By Sam Cholke • Project manager, Solving for Chicago
Starting a new journalism collaboration can be exciting, but it’s important to have a plan in place for the two things that will have the most impact on the effort’s success: who the members are, and what they’re working on together.
Solving for Chicago has recruited 19 member news organizations to cover issues facing essential workers in the Chicago region, and how COVID-19 is reshaping work and employment. With support from the Google News Initiative and Solutions Journalism Network, this Local Media Foundation project has found a prominent place in a media market crowded with collaborations and other journalism experiments.
Newsroom collaboration in some form is now more than 30 years old in Chicago. As news organizations from New Hampshire to Oklahoma start experimenting with collaborations, and they become common practice in journalism, clear lessons from Chicago can benefit others.
One of the best tips is to have a clear plan for recruiting members and selecting the topic of focus.
Finding committed and capable newsrooms to join a collaborative is critical. The constituency of the group will have a heavy influence on the collaborative’s capacities and how it covers the chosen topic.
How long it takes to find the right member newsrooms depends heavily on the size and complexity of the local media market. But there are two counterintuitive factors that can dramatically shape recruitment efforts.
1. The more experience local newsrooms have with collaboration, the longer recruitment will take
The Local Media Association began working on recruiting for collaboratives in Chicago and Oklahoma in the spring of 2020. It quickly became clear that the group in Oklahoma would come together much more quickly than Chicago. Understanding why helped uncover approaches that will work for other places where collaboration has become standard journalistic practice.
“I think every market has its own history when it comes to collaboration,” said Jim Brady, project manager, Solving for Chicago. “Some have had negative experiences you have to overcome, some have had positive experiences you can build on, and some have very little experience collaborating and so react with a combination of excitement and suspicion. Assessing the overall mindset of the market is a crucial first step when trying to plan out launching a collaborative.”
The LMF team approached more than 90 news organizations in Chicago about being part of the Solving for Chicago collaboration. Each one had clear ideas of what does and doesn’t work because most had participated in a collaborative before. News organization leaders wanted to be a part of Solving for Chicago if it built on their previous efforts, and they needed to have input in the process to be sure it was worth their limited time to participate.
Local partners can accelerate this process of adjusting to the local context. Solving for Chicago hired a project director with ties to the local journalism industry and formed a partnership with the Chicago Independent Media Alliance, which had already built a collaboration of more than 40 members focused on business partnerships.
Tracy Baim, founder of CIMA and publisher of the Chicago Reader, said that local representation among the organizers is crucial when there is deep experience locally with collaboration, and was a critical factor in CIMA’s formation.
“The most important thing was the personal reputations between [co-founder] Karen Hawkins and me,” Baim said. “If it had been a person new to town, new to community journalism or an academic institution alone, it wouldn’t have come together.”
2. The more experience local newsrooms have with collaboration, the more flexible the proposal needs to be at the outset
Once a group starts to collaborate on any level, members develop practices and policies that work for them — they have expectations. In Chicago, news organizations know who else they’re comfortable working with, know the rules for shared content that work for them, and know the influence local funders will bring to the work. The proposal to newsrooms in Chicago had clear goals, but organizers’ plans to achieve those goals relied heavily on the experiences of local newsrooms.
All this listening saves time on the back end. Potentially problematic partners were weeded out early on in Chicago. Many of the policies and processes needed to run the new collaborative had already been created and tested by previous efforts. In Oklahoma, those same processes needed to be created from scratch and then tested and adapted to that context.
Collaborative organizers should prepare for managing membership to be an ongoing process. Even mature collaboratives like Resolve Philly in Philadelphia still find vetting to be an important and sometimes lengthy part of adding new newsrooms.
“It’s a very self-selecting group, it’s a group that wants to work together,” said André Natta, former reporting collaborative editor at Resolve Philly.
He said new members often know the reputation and benefits of the collaborative but need to understand the responsibilities and contributions required of members.
“I’m trying to figure out what the business is, what they’re bringing into the collaboration,” Natta said. “There are some folks who want to treat it like an Associated Press wire service and they don’t understand it’s a give-and-take.”
Choosing a topic
Once member news organizations are on board, it can be tempting to rush topic selection to get to the reporting. But selecting the right topic is crucial both for balancing the capacities of partners as well as making sure the reporting is impactful and opens up new opportunities for revenue.
Solving for Chicago developed three simple guidelines for selecting a topic:
1. The topic must be complex. The topic must be too complicated for any single newsroom to cover well on its own. The need for multiple skill sets and perspectives can be met by a broader array of reporters and news organizations that contribute to a deeper understanding of the topic.
2. The topic must be urgent. The urgency must come in part from the dynamic nature of the most relevant information related to the topic, making “news” necessary to understand and resolve issues related to the topic.
3. The topic must be about people. Journalists reporting on the topic should easily understand both the intended subjects and intended audience for the coverage, even when they are working independently on story ideas and selections within their own newsrooms.
These guidelines help ensure the topic doesn’t rely too heavily on the strengths of an individual newsroom or reporter to the detriment of the others. They keep members focused on an issue where journalism is the best tool for the job. Finally, they keep the work centered on the existing and potential audiences that are necessary to have an impact and, through their patronage of the news organizations, bolster revenue.
The Solving for Chicago team used several simple questions in discussions with newsrooms to find potential topics, including, “What topic has changed faster than journalism’s ability to accurately describe it?” and “What communities are we currently struggling to reach?” before deciding to focus on essential workers.
Group discussions among the newsrooms are critical for the partners to feel a sense of ownership and urgency around the topic, but several other voices are important to include in the broader conversation.
Funders will likely want to be part of the conversation about topic selection at some point to ensure it lines up with their own categories for support, and they can justify funding the collaborative’s work. Have a plan for how funders will participate in the conversation, so news organizations maintain their editorial independence.
Involving the community in the topic selection process also has many benefits. It builds early awareness of the collaborative’s work and helps develop sources for the initial stories. It also can give the partner news organizations a sense of mandate and that there is an audience waiting for their work. Community input can be accomplished in many ways, including surveys, town halls or group discussions, and can take time to organize. It is strongly encouraged that new collaboratives consider a neutral outside partner to help in such efforts, such as a library, civic center or other group. Have a plan for how public input will be collected and synthesized into the broader discussion.
These simple lessons can help ensure that a new collaborative is starting off with members that are committed and able to participate fully in the project over the long term. These tips should also be helpful guideposts as you navigate discussions on what topics to cover.
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