Deseret News, Atlantic find common ground for collaborative series on fathers

Content partnerships have been quite the vogue lately, and this morning The Atlantic and the Deseret News add a new chapter — a jointly produced four-part series on absent fathers and broken families, running on the sites of both publications.

At a glance this would appear a long-distance odd couple — the church-owned newspaper in Salt Lake City and the venerable Boston-bred monthly, now based in Washington. But there is an affinity — each is recognized as a leader in digital business model transformation. New approaches to content are part of the innovation formula.

“Collaboration will be a fruitful model going forward,” Deseret editor Paul Edwards said in a phone interview Friday. “Editorial specialization is a logical response to the nature of the Web. So there needs to be trading to acquire content and share expertise.”

Business professor turned Deseret CEO Clark Gilbert came to know Atlantic president Scott Havens on the conference circuit. They talked of doing something together on family issues to which both organizations have given particular attention.

Deseret had identified faith and family content — from stories on poverty to finding family-friendly movies and TV shows — as an undercovered area of special interest to Mormons. Several Deseret sites now aim at serving a national and international church audience, and last year Deseret began syndicating its specialized content to other news outlets, including the Arizona Republic and the GateHouse chain.

One section of The Atlantic’s website — The Sexes — addresses both gender and family structure issues.

The idea for the collaboration came together at a meeting in Washington last May including Deseret editors and reporters, Atlantic editors and contributors and several East Coast academics. The series on fathers starting today is the result.

The lead finding is that a third of children grow up in homes without their fathers and a far higher percentage of the poor.  Subsequent pieces will treat why that is, the way welfare rules make broken families more likely and apprenticeships and other economic solutions to help jobless young men.

Deseret reporters wrote the first and third parts, Atlantic contributors the second and fourth.

Other similar projects are likely, Edwards said, though there are no formal plans yet for that.

A decade ago news organizations were mainly walled gardens with all content produced in-house. But with nonprofit outlets like ProPublica actively seeking legacy partners for investigations and rival state newspapers sharing content as their news staffs have shrunk, collaborations have become much more common.

I was curious whether Deseret’s ownership by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a barrier to doing a news project together.

“We were able to get comfortable fairly quickly,” Edwards said, “but, yes, that was a consideration… . For instance, we would not want to focus on the same-sex marriage … but this (fatherless families) was a widespread problem that could simply be reported out.”

“An interesting part of the story,” Edwards added, “is that ‘family’ has become a wedge issue with certain groups on both the right and left wanting to own it. We wanted a dispassionate look.”

From the Atlantic’s viewpoint too, the definition of the topic eliminated any issue with partnering with a Mormon news outlet. “The stories are based on social science research and not on religion or ideology,” Atlantic spokesperson Emily Lenzner wrote in an email. “We’re happy to have them as partners.”

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