jim Schachter, vice president for news at WNYC. “You may say “oh, we’re going to have a partnership” but it has to translate to the day-to-day and the people who execute who don’t spend their days thinking about media strategy. Their histories and personal viewpoints can get in the way of things operating smoothly.”

Jim Schachter, vice president for news at WNYC and former associate managing editor for The New York Times, has a long history of local-national collaboration — from both sides.

Schachter and I worked closely together a few years ago while at The New York Times, experimenting with regional and local partnerships (like this one involving New York City schools, this one on hyperlocal coverage in the East Village and these with partners in Chicago, San Francisco and Texas). There were a couple goals, particularly to deepen reporting in key markets and to see if we could get measurable audience improvement (in print and digitally) in those places.

But there was a third, just-as-important byproduct: To learn how to partner.

Schachter’s view of local-national collaboration is borne out of experience on both sides of the equation. At The Times, he had to figure out whether and how to bend the “do-it-ourselves” preference. How do you do that in a large and established newsroom?

“I’m not sure I was smart enough to think of it this way at the time, but it’s helpful to frame it in terms people understand,” he said. “For example: Where’s the newsroom that hasn’t dealt with freelancers? Dealing with freelancers is different than dealing with staff correspondents. It’s a different set of conversations. Early in the relationship, you might look at everything with greater care. You have to learn to trust each other. It’s not such an alien concept.”

Schachter’s advice in a nutshell: “Get over yourself. … If the benefits are there, put those values higher than your stubborn adherence to the way you always do stuff,” he said.

#2: It’s too complicated to navigate the labyrinth

“Getting to yes” can be tricky in any partnership, but particularly exhausting when working through matrixed organizations whose cultures or processes demand lots of meetings and layers of approval.

Several established organizations overcome this by tapping an individual — either as a dedicated job or an ongoing assignment — to serve as a partnership manager.

As mentioned in our last post, having a lot of resources does not make a big newsroom immune to feeling the constraints of time, energy and people. A single (or initial) point of contact for collaboration can help reduce inevitable friction, particularly when relationships are just getting going.

Cole Goins fills such a role at the Center for Investigative Reporting. CIR is among the most partnership-friendly national news organizations you’ll find. Collaboration is in its DNA (and literally on its About Us page): “We partner with numerous other media organizations, prioritize impact over exclusivity, engage with the public and track results.”

“Our philosophy is that national stories are taking place somewhere, and we want to get (the stories) in the hands of the people most affected,” Goins said.

Partnership managers like Goins help turn that ambition into reality. They have the time to think through what a partnership might look like. They can facilitate editor-to-editor or reporter-to-reporter relationships. They can nudge, prod and nag a little easier since everyone knows it’s their job. Over time, they become master collaborators; they understand the pitfalls to avoid, the tradeoffs to consider and the approaches that work best.

#3: We have a size bias

Journalists at some national news organizations, without ill intent, often assume this: Smaller news organizations just aren’t as good.

Good collaborators know that’s not true — or at least not typically true. (Here’s a list of great work in 2016 by nonprofit news organizations, for example, many of which are local newsrooms with just a reporter or two.)

Size bias works both ways, of course. Journalists at small newsrooms have a tendency to assume large organizations can’t possibly have the speed and agility for a partnership to work.

Related: Familiarity bias. I chatted with one editor, from a large and respected news organization, who put it this way: “At the risk of sounding like a snob: Is the quality there? I don’t know you so I don’t trust you. It’s the fear of the unknown.”

No amount of looking at clips and past work will overcome this. Only the act of working together can smooth that fear.

Schachter said it’s critical to be open-minded about the potential in local partnerships but also open and honest about differences in quality and approach.

“You have to get buy-in on every level,” he said. “It’s going to insult and annoy people if you say you’re going to use college sophomores to replace writing of seasoned professional journalists, for example. Don’t pretend it’s something it isn’t. Proudly embrace what it is and explain why you’re doing it.”

#4: Partnerships are too exhausting

How many times have you heard this: “It’ll take longer to explain how to do it than to just do it myself.”

The institutional equivalent? Avoiding collaboration out of fear of hand-holding.

National partners can take some of the strain away by the aforementioned partnership manager role — again, as a specific job or part of an existing job. Another way to make life easier for you and your local counterparts: Write a partnership checklist.

When I was at the Texas Tribune, we created a “director of media relations and partnerships” role, filled by the very talented Natalie Choate. Her job is to get Tribune content in the hands of local newsrooms across the state and to build ad hoc and ongoing partnerships. In her first few weeks on the job, she created a simple but powerful one-pager titled “What can the Texas Tribune do for you?” It outlines ways organizations (including, but not limited to newsrooms) could work with us: co-promotion, trial subscriptions, shared events, co-reporting, etc. It wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a starting point to a conversation.

Bill Gray, who held a similar post at the Center for Public Integrity, found a checklist accelerated the conversation.

The Center for Investigative Reporting is among the gold standards for collaboration with local newsrooms. This FAQ page is from a partnership guide for Reveal, its nationally distributed radio show and podcast.

“I thought it was important to have questions prepared for editor-to-editor conversations,” he said. “Are we agreeing to an open-notebook policy? What resources will each org bring to the project? Who owns what piece? How will it be promoted/shared?”

Once a partnership is established, Goins and CIR aim to make the process as easy as possible. They even share with partners a 12-page guide that outlines the process, technical specs, production tips and answers to frequently asked questions.

#5: Partnerships are too fleeting

Everyone I speak with on this subject — from the big established national newsrooms to the smallest hyperlocal sites — expresses a desire to build long-term, lasting relationships, as opposed to one-and-done projects, for obvious reasons. Why put all the time and energy into something that isn’t repeatable?

Goins emphasizes the importance of building a structure for ongoing collaboration. Have a process, build trust over time and have enough people connected — “enough touch points” — so if someone leaves it doesn’t kill the partnership.

A good principle is to get the people talking to each to be as close to the work as possible. “It’s perfectly fine for senior people to negotiate an arrangement,” Schachter said. “But success is really going to lie in how people doing the work and needing to collaborate day-to-day get along.”

An example: WNYC has worked several times with The Guardian. The station has a digital editor who handles the relationship, and a protocol for shared reporting (including things like using the WNYC branded audio player, embedding at the top of a story not the bottom, giving the reporter credit, etc.) which allows for a “good, clean, non-exploitative relationship.”

During the 2016 campaign, it became clear that a story WNYC reporter Andrea Bernstein was pursuing about Hillary Clinton and 9/11 was similar to one being worked on by a Guardian reporter. They got permission to work together, and the story was published in the Guardian with co-bylines and WNYC’s audio player embedded.

From a reach perspective, the collaboration was a huge success: More than 200,000 listens (more than any other co-publishing project in the WNYC newsroom’s history), 136,000 shares, 2,100 comments.

“And it started at the ground level. People working together have to figure out the contours of how they work together,” Schachter said.

There is an another approach that helps alleviate many of these concerns: Universal ownership or established networks.

NPR and member stations, for example, have a long-established process for getting local news on national shows. NPR has regional bureau chiefs — plus topic desks for health, education, etc. — who are responsible for gathering news from across the country. Gannett’s USA Today Network, similarly, makes it easier for local news to flow up to a national desk and vice versa, and it takes on national projects that lend themselves to localization.

But even in a network model, partnerships by fiat don’t work. They require trust, flexibility, and respectful working relationships.

“If you think you’re an equal partner but your partner thinks you’re there to do their bidding, for example, that’s not healthy,” Schachter said. “Sometimes in relationships between large nationals and small locals, it can feel like that. It requires ongoing effort. Nurturing for the long term is required if you want them to last for the long term.”

Next up: A case study, of sorts, on a partnership with lots of replicable lessons.

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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).

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.