December 4, 2014

The Pew Research Center is out today with a new report seeking to define what differentiates effective and sustainable news partnerships from the many that launch with a splash and later quietly fizzle.

At Poynter Online, we regularly report on Pew’s prolific series of studies on digital behavior and news industry trends. There is a twist concerning this particular report, however. In collaboration with Pew Research editors, I wrote it.

So this post is mainly to say, if you are intrigued by the topic, take a look.

partner-site-300Our particular focus was to look at five case studies of collaborations that worked and had staying power. Each was, one way or another, many years in the making.

We were searching for business models and an X factor or two that can be of use as experiments in news partnering enjoy a resurgence. That’s a little different from the nitty-gritty of a single successful joint investigative project like the Dallas Morning News/KXAS-TV expose of poor treatment of wounded veterans, my colleague Al Tompkins ably dissected a week ago.

The reporting, writing and editing of the Pew Research report spread over nearly a year.  So I ended up talking at regular intervals with Steve Beatty, editor of The Lens in New Orleans, at a particularly challenging time for the plucky non-profit, which turns five this month..

The Lens went into 2014 faced with a budget shortfall and the need to cut staff. It explored a partnership with local WWNO public radio that was only a partial success. Now it is ending the year on a bright note with two collaborators agreeing to pay for its coverage and good prospects for a major operational grant from a national foundation.

I also became reacquainted with Laura Frank, who quixotically decided she would try to launch an independent, multimedia investigative unit when her employer, the Rocky Mountain News closed in February 2009.  Frank passed through Poynter early on as she planned the venture and has since built I-News from a one-person shop to a unit with a staff of 12.  In  early 2013, I-News became the news department for the PBS station in Denver and its statewide (Rocky Mountain PBS) network.

Quality, high-impact investigative work is the base for growth and win-win partnerships, but I learned from Beatty and Frank what’s even better:  choosing a big investigative topic that triggers community dialogue, sponsored forums and eventual action.

Each has done a showcase data-driven project with the title “Losing Ground” that fits those specs — though on two entirely different topics.  The I-News report was on how Colorado’s economic boom in recent years passed the state’s poorer, minority residents by. The Lens was more literal about “ground,” using mapping and aerial photos from collaborator ProPublica to show dramatic continuing erosion of Louisiana delta lands over decades.

A phrase I heard from nearly every principal in the collaborations was
“win-win.”  Legacy media outlets have come to recognize that they need more quality stories as business pressures have forced newsroom cuts. The old bragging rights standard of “we do it all ourselves” fades by the day — even at bastions like The New York Times and Washington Post.

New non-profits, for their part, (and some forward-looking legacy operations too) critically need wider exposure of their work to build a news brand.

That said, several of the successful collaborations are simple and informal.  Often no money changes hands; nor are there detailed contracts specifying who contributes exactly what.

The slow part is cultivating mutual trust, sometimes starting with small or partly flawed first tries that eventually blossom into bigger collaborations.

In picking cases, we avoided extremely well-chronicled successes like ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost and Voice of San Diego, but four of the five have received attention from outlets like Nieman Labs or CJR or in several earlier Knight Foundation and Pew reports.

The one exception:  McClatchy news chief Anders Gyllenhaal (an incoming member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board) pointed me to an unusual transnational investigative collaboration between the Toronto Star and the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald of Miami.

What common interest could those two news organizations possibly have?  I could tell you, but I would rather again invite you to click to the full report and see.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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