Trends, solutions and innovations: LMA staff shares takeaways from the 2021 Collaborative Journalism Summit


The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the trend toward news collaborations, according to Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Murray kicked off the three-day 2021 Collaborative Journalism Summit by summarizing key trends from the past year, and looking ahead to coming trends.

The past year saw not only more news collaborations but also an increase in permanent and standalone collaboratives, Murray said. She noted that funding support for news collaborations also grew in the past year. The year 2020 saw collaborations at all levels, from local to national to international.

Looking ahead, Murray identified five trends going forward:

  • Continued sophistication in the structure of collaborations, including the hiring of more project managers
  • More grant applications submitted collaboratively vs. from sole organizations
  • More focus on business-side partnerships, organizational change and diversity, equity and inclusion work
  • A shift in editorial efforts toward more “upstream” collaboration
  • More co-branding and co-marketing projects.

Local Media Association staff gathered more key takeaways throughout the event that offered best practices from a rich array of industry leaders.

Solutions, not just problems

By Frank Mungeam • LMA Chief Innovation Officer

Frank Mungeam

Mungeam

News collaboratives vary in structure and goals. Some focus on business and revenue collaboration; some seek efficiencies in operations through partnership with news organizations that offer complementary platform expertise. For editorially focused collaboratives, one key is to focus on solutions, not just problem reporting, according to Liza Gross of the Solutions Journalism Network.

SJN supports both individual news outlets and editorial collaboratives with training and stipends to help with reporting on solutions, which research shows audiences crave. Gross noted solutions journalism isn’t “feel-good” reporting; it’s a rigorous approach but applied to what’s being done and what’s working, locally and elsewhere.

Gross noted SJN collaborates with newsrooms as “a partner that happens to bring funding” (from Knight Foundation and Ralph C. Wilson Foundation), rather than a founder. In the collaboratives it supports, SJN stresses a rigorous solutions-based approach, a focus on measuring impact, and a prioritization on audience engagement to insure a newsroom “brings these stories to the audience.”

LMA’s early collaboration lessons

By Andrew Ramsammy • LMA Chief Content and Collaboration Officer

Andrew Ramsammy

Ramsammy

Collaboration is hard. Running and managing one collaboration by itself is a challenge. Doing five at the same time speaks to the challenges we seek to overcome at Local Media Association. And those challenges are driven by LMA’s four strategic pillars: business transformation, sustainability for publishers of color, journalism funded by philanthropy, and industry collaboration. The inherent nature of collaboration should stoke an organic diversity of all those goals, but intentionality is still crucial.

It’s essential to recognize that collaborations are, in our eyes, experiments. Each one is unique, different, and unlike the other; hedging of calculated bets. To make that all work, are at least stack the deck in the right direction, we recommend the following:

1. Have buy-in from the very top. It’s each to find a group within a faction that agrees that collaborations are ideal. But even more critical to that is that leadership at the top is bought in completely. Why? Collaboration sometimes requires both a quantifiable and unquantifiable set of “gives and gets” because not all collaborative partners are created equal. Depending on collaborative dynamics, partners take on additional responsibilities, like training, mentoring, and leadership. That requires support. That requires people at the top to see that as a value.

2. MOUs should spell out the responsibilities of all parties. Bringing together various groups inherently brings together differing opinions; this is natural. But one way to avoid conflicts within collaborations is putting down clear roles, responsibilities, and expectations on paper. And as collaborations grow and mature, it is easy to expect that addendums will be required too. Agreements are an essential part of this work and an easy test to see who’s all-in.

3. Dedicated project managers are a must-have, but not necessarily full-time. Herding cats, a phrase often heard in collaboratives, implies a cat herder, someone to shepherd the collaborative through discussions, work, success, and sometimes warts. Having that central figure can keep a collective from losing sight of the big picture while at the same time focusing on the fine details. You’ll be better for it and wonder why you didn’t hire a project manager right at the beginning of the project.

Lightning talks inspires ideas for community collaboration

By Penny Riordan • LMA Director of Business Strategy and Partnerships

Riordan

My favorite session type at journalism conferences is often the Lightning Talks, and this year’s Collaborative Journalism Summit was no different.

Over the course of three days, we heard from 16 speakers on collaborative topics ranging from global to statewide to within one city. Each collaborative speaker had five minutes to deliver a talk, all of which were pre-recorded this year. Here are some of my takeaways from the talks. These are all strategies your newsroom can try, even if you are not in a formal collaboration program.

1. Have you ever done an information gap assessment with your audience? This idea was discussed in several lightning talks, where a news organization surveys audiences to find out what questions they need answered or where they need access they don’t have. This type of listening is central to the work that Outlier Media does with Detroit residents via its SMS/text messaging service. Both the teams at Newark News + Story Collaborative and WHYY in Philadelphia referenced this strategy as a part of their collaboration playbook. The WHYY team created a News and Information Community Exchange, or NICE, to develop grassroots news content creators to share information with their local communities.

What I love about this approach is that it involves local community leaders, who are often distributors of information, in helping to decide what information the community needs. Too often in journalism we assume the audience knows what it needs, instead of asking them.

2. After the killing of George Floyd last year, many news organizations either started or renewed their efforts to partner with an existing Black-led news organization, such as a newspaper or radio station. The Dallas Morning News started a formal partnership with the Black-owned Texas Metro News. The DMN pays the Texas Metro News a consulting fee to have its journalists help with sourcing and story ideas, and the Texas Metro News is also able to re-publish DMN stories for free.

For any historically white news organization looking to start a partnership, it’s important to remember that this can’t be about tokenism or “checking the diversity box.” Cheryl Smith, editor and publisher of the Texas Metro News, said the two news organizations have formed a true, collaborative partnership.

3. Another idea on tracking the results of collaborative journalism was the concept of Collective Impact, which was new to me. The National Council of Nonprofits defines Collective Impact as an intentional way of working together and sharing information for the purpose of solving a complex problem. The New York Times columnist David Brooks also wrote a popular column about this type of work in cities several years ago.

To approach journalism this way, newsrooms need to rethink how they start their investigative or storytelling work, by starting with questions and data from the community first. This approach also lends itself well to collaborative journalism.

Watch the Lightning Talks on LMA collaboratives

In these lightning talks featuring LMA staff and projects, take quick dives into the top-level learnings from our own local news collaboratives.

Sam Cholke, Project Manager for Solving for Chicago shares how to approach topic selection in editorial collaboratives.

Read more about Solving for Chicago

Rob Collins, Project Manager for Oklahoma Media Center, speaks about the Promised Land reporting project and the collaborative.

Read more about Oklahoma Media Center