Despite ABC News/CPI blowup, here’s how news partnerships can work

Journalism organizations might get discouraged about joining partnerships after the public meltdown of the partnership between ABC News and The Center for Public Integrity this week.

CPI’s reporter Chris Hamby won a Pulitzer Prize for stories that exposed how coal miners who were dying from black-lung disease were being unfairly denied health benefits. ABC wanted to get some of the credit for the investigation. What followed was a nasty exchange that played out here on Poynter Online all week.

But let’s not forget the upside to great investigative journalists from different organizations working together. ABC and CPI did affect lives, expose wrongdoing and reach a national audience that neither could have done alone.

Some of the most important journalism in recent years has been the product of partnerships. Look at this graphic from PBS Frontline showing all of the partners it has worked with on significant projects. The list spans from local newspapers to nonprofit investigative groups to ESPN and Univision. In some cases there were several partners involved in a project.

Howard Berkes, NPR investigations correspondent

National Public Radio investigations correspondent Howard Berkes told Poynter.org that partnerships can allow newsrooms to cover stories with depth and expertise that they cannot do on their own. Berkes points to a partnership he participated in that involved The Center for Public Integrity and NPR. The investigation focused on the resurgence of black-lung cases in the United States.

“My partner in this project, Chris Hamby from The Center for Public Integrity, knows how to make sense of data a lot better than I do. He worked on worker safety realm of the story while I know a lot about the coal industry having done a lot of stories about mine safety. It was a good blending; we spent a week on the road together, but when I did an interview alone I shared a complete transcript with him and he did the same. We shared everything,” Berkes said. When it was time to publish and air the stories, Berkes said having a partner was vital to making the stories bulletproof. “CPI reviewed my script, every word of it. While you each write your own stories, you want your reporting to be consistent with your partner. ”

Berkes also produced his groundbreaking investigation into corn bin safety, Buried in Grain, with CPI as a partner. The story uncovered how hundreds of workers died in preventable grain-related entrapments in 34 states since 1984. But safety enforcement is weak and even big fines get reduced before they are paid.

“My partner in that project, Jim Morris is a journalist who spent his entire career covering workplace safety issues.” Berkes said Morris brought tremendous knowledge to that project, which produced congressional action.

Berkes said his expertise in developing memorable characters to illustrate stories made the facts the team uncovered come alive. Berkes said his partner at CPI was ready to publish his version of the story in November 2012. But NPR wanted to land one key interview first, an interview with a young worker who watched his buddy die while being buried in grain. It took six months to land the interview and CPI agreed to wait until NPR was ready to air. “Good partners make it more likely that you will produce the kind of reporting that will make a difference,” Berkes said.

Mark Stencel, Poynter Digital Fellow

Mark Stencel, The Poynter Institute’s Digital Fellow, has been helping to manage news partnerships since 1996. “My first job in partnerships involved The Washington Post, ABC News, Newsweek and Times Mirror. It was right at the beginning of the digital news movement.”

Since then, Stencel has worked on partnerships that included the Post, MSNBC, MSNBC.com, NPR and many others. “I can tell you this, anybody who starts a partnership with another organization thinking it is going to save time reporting a story is almost always wrong. Partnerships involve a lot of trust-building, communication and effort.” Stencel offered me a list of ways partnerships can pay off:

  • Expand Your Expertise: “Newsrooms should partner with others who have experiences that will complement their own. The partner could also have contacts and access that helps tell a stronger story than you can get alone.”
  • Reach: “Partners can help you reach wider audiences. It is the megaphone effect that can get the attention of people, including lawmakers who can change things that you expose as wrong.”
  • Share Resources: “Partnerships can help newsrooms with limited budgets to find ways to tell big stories.”

 

Stencel says partnerships sometimes fall apart when the parties fail to work out key details on the front end. His advice:

  • Know What You Want: “The worst partnerships are the ones that are born at executive lunches and dinners. I have been in a lot of meetings where teams stare longingly and whisper about making beautiful news but never do. You have to have specific objectives for why you want this partnership and how you will help each other.”
  • Internal Partnerships Don’t Always Work: “Even if partners come from the same company, there is no guarantee that they will work well together. They still have to agree on an outcome and work toward that.”
  • Get Management Buy-In: “I have worked on partnerships that have endured many changes in management, including the polling partnerships between ABC News and The Washington Post. The key is to define your goals and stick to it.”
  • Agree to a Process: “The processes include everything from how stories will be edited, when they will be published, how you will make corrections if they are needed, how you will credit each other and how, if the work is submitted for awards, the credit would be shared.”
  • Agree on Legal Issues: “Partnerships are best if they begin with a formal agreement but lots of them are informal. You may have to have a talk about who would be responsible if somebody gets sued for what you report. How will you indemnify each other?”

 

NPR’s Berkes said big organizations should not overlook smaller partners. “I am working on a project right now with a partner called Mine Safety and Health News. They are encyclopedic in their knowledge of the coal industry, civil and criminal cases and they know all of the characters and companies in the industry.” You may not have heard of Mine Safety and Health News, but the group has won 31 national journalism awards over the years.

Stencel says his experience with partnerships has taught him that newsrooms get the most results from working on targeted projects first, then if it works out, strike a larger partnership.

“Marry often, divorce bad partners fast, and don’t be afraid to keep dating,” Stencel said.

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