Collaboratives: You have to want to be there

Journalism / Article

In November, Knight Foundation launched a new series on building support for local news organizations. As part of this series, Liza Gross, vice president, practice change at the Solutions Journalism Network, shares her insights on building collaborative relationships at the local level.

Journalistic collaboratives are all the rage, haven’t you heard?

As one presenter at the recent ONA conference in New Orleans quipped, even “used car salesmen are talking about collaboration.”

The hundreds of collaborative efforts currently active or that have been completed in the U.S. and abroad come in all sizes and flavors: there are local, regional, national and international collaborations; there are collaborations on a specific project; there are collaborations to share content for distribution; there are multimedia collaborations and single platform collaborations; there are collaborations set to last a specific period of time, and collaborations that aim to go on indefinitely.

Still, many newsrooms, especially legacy organizations and those not facing pressing financial constraints, resist collaboration, whether out of fear of diluting their brand, reluctance to cede – or at least share – editorial control, or simply because they find the concept too much of a heavy lift with no visible payoff.

Local Media Project
In my role as VP Practice Change at the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), I have now worked for over three years on collaboratives and the concept of collaboration.

Thanks to the support of the Knight Foundation, I am currently leading a team at SJN that is stewarding the Local Media Project. This initiative focuses on a specific type of collaboration that aims to strengthen local media ecosystems over the long term.  The goal of this five-year effort is to establish financially viable, solutions journalism-oriented collaboratives – hubs that successfully build trust in all segments of the communities they serve and stimulate engagement of audiences with news and the public conversation.

This is not collaboration “lite.” A significant level of commitment on the part of participating organizations is required, most prominently a stated desire to embrace solutions journalism, rigorous reporting not only on societal challenges but also on responses that are showing evidence of results.

My team and I spend a considerable portion of our time reflecting on the characteristics that will help ensure a successful collaborative initiative designed with sustainability as a goal.

We are at the beginning of this journey, and there is still much learning to be done. Many elements go into the mix and myriad variables intervene to make a functioning collaborative.

Do You Want to Be There?
However, over the course of our numerous interactions with active and aspiring collaboratives, I have discerned what I would describe as a critical foundational factor. So fundamental, in fact, that without it the path forward does not seem to be possible: You have to want to be there.

This statement may seem a pedestrian tautology at first blush. But confronting this issue, and sorting through it honestly, is the initial key step that will define all subsequent actions and decisions of a collaborative participant.

Delving into uncharted waters is hard work, even when faced with the urgency of a status quo that can be described as precarious (if one wants to be charitable) or flat out unsustainable both in the short and long terms (if one wants to be more blunt).

Here are some indicators that can help anyone contemplating joining a collaborative to determine whether “you want to be there”:

  • A willingness to favor structural transformation over incremental adjustments. Joining a collaborative to keep on doing things the way they have always been done, only now in a group setting as opposed to individually, will not lead to finding meaningful answers to the present troubles afflicting our profession.
  • As a newsroom leader you need to be the first one convinced that what you are doing is valuable and necessary so that your call to action rings authentic. As with any other endeavor, a collaborative will only be as effective as the people involved. Newsroom motivation happens when there is buy-in at the top.
  • A sincere disposition to overcome the newsroom culture’s built-in biases and prejudices. For big, powerful news organizations, this means the belief that they are being asked to “carry” smaller partners who lack resources and journalistic standards. For smaller organizations, it is the belief that legacy organizations are fossilized entities chronically incapable of understanding how to cover large swaths of the communities they purport to serve. If you do not subscribe to the notion that everyone brings something to the table, don’t take a seat.
  • Funding is nice, but it cannot be the only reason to join a collaborative. Everyone can agree that enjoying the opportunity to take the extra reporting trip or produce a podcast is a worthwhile use of cash. The prospect of accessing a pot of money to fill gaps in existing, overstretched resources can be very tempting. But it has nothing to do with a collaborative’s goals to build trust and a sense of common cause among partners that have traditionally viewed each other as competitors.
  • Many news organizations have struggled to gain a foothold among certain audience segments. A collaborative can provide a newsroom a way to reach new groups, particularly communities of color or youth cohorts. But this connection cannot be viewed as merely a one-sided transaction. That perception, true or not, will present an obstacle to building trust among collaborative members and can easily torpedo the whole enterprise.

Increasing Impact
Joining forces to work on a specific editorial project is a worthy plan in and of itself. But a collaborative conceived as a marathon based on a tighter relationship among participants operating in a local media ecosystem also offers the ability to forge connections and develop a sense of esprit de corps in the service of the community these news outlets serve. Ideally, a successful collaborative will enable organizations to become part of a stable, broader network capable of attacking the vast treasure trove of stories that go unreported, misreported or underreported.

In Philadelphia and New Hampshire, solutions journalism collaboratives have already shown their power to increase the impact of their reporting on a given topic, to connect more deeply with audiences, to access resources that are otherwise unavailable, and even to attract philanthropic support beyond the initial funding that set them in motion.

The transformational sea change in the way information is produced and distributed has vastly exceeded our industry’s adaptive capabilities. Added to the erosion of our traditional business models is the “infoxication,” an ingenious term coined by a colleague and friend to describe the proliferation of negative and false content and the overabundance of sensational headlines and click baiting.

As we stand in this moment in time, nobody knows what a newsroom will look like in 20 or 30 years or how it will operate.

Collaboratives are emerging as one very promising response to help journalism remain relevant and even thrive in a democracy. It would be foolish to reject their potential.

Liza Gross is vice president, practice change at the Solutions Journalism Network. She is a journalist and media leader with over three decades of experience working in executive positions at news organizations and nonprofits. She has specialized in the transition of traditional news outlets to multimedia platforms, as well as in the exploration of new and transformational models for media organizations, including collaborative arrangements and innovative techniques of audience engagement. She was Managing Editor of The Miami Herald, Executive Editor of El Nuevo Día in Puerto Rico, and Publisher of Exito!, the Spanish language publication of the Chicago Tribune.