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From AJR,   April/May 2012  issue

Smoothing Out Media Partnerships   

A new Web site hopes to make joint reporting efforts easier to pull off. Thurs., April 26, 2012.

By Bill Braun
Bill Braun (billbraun711@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

It's hardly a secret that these are challenging times for news organizations. Since 2007, more than a dozen metropolitan dailies have closed, and almost all surviving news outlets have endured painful budget cuts.

With resources shrinking, some outfits are finding that ambitious projects are difficult if not impossible to carry out.. on their own. Enter collaborative journalism, not to mention Collaboration Central, a Web site launched by PBS MediaShift.

Collaboration Central, a partnership with the Investigative Reporting Program at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, aims to act as a guide for journalists working on collaborative pieces for the first time.

The idea for the site was conceived by Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS.org. At the time, Hirsch was project manager for Public Media's Economy Story, a collaborative effort launched in 2010 by 12 media organizations reporting on the financial crisis. Having worked on other collaborative efforts prior to Economy Story, Hirsch knew the struggles media outlets often go through when trying to work together.

"I realized it was inefficient for everyone to keep reinventing the wheel in their little pockets," says Hirsch, who now has her own consulting firm. "There needed to be a hub for people to go to."

The idea behind collaborative journalism is a simple, but that doesn't mean it's easy to pull off. Some smaller media outlets pass on big projects because they don't have enough firepower to produce them. Through collaboration, these news organizations can work together on stories, whether it be by splitting the costs of research and reporting, sharing resources or through distribution deals, to provide high-level journalism.

When he announced the site's debut on February 26, Mark Glaser, Collaboration Central's executive editor, called collaboration "a matter of survival" for many media organizations struggling to keep up in the Internet era.

Glaser told AJR, "The idea for the site was to be a kind of resource for people who want to do collaboration to learn how people are doing it..what's gone right, what's gone wrong and what the lessons are."

Collaboration can be difficult because it is such a new concept, one that people need time to accept, Glaser says. For years, journalists and news outlets have seen themselves as highly competitive stand-alone operators. The idea of pursuing a high-impact project in tandem with someone else would have been anathema just a few years ago.

"One of the things that happen when you collaborate for the first time is when you start to wonder how you will manage the process," Glaser says. "You've got reporters at one place helping reporters at another. You need to decide who works on what, and who gets the credit. There are so many different aspects of it that people just throw up their arms and say it's not worth it."

This is where Collaboration Central comes in. The idea behind the site, according to Glaser, is to keep things going when people are ready to give up. He says the site will be a place to learn how collaboration in other fields, such as comedy and technology, could provide lessons for potential media partners.

Glaser says it will include resources, examples, case studies and a section on best practices, so journalists can get all the information they need in one place. He says, eventually, the site will also contain a searchable database of joint efforts.

In the future, he plans to create a section on Collaboration Central that acts as a matchmaker. This service would help reporters, editors and other media professionals find each other to facilitate collaborative efforts.

"We've left it open for people to talk about their own first-person accounts of collaboration and what's worked well for them," he says. "I think if some of [the reporters] begin to link up, they can be really in-depth and cover more geography and get out into multiple media."

And there's no doubt collaboration can pay off, big time. Here's one shining example: In 2009, Sheri Fink, a reporter at ProPublica, the high-profile nonprofit investigative journalism outfit, wrote a 13,000-word piece about Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans and the events that took place there during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The project received financing from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Fink did the reporting while she was at ProPublica.

"It was early in ProPublica's existence, and we believed the story would have more impact if it was copublished with a venerable media partner that had a large and established readership," Fink says. "The New York Times Magazine story editor Ilena Silverman had expressed some interest in the story before I was hired by ProPublica, so it made sense to go back to her with the idea of a partnership."

The piece, titled "The Deadly Choices at Memorial," became a collaborative work involving ProPublica and the Times Magazine. In a letter to readers, Gerald Marzorati, then-editor of the magazine, wrote that "the article has been shaped not only by ProPublica but by Times editors; it passed through the magazine's normal editing process; and it was read and read again by the paper's top management as well as that of ProPublica."

According to Fink, the additional eyes on her work were more a blessing than a hindrance. ProPublica provided editorial, legal and financial support for the research and writing of the story, and the Times Magazine "provided additional layers of editing, fact-checking and lawyering as well as terrific art, design and photography," Fink says. "One of the biggest challenges―working with multiple editors at two very different institutions turned into a big upside, because it meant getting diverse input and guidance from really smart, experienced people. The success of the story is owed to them."

The collaboration paid off handsomely. Fink's piece won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2010 Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma and the 2010 National Magazine Award for Reporting. Thanks to collaboration, Fink's piece was able to reach a larger audience than it would have on its own.

In the past three years, ProPublica has partnered with a variety of media outlets, from well-known outlets like ABC News and the Chicago Tribune to niche publications like Amazon's Kindle Singles. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize for Fink's piece, ProPublica's series on the actions of Wall Street bankers during the economic crisis, published in partnership with Amazon, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

While some might worry the advent of collaboration signals the end of competitive journalism, Glaser is quick to assert that's not the case at all. "I think, in general, there will still be a push to get things first, and there's still so much different media, I can't see them all getting to a point where they are no longer competing," he says. "We don't expect this to be a soft-focus campfire scene with people singing 'Kumbaya' and holding hands."