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How news partnerships work: Commercial and nonprofit newsrooms can work together to benefit and change journalism

What is a successful partnership?

In the last decade, nonprofit news organizations have emerged with a model that depends on creative partnerships. At the same time, most commercial newsrooms have seen deep cuts to staffing and resources, leaving them in search of ways to sustain the quality and depth of their journalism.

These forces are pushing many commercial news organizations to be less concerned with competition and more open to collaboration. Increasingly, they are embracing partnerships so they can access nonprofits’ expertise and do great journalism that would be difficult, if not impossible, otherwise.

Collaborations with and between nonprofit newsrooms regularly produce exceptional works of journalism with national resonance and local consequence. The 2017 Pulitzer Prize winners, for example, included ProPublica and the New York Daily News for their joint investigation of nuisance abatement in New York City. ProPublica also won in 2016 for a joint investigation with The Marshall Project. A collaboration between public media station KQED and the Food & Environment Reporting Network is among the 2016 Edward R. Murrow Award winners.

What makes commercial-nonprofit partnerships successful? Can they be replicated? What kind of planning do they require? How do you keep everyone happy? And how are collaborations like this changing how we do journalism?

This paper is part of the American Press Institute’s series of Strategy Studies. It is also part of a body of work by API on nonprofits in news, including guidelines for how nonprofit media and for-profit media should develop their rules for working with funders and partners.

In this paper, I’ll share common features of successful partnerships, outline how they fulfill the needs of commercial and nonprofit news organizations, and offer practical advice on how to get started.

This research is based on more than two-dozen interviews with employees of commercial and nonprofit news organizations, as well as my own experience assembling partnerships at InvestigateWest, a nonprofit newsroom in the Pacific Northwest.

“We need commercial publishers,” said Kirsten Danis, managing editor of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news outlet that focuses on criminal justice. “We need their reach to have the impact we’re looking to have.”

Since 2015, The Marshall Project has worked with The New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, Time, Houston Chronicle, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Virginian-Pilot, Ebony and Vice, among many others.

Commercial television stations such as WGRZ in Buffalo have found success with nonprofit partnerships. WGRZ’s brand is investigative reporting, so when former Buffalo News investigative reporter Jim Heaney announced in 2012 he was starting a nonprofit newsroom, the TV station saw an opportunity.

(Nonprofits) need commercial publishers. We need their reach to have the impact we’re looking to have.

Today, WGRZ pays Heaney’s nonprofit, Investigative Post, to supply about five pieces a month. In 2016, a joint project about Buffalo’s failure to solve most of its murder cases won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting. The nonprofit’s investigation into a multibillion-dollar investment deal, which included video co-produced with WGRZ, spurred a federal investigation.

“This was one of the best working relationships in the interest of journalism I had in my career,” said Jeff Woodard, who was then the station’s news director (he left for a local university in July 2016).

To better understand how you can take on something like this, first consider what our research suggests are the three characteristics of successful newsroom partnerships.

1. Successful partnerships fill a need on both sides

Management at WGRZ wanted to bolster the station’s reputation for watchdog journalism and protect it against competitors in the Buffalo television market. They thought about hiring former newspaper reporters, more and more of whom were in the job market as papers downsized. Then Investigative Post launched, which “gave us an opportunity to expand” the station’s watchdog brand through a partnership, Woodard said.

The two news outlets found each other because they had a shared desire to shine a light on local power players through investigative reporting. But that alignment alone wasn’t enough for a partnership to make sense. “We had to want what they wanted to deliver,” Woodard said. Luckily, it turned out that Heaney had a talent for television along with his nose for news.

The situation at WGRZ isn’t uncommon. Many commercial news outlets are stretched thin, trying to keep up with a relentless news schedule. They can’t always devote editors and reporters to large projects, cover every public meeting, or develop expertise on every complex topic. Some newsrooms lack staff with specific skills, such as top-notch developers and designers, data journalists, or skilled investigative reporters and editors.

Nonprofit newsrooms often specialize in these precise areas.

“What people really look to us for is an expertise in our focus,” said Sam Fromartz, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the nonprofit Food & Environment Reporting Network, a 10-person organization that produces watchdog and explanatory journalism about food, agriculture and environmental health. The organization, commonly known as FERN, has worked with about 46 different media outlets since 2011, including many commercial ones such as The Washington Post, ABC News and Modern Farmer.

(Commercial newsrooms are) short of money, but what they’re really short of is attention span and time. Every editor is overworked.

“They’re short of money, but what they’re really short of is attention span and time,” Fromartz said about the commercial news outlets that partner with FERN. “Every editor is overworked.”

Nonprofit news organizations face a well-known set of challenges too. A key one is reaching a large audience. Nonprofits need their journalism to be widely read to justify their existence, but their own audience is often small. They typically only have a website, not a newspaper or a television or radio broadcast. And it’s hard to build website traffic with in-depth stories that are produced every few weeks rather than every day.

When an Investigative Post story airs on WGRZ, it averages 105,000 local viewers, according to Heaney. “That dwarfs anything we do on the web,” he said.

Reaching a larger audience is why commercial partnerships are at the core of FERN’s strategy.

“We made a conscious decision at the outset that we weren’t going to try to build audience at our own website,” Fromartz said. “We were producing longform work a couple times a month with deeper-dive stories. Once you go that route and you’re infrequent, there’s very little way to drive traffic to your own website.”

Also key for nonprofits? Money. Partnerships can provide a small but steady source of income. An arts nonprofit can charge for painting classes; a nonprofit theater group can sell tickets to performances. Nonprofit news organizations can charge for their content and expertise.

This income demonstrates to private donors and foundations the organization has local support and access to large audiences. That’s when the big checks get written.

The first step toward a partnership is to ask about each partner’s needs. What are the stubborn, hard-to-solve organizational challenges you each face?

2. Successful partnerships have specific goals

In a successful partnership, both sides know the aim of the joint venture and what they have to do to meet it.

With so many examples of successful news partnerships — as well as encouragement from funders to collaborate — it’s easy to skip the goal-setting and jump straight into the journalism. Unfortunately, this is a “Mr. Rogers” approach to things: You’re in my neighborhood, so won’t you be my neighbor?

Being in the same neighborhood doesn’t suffice. You need a specific, shared goal.

News outlets regularly approach The Marshall Project about collaborating. “We’re surprisingly promiscuous. We love to hear from people,” Danis said at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in 2016.

But it’s not enough when “two organizations of goodwill and good intent simply kind of want to work together,” she said. “I think the most successful partnerships we’ve had from organizations are again those that come to us with a project in mind.”

Being in the same neighborhood doesn’t suffice. You need a specific, shared goal.

And vice versa.

Take, for example, “The Next To Die.” The project got started when The Marshall Project decided to engage readers around capital punishment. The reporting would focus on future executions. “The Next to Die aims to bring attention, and thus accountability, to these upcoming executions,” Gabriel Dance, managing editor at the time, wrote in an introduction to the project.

The Marshall Project began to reach out to potential partners in states that carry out executions, in search of local expertise, on-the-ground reporting and a local audience. The seven newsrooms originally chosen as partners (an eighth has since joined) were asked to make an 18-month commitment.

For each upcoming execution, a local partner such as the Houston Chronicle submits a case summary to The Marshall Project’s database. Local partners are expected to follow all executions in their states and write their own stories.

In turn, partner newsrooms get access to a unique database of execution data. They can embed The Marshall Project’s tracker on their site, which shows upcoming executions in their state or nationwide. And local newsrooms benefited from early access to custom-built reporting tools like Klaxon, a now-public tool that notifies users when a web page changes.

“We have a long history of covering the death penalty,” with one reporter assigned to the beat, said Lise Olsen, the Houston Chronicle’s deputy investigations editor who oversees the partnership. The goal of Next to Die is to cover all the aspects of capital punishment that are part of an ongoing, national public policy debate — and even as a large metro newspaper, the Chronicle can’t do that alone, she said.

The partnership has a specific objective. When the project ends, we can ask: Was the public across the U.S. engaged in the issues surrounding capital punishment? Did readers in Houston learn more about the issue than they would have by only following the legal jousting over Texas’ next scheduled execution?

“We went to our participating partners with something to give them and something that we wanted to get from them,” Danis said. “And that’s probably why that was successful.”

3. Successful partnerships enable great journalism

Lastly, successful partnerships enable great journalism that wouldn’t otherwise get done.

People who have been part of such partnerships say they come with unexpected benefits that in the long run are often more important than the expected ones. Collaboration can lead to a cross-pollination of knowledge, ideas, and editorial approaches.

Every newsroom falls into routines, and it’s hard to try something new. Successful partnerships encourage or even force editors and reporters to break those habits. It’s the start of a virtuous cycle that can change entire organizations, driving innovation.

The nonprofit Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is unique in that it brings money to its partnerships with commercial media, providing about $1.5 million in grants a year to journalists and news outlets to support reporting on under-covered stories, especially international ones.

Successful partnerships encourage or even force editors and reporters to break … habits. It’s the start of a virtuous cycle that can change entire organizations, driving innovation.

“Six to eight years ago, [our commercial news partners] never would have considered doing a project with an outside group,” said Jon Sawyer, the center’s executive director. “We were facilitators and enablers, not trying to impose any agenda on them other than really strong journalism.” The leverage the center had was money, which gave journalists freedom to step back from the 24-hour news cycle. The center built a track record of increasingly powerful stories with their partners.

In August 2016, The New York Times Magazine published a special issue, with the Pulitzer Center’s support, called “Fractured Lands.” The issue carried no ads and had just one story, about the collapse of the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq.

“The collaboration represents our largest single grant for a reporting project,”   It included a 40,000-word story, a virtual-reality video that garnered about 750,000 views on Facebook in a month, and a dozen events with journalist Scott Anderson at major universities.

Two markers of success for the Pulitzer Center’s partnerships are enabling great journalism and supporting innovation like the Times’ virtual-reality experience.

These successes have made partners ”more open to doing similar partnerships with others,” Sawyer said. “ProPublica’s in this space, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity.”

In the next section we’ll look at how nonprofit and commercial newsrooms negotiate partnerships to ensure they meet their needs, are specific in their aims, and foster innovative work.

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