Designing a Collaboration

A Checklist for Effective Collaborative Journalism Part 1

You can’t grow a successful garden until you’ve prepared the soil. (Image via AdobeStock)

Part 2: Managing a Collaboration
Part 3: Assessing a Collaboration

There are a million possible questions to answer when it comes to designing, managing and learning from a collaboration. It can be a little daunting to start. This is the first of a 3-part series on some of the big questions to address that will make the process a little clearer. These questions are the collaborative effort of Heather Bryant, Stefanie Murray and Nasr ul Hadi.


1. Does collaboration make sense for your project?

It’s easier to start with a project or goal and then evaluate whether it’s right for collaboration or not. Every story can be collaborative but not every story necessarily needs to be and it’s important to figure out what you have the bandwidth for and when collaboration will help you achieve something you and your organization can’t do on your own.

2. What is your organization’s goal in collaborating?

Knowing what your organization needs to get out of a collaborative project helps with decision-making down the line and greatly helps with expectation setting.

3. Do you already have partners or will you be looking for partners?

If you’re looking for partners, starting with organizations that have partnered before is a good way to find people who are open to collaborative journalism. (This database of collaborative projects identifies more than 800 newsrooms that have collaborated.) If you find yourself pitching the idea of collaboration to a newsroom that hasn’t collaborated before, be clear on what benefits they will get from participation and make it clear the value you bring to the partnership and why you think collaboration is the good fit for the project.

4. Which model of collaboration works best for you?

There are lots of ways to collaborate and lots of models for forming those partnerships. Here are two resources to help you think about what you’re collaborating on and how you can structure the partnership.

Models of Collaborative Journalism: The Center for Cooperative Media
The Many Shapes of Collaboration: Project Facet

5. What values are important to you and your organization that need to be important to your partners?

(Another way of thinking about this is how do you avoid misunderstood or misaligned incentives?)

You need to be in it for the same reasons OR have a understanding and acceptance of each partner’s motivations, or you will inevitably run into conflicts in decision making. In conversations with multiple editors that have worked on collaborative projects, most cite shared values as an important factor in the success of the partnership.

6. How will you and your partners approach establishing expectations and agreed upon deliverables?

No two organizations will ever be perfectly matched in terms of resources or capabilities. There needs to be understanding that you may put in more than you get out, or your resources will be used in a different way than your partners’. Figure out what balance is acceptable for your organization and what isn’t. And understand that your partners have to do that as well. Work together to identify the distinct strengths, capacity and needs of each partner to identify what each partner can contribute and come up with reasonable timelines that make sense for their capacity in balance with the needs of the project.

7. How will you approach picking the right evaluation model and metrics for your collaboration and collaborative project?

Is this project about increased audience engagement? Awareness of a particular subject matter? Is it attention on legislation? Increased ad-revenue? Is it financial? Knowing what you want and how you’re going to measure it before you get start simplifies tracking it throughout and if your project has a funder, knowing this in advance makes the reporting process for your funders a simpler matter later on.

8. How will you establish a lead editor, project manager or both?

For most projects someone has to sign off on content, keep the wheels turning, ensure that communication is happening or communicate with the larger group on behalf of your organization. Is there one anchor newsroom providing the editorial support or is it a team of people from multiple partners? Is the project sufficiently large and complex enough to hire an additional person to manage it? Deciding on your editors and managers and clearly communicating what the chain looks like to all of the people involved removes friction later when reporters are ready to start filing stories and people need to know who will edit them, who needs to sign off on publishing or who to notify that they’ve published.

9. Will you collaborate beyond content with things like marketing or engagement and what might that look like?

Collaboration doesn’t have to stop at the end of reporting and writing or producing. Amplifying the project through an engagement component with the participation of all the partners and coordinated social media campaigns can ensure that everyone’s hard work reaches the largest audience. Think about the different platforms and avenues you and your partners have and think about what a plan to maximize those platforms would look like.

10. How formal does the partnership need to be? Will you need MOUs or contracts?

Do you need a contract to specify obligations, deliverables and conflict management? Most collaborations don’t have contracts unless there’s a significant financial component. But in some cases, partnerships have found that having an MOU to spell out how things will be handled when circumstances change during a project is helpful. For example, defining how partners are credited, how and where the content will be posted, the language for talking about the project and setting up parameters about mutual publishing can guide conversations if something goes wrong.


Each of these questions can be explored further depending on how much detail your organization needs to establish for the project. However, even short answers to these questions can help shape the direction of the project and what your organization’s priorities are. Have a suggestion for additional details for this part? Feel free to jump in the comments below.

Additional Resources:
CollaborativeJournalism.org
Collaborative Journalism Slack
Project Facet

Full Series:
Part 1: Designing a Collaboration
Part 2: Managing a Collaboration
Part 3: Assessing a Collaboration


About the Authors:
Heather Bryant is a journalist, software developer and the founder and director of Project Facet, an open source infrastructure project that supports newsrooms in managing the logistics of creating, editing and distributing content, managing projects and facilitating collaborative relationships. She spent her last year studying collaboration between newsrooms as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. Prior to that, she worked in public media in Alaska.

Stefanie Murray is the Director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. 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.

Nasr Ul Hadi works with the Int’l Center for Journalists (ICFJ) as a Knight Fellow in India. He leads a team of editorial, multimedia, product and engineering consultants, driving innovation experiments​ in story, product, workflow and/or business models, across print, broadcast and digital news media. He also teaches digital storytelling at a few graduate schools, and co-manages the local chapters of Hacks/Hackers.