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4 practical steps to forming news partnerships

So you want to collaborate, but you’re not sure how to begin. Here are four practical steps to get started.

1. Learn who you can work with

It’s easy to name the commercial news organizations in a city or on a beat. It’s harder to find the nonprofit newsrooms and figure out what they focus on. Fortunately, there are several resources that can help you find a nonprofit partner. Here are three of the most popular:

When you find a nonprofit that looks like a potential partner, research it as if it’s the subject of a news story. Read its stories, listen to its podcasts and watch its videos. Review its social media feeds and its annual reports. Check out the organization’s finances by going over its Form 990. Nonprofits must allow members of the public to inspect their 990s, and some post them online. They’re also available through sites like the Foundation Center and GuideStar.

Today, the news operations of Charlottesville Tomorrow and the newspaper The Daily Progress are closely intertwined. Editors talk daily, and nearly all the nonprofit’s stories on land use, transportation and public education end up in print.

The partnership began in August 2009 after cuts had shrunk The Daily Progress’ newsroom by 40 percent over five years. Editors saw what Charlottesville Tomorrow was doing, especially its voluminous election coverage and innovative use of digital formats like blogs and podcasts — things the paper couldn’t do amid the cuts.

“They said, ‘We’ve been watching you for four years,” Charlottesville Tomorrow Executive Director Brian Wheeler said. Charlottesville Tomorrow recounts on its website what led the paper’s managing editor to suggest a partnership:

McGregor [McCance] trusted Charlottesville Tomorrow’s content, and was impressed that the coverage consistently upheld traditional journalistic values such as fairness, balance and accuracy. He also believed the content was highly credible, enhanced because Charlottesville Tomorrow did not take editorial positions on the issues it covered.

“We didn’t set out to help a newspaper become a better product,” Wheeler said. That’s just how it turned out. Eight years and more than 2,000 stories later, it’s an arrangement The Daily Progress can work with.

2. Build on personal relationships

When InvestigateWest began to plan its project to cover environmental issues in the Washington legislature, one of the first people it turned to was Kim Bradford, then the state and local news editor at The News Tribune, a daily newspaper in Tacoma owned by McClatchy.

Bradford knew InvestigateWest’s work from a one-off collaboration several years earlier that had won a national award from the Society of Professional Journalists. And she had professional connections with InvestigateWest Executive Director Robert McClure.

Many successful collaborations are built on these kinds of personal relationships. It makes sense; people like to work with people they know. But there are two specific reasons personal relationships are a key ingredient early on.

First, they enable you to learn about a potential partner’s values and needs. What’s visible from the outside of an organization may not reflect what’s going on inside. When you know someone, you can build the institutional relationship over time. It doesn’t come down to a single pitch meeting.

(Partnerships built on personal relationships) enable you to learn about a potential partner’s values and needs.

“You have more time and opportunities to get to know each other, toss ideas back and forth,” Bradford said.

The News Tribune didn’t join InvestigateWest’s statehouse news project the first year, but Bradford followed the reporting and kept in touch. When it was time to restart for the next legislative session, The News Tribune and its sister paper in the state capital, The Olympian, were the first to sign up. Bradford introduced InvestigateWest to her executive editor and described the kinds of stories the newspaper wanted.

Personal relationships also can act as a shortcut around obstacles or misconceptions, especially where collaboration is a new idea.

Before he joined the Center for Michigan in 2006, Bridge Magazine publisher John Bebow had spent more than a decade in Michigan journalism, including stints at both daily newspapers in Detroit. He knew almost everyone in the industry, including Mary Kramer, his counterpart at Crain’s Detroit Business at the time.

“That familiarity by itself doesn’t provide credibility, but it opens the door for credibility,” he said. “It opens the door for your work to be judged on its face.”

Now the two newsrooms have a growing relationship. “This has been so successful, we’re going to try some new things,” Kramer said last year. Sure enough, the two organizations deepened their partnership in December when Crain’s purchased exclusive, first-syndication rights to all Bridge Magazine stories.

3. Get the support of everyone who will be involved

By the time the stories get published, partnerships can involve digital staff, social media teams, marketers, ad salespeople, lawyers, reporters, photographers, editors, more editors, publishers, and more.

The boss may support the project. But do all those other people understand the goals and vision?

Disagreements can arise over the general direction of a story, expenses, individual editorial decisions, concerns about donors or funders — practically any element of the partnership. A silent objector could screw things up late in the process. Someone who is simply left out of the loop can be equally troublesome. If the line editors don’t trust a partner — for instance, if they believe they’re biased — you may not know about it until they’re editing the stories. By then, it may be too late to salvage the project.

If the line editors don’t trust a partner — for instance, if they believe they’re biased — you may not know about it until they’re editing the stories. By then, it may be too late to salvage the project.

The Marshall Project experienced a rare failure when it undertook a project with a mid-sized newspaper in New England. Editors at the nonprofit figured it would be like its many other collaborations. Instead, it collapsed. Weeks of work to establish the collaboration and start reporting came to nothing.

Two problems had bubbled up. The newspaper’s leadership handed the story to an editor who hadn’t been briefed on it and wasn’t fully on board. “It’s hard to engender sympathy” of some characters in criminal justice reporting, The Marshall Project’s Kirsten Danis said. “This editor just wasn’t buying it.”

For its part, The Marshall Project assigned an editor who came out of magazines to oversee the newspaper collaboration. Her approach and editing process didn’t mesh with the newspaper’s, making it hard to work through differences.

So who needs to buy in? Everyone who could be in a position to make the partnership succeed or fail. Before you charge forward, get input from people throughout your organization to make sure they are comfortable working collaboratively. Invite them to share any concerns they have about working with another newsroom. Ask them when and how they would like to be involved as the partnership moves forward, especially if they don’t have a day-to-day role to play.

Now you have a team behind you.

Then think about what your partner needs to get the same kind of support. What can you do to help them?

Nonprofit newsroom InvestigateWest partnered with independent journalist Kate Willson and Pamplin Media Group, which publishes a chain of Oregon newspapers, to investigate racial disparities in the state criminal justice system.

Think about what your partner needs to get the same kind of support. What can you do to help them?

Publishing the special project on top of regular work put a strain on the Pamplin news staff. But InvestigateWest had worked at the outset to get them interested in the project.

“A lot of early-career reporters who aren’t getting experience on these kinds of projects, we can bring them in,” said InvestigateWest managing editor Lee van der Voo. The nonprofit presented the project as an exciting opportunity rather than extra work for someone else’s benefit.

Consider everyone who will touch the stories. No matter how much work you do ahead of time, the front-line production team is critical for publishing an accurate, properly credited and error-free project. If a byline is omitted because no one told the web producer who to include, that’s annoying but fixable. You have a much bigger problem if a producer or editor — who may not have seen the full project — misrepresents something in a cutline, teaser or social media post.

Lorie Hearn, executive director and editor of the San Diego nonprofit inewsource, said she still has scar tissue from a partner screwup. A television station worked to get something on the air at the last minute and didn’t let her review the final script. From her perspective, they didn’t realize how important that was to the partnership.

“They actually got the story wrong — 180 degrees wrong,” Hearn said at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference last year.

Editors on both sides had long conversations with their colleagues about what happened, but the damage was done. “I just thought, I don’t know that I can trust [them] to try to do this again,” she said. “It didn’t go well and I didn’t feel like there was any kind of good oversight on their side.”

4. Set clear deliverables and deadlines

Journalists aren’t always known for their organizational skills. In an editorial partnership, individual slip-ups can threaten the project.

To avoid this, be as clear as possible about deliverables and deadlines. Talk with your partner about who will be responsible for what work, who will edit it, and how you will coordinate publication. Type up a work plan or recap a conversations in an email. (See chapter 4 for more on this.)

Several editors at nonprofit news organizations said they try to be easy to work with, and they expect the same of their partners. This can be the most important thing in a partnership, said Sam Fromartz, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the nonprofit Food & Environment Reporting Network.

After agreeing on the what and when, there is no such thing as too much communication, even weekly meetings or calls. Editors at The Marshall Project send an email to confirm an initial agreement to work together. Regular phone calls hold people to their commitments and keep the project on track.

Several editors at nonprofit news organizations said they try to be easy to work with, and they expect the same of their partners. This can be the most important thing in a partnership.

“We do it in more of a haranguing way,” Kirsten Danis, The Marshall Project’s managing editor, said. “We’re in so much communication with our partner that there’s time and space for those conversations.”

Interim deadlines are effective. Several years ago, InvestigateWest developed a template for a “story brief” used in all its partnerships. The brief became a mid-stage deliverable, due after the first phase of reporting was complete. Written in the style of a memo, it described the key findings, the results of any data analysis, summaries or links to key documents and records, national context and a source list.

When working with magazine and broadcast partners, InvestigateWest’s story brief included suggested scenes and characters to help them produce their versions of the story. For example, when working with a commercial television partner, InvestigateWest would identify public events where they could shoot b-roll and a list of sources who were ready to go on TV.

The story brief ends up being a project management tool, a document reporters and editors can discuss. It’s especially important if the reporting has uncovered new information or leads in an unanticipated direction. Having it all in writing gets everyone one the same page. And with a deadline, it keeps the project on track.

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