How the Resolve Philly collaborative makes news partnerships work: It’s all about the jawn


By Steve BaronLMA Chief Strategy Officer

You have to understand that Philadelphia has a language of its own. Some terms you probably know, such as hoagies. Others are more obscure, like the way Philadelphians call sprinkles jimmies. But the king of all Philly words has to be jawn, defined this way.

The word “jawn” is unlike any other English word. It is an all-purpose noun, a stand-in for inanimate objects, abstract concepts, events, places, individual people, and groups of people. It is a completely acceptable statement in Philadelphia to ask someone to “remember to bring that jawn to the jawn.” — Atlas Obscura 

So when Cassie Haynes, co-director of Resolve Philly, showed up to speak to members of three LMA collaboratives about Resolve’s success and showed the slide below, members of the Oklahoma Media Center, Solving for Chicago, and Word in Black naturally needed to quickly learn what jawn is and how they can have it too.

Resolve Philly grew from a fledgling idea in 2016 to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit employing 16 full-timers and three paid interns with a $2.3 million budget in four short years. The collaborative came together around the idea of reporting on “reentry” — the term for what happens when a previously incarcerated person rejoins society. That successful project led to others, such as “Broke in Philly” and the recently launched “Equally Informed,” a solutions journalism-focused response to COVID-19 coverage.

Cassie Haynes

Haynes

Haynes said Resolve Philly shares everything from content to resources, tools, and more across its partner newsrooms and has an investigative journalist who supports all partners and publishes content both with and for them.

The whole thing works because everyone involved is honest and open with each other, Haynes said. That trust is built by having “transparency in how decision-making, ideally from the very beginning,” and that everyone should “expect value and expect that collaboration is inherently valuable since it is.”

Defining success

One of the significant potential stumbling blocks in collaborative journalism is how to define success.  In practice, collaboration involves many businesses working together in novel ways, working with peers who at one time would have been fierce competitors.

When asked by a member of the Word in Black collaborative to explain more about what success means to Resolve Philly, Cassie Haynes defined success in this jawn:

“We measure success on many levels. Sustainability — both ours and that of our partners. Engagement, with our news products [Resolve has two community-powered news products via its information access initiative, Equally Informed], with Broke in Philly storytelling. Participation in the news production process. Behavior change — we look at individual behaviors and organizational behaviors.”

Expanding voices

The group heard from Michelle Myers from WHYY in Philadelphia, a native of Ecuador who’s “dreamed of being a journalist for as long as she can remember” and loves the way Resolve Philly expands the reach of her content.

‘When you publish a story affecting Latinos on other sites that do not have a Latino audience on it dramatically changes the audience and in the case of solutions journalism, the outcomes.”

Raising money

The one thing Resolve Philly does not do is ask its audience directly for money.

All of the budget that pays for the collaborative comes from larger funding sources in the community rather than from any kind of subscription or membership program.

Friedman-Rudovsky

Resolve Philly’s co-director Jean Friedman-Rudovsky said, “We as Resolve have decided not to go after individual small donations, like membership or broad donation campaigns, because we worry that it would be seen as in competition with many of our newsroom partners who rely on membership as a revenue stream.” Instead, Resolve relies on foundation funding and will launch a major donor campaign next year targeting high-net-worth individuals.

The future

Even as Resolve Philly works to grow support sustainably, foundation funding isn’t the long-term plan for making budget. Resolve provides partners various fee-for-service projects, consulting, and Friedman-Rudovsky said Resolve is building its first tech product connected to “Reframe” (A Resolve Philly initiative around editorial language and framing) launching in 2021.

Resolve Philly continues to break ground in the world of collaborative journalism with big budgets, significant funding, and creating new media jobs in a time when many are disappearing.  It connects content with audiences in new ways and helps make sure dozens of local news outlets in Philly continue to thrive by working with their competitors instead of against them. It’s a model that collaboratives supported by Local Media Association, such as Word in Black, Oklahoma Media Center, Solving for Chicago, and other news collaboratives, can work from in this important new kind of media partnership for 2020 and beyond.

Seven lessons for making news collaboration work, from Resolve Philly

Cassie Haynes, Jean Friedman-Rudorsky and Eugene Sonn shared their advice on the keys to structuring and operating a successful news collaborative.

1. Independent leadership: someone whose sole job is to keep the collaboration together and move forward (for the participants, the partnership will always just be one of many things.)

2. Keep the project manager independent, not housed within any one of the participating news organizations. That role needs to remain an independent entity.

3. Acknowledge the history among publishers in a market, including competition, and be transparent about the process.

4. The project manager must understand that relationships are key. Collaborative participants bring their histories to the project; there may have been competition in the past, etc.

5. Identify a topic focus for the collaboration that minimizes risks of competition, e.g., staying away from stories everyone’s already competing on and away from “scoops.” Really helps to choose a topic focus that mitigates against that competitive instinct.

6. Finding the right champion at each participating news organization, and having their buy-in, is key to long-term success.

7. Be sure everyone understands the value in the collaborative. The same topic treated from all the contributing news organizations’ differing perspectives really does tell a complete picture. Plus, where else can you contribute one story and get 20 back?

LMA Chief Innovation Officer Frank Mungeam contributed to this report.