December 24, 2016

More than a month after the election, the following sentence has become a cable news cliché: Journalists in New York and Washington, D.C. are out of touch with the rest of the country.

It’s true. There’s a lot of local nuance that doesn’t make the national news. And it’s even true within cities like New York — growing up in the Bronx often meant watching reporters based in Manhattan getting stories wrong in their own backyard. Without nuance, journalists can’t help Americans understand each other and explain the division currently afflicting the country.

We could blame this on other clichés — “urban versus rural” or “coastal versus ‘fly-over’” — but we risk glossing over the problem until it becomes another full-blown crisis. Rather than searching for a scapegoat, we need a solution that puts local journalists in conversation with their counterparts at national news organizations.

We need more collaboration.

This possibility was raised last month just after the election by Spirited Media CEO Jim Brady, who suggested that news organizations set up a national network in time for the 2020 presidential campaign:

And it should be easy to collaborate with one another, in part because journalists all over the United States are doing it already. That’s why the most logical next step is supporting and enhancing existing collaborations rather than starting from scratch.

This might not be such a crazy idea. During the election, ProPublica teamed up with more than a thousand reporters from news organizations across the United States to suss out voter fraud and long wait times.

ProPublica also recently announced plans to set up an operation in Illinois, which is another step in the right direction. With its first expansion, the nonprofit will bring its model of collaboration and co-publication to regional journalism.

Illinois is also home to another encouraging experiment in collaboration. City Bureau, the successor to Chicago’s old City News Bureau, has multiple partners throughout the community, including the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit news organization.

But I don’t want to pin my hopes for more in-depth partnerships solely on nonprofit organizations. Journalists must also find for-profit solutions to break down barriers of lifestyle, geography and political influence that divide us.

A report released shortly before the election, “The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts,” highlights several challenges local news organizations face as part of that possible solution.

The study, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism, shows that news organizations are being bought by faraway investment groups. Money is their first priority, so many of these investors lay off editors and shutter publications at the expense of quality journalism.

Unfortunately, these problems disproportionately affect local news organizations that employ journalists where they’re most needed. National newsrooms, meanwhile, parachute reporters into these decimated news ecosystems every four years to cover the election.

But imagine how this could change. If the local and regional news ecosystems were healthier, national news organizations could rely on community newsrooms for boots-on-the-ground expertise. And smaller organizations could turn to their national counterparts for specialized help.

Making collaboration work isn’t simply a question of finances, however. It also requires a fundamental cultural shift. News organizations view themselves in competition with one another — for stories, for readers and advertisers. Local news organizations often resent bigger outlets for bigfooting their stories, and national outlets often view smaller publications as cash-strapped backwaters.

If we’re all going to work together, we have to learn to respect one another, and come up with a partnership that’s beneficial to everyone involved.

While the road ahead for collaboration seems rough, it doesn’t mean we should give up. It just means we need to be smarter: National news organizations don’t have to pretend they can be everywhere at once. And local outlets can’t pretend they have all the resources they need to tell all the stories they want.

If we realize that now, we can work together to make our journalism more powerful together.

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André Natta is a journalist and columnist based in Birmingham, AL. He serves as digital media producer for Birmingham, AL NPR affiliate WBHM and performs…
André Natta

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