When News Collaboration Becomes Urgent

(Former INN Executive Director Kevin Davis wrote this article in 2015.)

For years, journalistic culture revered closely held, shoe-leather reporting that drove excellence through a heightened sense of competitiveness. News organizations measured success not in their ability to drive revenues (because that was a given) but in their ability to beat the other guy. Break exclusives. Win awards.

The prevalent thinking was that the people benefited when news outlets competed. It was a time when cooperation with other news organizations was viewed with suspicion and scorn.

Then came the Internet and with it massive disruption in the business models that supported American journalism and which precipitated the greatest gross loss of journalists ever experienced in the profession.

Today, we are more likely to get a news story from an app or website without regard for who wrote it and how it gets paid for. And why not? We appear to have far more news sources today than ever before. Convenience and usability are far bigger deciding factors in where er get our news than trust in the reporter or organization that delivered it.

In response, traditional news organizations have cut back on their dedicated reporting staff and relied more heavily on cheaper, commoditized news from fewer and fewer sources. As a result, the content is less differentiated, less specific to the community that is being served and, therefore, less useful and important. It is a vicious cycle and a sad story that has appeared way too many times on the pages of this publication and others like it.

There is another, viable and increasingly effective way: collaboration.

Nonprofits. Public media. Specialized data sources. Social scientists. Programmers. Database architects. Interactive visualizers. Even community organizations. All sorts of smaller, nimble, specialized service providers are meeting the mission of informing the public by working together cooperatively, creating new and unique products and services and, increasingly, getting paid to do so.

  • The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism (also known as IowaWatch) regularly shares content with the Gazette, a for-profit newspaper based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But its biggest collaborative project started in 2014 when it launched a weekly radio program that airs in more than 20 stations across the state
  • The Center for Investigative Reporting is one of the most successful models in modern collaborative journalism. CIR (and its new brand, Reveal) has worked with major for-profit and nonprofit media such as Univision and PRX to produce hard-hitting stories, broaden its audience and maximize impact.
  • National Institute for Money in State Politics is a top resource that tracks political spending in all 50 states. News organizations all across the board regularly use the institute’s data, essentially saving them the cost of research and FOIA requests.

Certainly, not all of the players in the collaboration economy are nonprofits. There are many excellent for-profit technology and service companies that work equally well in this cooperative environment.

That said, the value proposition nonprofits offer for-profit partners—and vice versa—represents probably the strongest case for ongoing strategic collaboration. In short, nonprofit newsrooms take on the extensive costs and risks in producing investigative and public-interest stories that many for-profit newsrooms can no longer afford (or, at the very least, can no longer afford as much).

For-profit media partners, on the other hand, have something that the nonprofits desperately need to fulfill their mission: an audience large enough for the work to have an impact.

To be sure, collaborations are often unwieldy, can take extra time and may even fail to produce intended results. There are many examples where this model has failed.

However, award-winning nonprofit newsrooms like ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, the Sunlight Foundation and others are proving that collaborations can produce high-quality, high-impact work from which both the public and the partners gain significant benefit.

So, how can we work together?

This post originally appeared on NetNewsCheck and has been republished with permission.