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.
Partnerships are business deals
Good journalism is done by people, and people need to get paid. So let’s be a little indecorous and talk about money.
Nonprofit news organizations typically get about 60 percent of their budgets from foundation grants and another 15 to 20 percent from individual donations. The rest is earned from underwriting, sponsorships, ticketed events, training programs and content sales to other news media. It is indeed their charitable mission to educate the public through journalism, but many of these groups won’t be around long to carry out that mission if they give everything away. (That’s a familiar refrain for commercial news media, too.)
So it should come as no surprise that successful partnerships often involve the commercial newsroom paying the nonprofit.
“This is the same thing that newspapers have done for a long time,” said media industry analyst Ken Doctor. For instance, he said, the Associated Press costs a lot less “than having a fleet of international correspondents and national correspondents.”
Successful partnerships often involve the commercial newsroom paying the nonprofit.
How much money changes hands depends on the players and their circumstances.
The nonprofit Investigative Post had leverage in 2012 when it negotiated what has since grown into a key partnership with WGRZ-TV in Buffalo. More than one local TV station was interested in an exclusive arrangement, and WGRZ wasn’t the first to the table. “When I sat down, I made it very clear I won’t work for exposure,” said Jim Heaney, editor and executive director of Investigative Post. He knew he could meet their need for local investigative journalism, and he knew that journalism was an asset for the station’s business.
“My partner is predisposed toward paying. They see great value; their ratings go up. Who’s not going to pay for that?” he said.
The partnership remains the largest single source of revenue for Investigative Post, and the nonprofit has negotiated increases in its fee since the original contract was signed. Heaney wouldn’t disclose the current amount, saying only that it was between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. That would put it among the largest such arrangements identified in this research.
In Michigan, the annual budget for a partnership between Crain’s Detroit Business and the nonprofit Bridge Magazine is less than $100,000, according to Bridge publisher John Bebow. Most of that goes to the salary of a shared business reporter in the state capital, split evenly between the two organizations. Crain’s pays its half to Bridge Magazine each quarter. Bebow counts it as earned revenue in his annual budget and reports to funders.
Both are long-term, contractual relationships. Partnerships for a single story or a short-term project involve less money, of course — comparable to what a commercial publication would pay an experienced freelancer. I heard a wide range of figures in my interviews, from $100 to a few thousand dollars per story. Stories for a national market command higher rates. Newspapers typically pay the least or nothing at all, even for front-page stories.
Here the money acts as a down payment on the partnership. It shows the commercial newsroom is serious about working with the nonprofit, has an investment in its success and understands its financial needs.
Here the money acts as a down payment on the partnership. It shows the commercial newsroom is serious about working with the nonprofit, has an investment in its success and understands its financial needs. (The nonprofit is responsible for communicating all of this clearly, and when you’re talking money is a good time to do it.) And a financial arrangement commits the nonprofit to make good on its promises, especially if there’s no formal contract.
The Food & Environment Reporting Network, for example, is paid by its commercial partners, generally as much as they would pay a freelance reporter for a story. With more ambitious stories, commercial partners will split the cost of travel and other expenses. “It’s become a bigger and bigger revenue stream for us. They’re getting value,” Sam Fromartz, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, said.
“So many nonprofits do give away their stories,” he said. “Having worked in this business for 30 years, I don’t really understand that.”
There are two common reasons nonprofits give away content. One is valid; the other should cause the nonprofit to do a gut-check.
If a partnership doesn’t include money, it may be a sign that the product offered by the nonprofit isn’t actually valuable to the partner. Some nonprofits do good journalism but don’t solve a problem faced by commercial news outlets. The commercial outlet will take the nonprofit’s stories if they’re free, but if there’s a price tag, they’ll just do without. In this case, it’s time to rethink whether the partnership is worthwhile.
For other nonprofits, however, the benefit of wide distribution outweighs the lost revenue. Several statewide nonprofit news organizations, including the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, distribute their stories for free through local newspaper partnerships. They’ve decided statewide reach is more important than a few hundred dollars per story. That can be a smart strategy depending on the nonprofit’s goals and the case it makes to its funders.
Whether or not money is involved, commercial and nonprofit news partnerships always involve a swap of things of value. The two sides must identify and negotiate the mix of cash, services and resources that add up to a fair exchange.
What do nonprofits value?
Nonprofit news organizations have two goals: Educate the public through high-quality journalism and achieve financial sustainability over the long term.
A key metric is earned revenue. Many foundations that fund journalism require their grantees to have a business plan that includes a diversified revenue mix. They don’t want to be the sole funder of a project or program.
To foundations, earned revenue indicates financial health. It also means commercial media value the nonprofit’s work and they have an interest in the nonprofit’s long-term success.
So collecting even a small fee can be important for a nonprofit.
Nonprofit news organizations have two goals: Educate the public through high-quality journalism and achieve financial sustainability over the long term.
For example, Vice News pays The Marshall Project for each installment of “Life Inside,” a weekly series of first-person essays about the criminal justice system. Vice pays $2,000 a month, fact-checks the stories and often provides illustrations. With more experience in digital news (along with data to back up their decisions) a Vice editor often writes the headline used on both sites.
No money changed hands when the column first began; it was treated as an experiment. After the series gained traction, The Marshall Project asked Vice to start paying for it. People often wonder if a nonprofit can ask for money after giving something away; this shows it can be done.
Many nonprofits raise money through matching-gift challenges, in which a donor pledges a gift if the nonprofit can raise a certain amount on its own. Revenue from partnerships can help meet those goals.
But nonprofits are interested in more than cash.
In Virginia, nonprofit Charlottesville Tomorrow and newspaper The Daily Progress co-publish a guide to local general elections every other year. The guide began as a project of Charlottesville Tomorrow. Today, as part of a partnership agreement, the newspaper designs, prints and delivers it to the post office — all at its own expense.
Charlottesville Tomorrow saves on production costs, but the guide also provides publicity and fulfills an important part of the organization’s mission. In return, The Daily Progress can run any of the nonprofit’s articles. Often Charlottesville Tomorrow has the only coverage of city planning, transportation, and certain education issues.
Still other nonprofit newsrooms use partnerships to access the resources of a larger news outlet for an ambitious reporting project.
When Seattle-based nonprofit InvestigateWest worked with The New York Times in 2013 on a story about an antipoverty program in Alaska, the Times supplied the art. The newspaper flew a photographer to the remote west coast of Alaska; the photos ran in the paper and on the InvestigateWest website. The Times not only filled a gap in InvestigateWest’s journalism (the nonprofit didn’t have a staff photographer) but also paid the substantial cost of travel.
Other nonprofit newsrooms use partnerships to access the resources of a larger news outlet for an ambitious reporting project.
The Marshall Project’s collaboration with the Times on a story about prisoner transport in 2016 had the same arrangement. At the local level, The Colorado Independent, a nonprofit, has relied on the staff photographer from the for-profit Denverite to illustrate some stories published on both sites.
Finally, small, nonprofit newsrooms value access to a larger group of editors and reporters at commercial partners.
Bebow of Bridge Magazine said Crain’s has the best business journalists in Michigan, expert at editing and developing story ideas. Bridge also excels in that area, having won Michigan’s Newspaper of the Year in its category two years in a row, but it doesn’t have much bandwidth.
Their partnership allows Bebow to tap Crain’s leaders for their management acumen. “I’ll talk with Crain’s: How do you manage this situation in your newsroom?” he said. For a small nonprofit especially — Bridge has nine employees and Crain’s has three times that — that’s an often overlooked benefit to a partnership.
What do commercial outlets value?
Commercial newsrooms are in the sales business, making money by selling to subscribers and advertisers. Partnerships with nonprofits are one way to increase the quality of their product while reducing or keeping flat the costs of reporting and production.
“Newspapers are still profitable despite having lost 60 percent of revenue. They’ve done it by cutting back,” said media industry analyst Ken Doctor. “That profitability is supported in part by this developing network of nonprofit providers of low-cost or no-cost content.”
It’s certainly one way to deal with tight budgets.
Partnerships with nonprofits are one way to increase the quality of their product while reducing or keeping flat the costs of reporting and production.
“In our case, we provide a product for a fraction of the cost than if they had done it in-house,” said Steve Myers of The Lens, a nonprofit newsroom in New Orleans.1 Partnerships at The Lens have included local television and newspapers as well as The Nation and Weather.com.
Commercial outlets want to know they’ll get stories in a format that works for their platforms, ideally accompanied by supporting photographs and graphics. They want to know the nonprofit will deliver what it promises, on time. This is especially true of commercial outlets with a daily production cycle, whether it’s print, digital or broadcast. A good nonprofit partner understands and supports the “daily manufacturing process,” Doctor said.
In October 2016, the San Diego nonprofit inewsource announced a partnership with CBS 8 and immediately changed its editorial workflow to deliver broadcast-ready content. “We can’t give them anything that doesn’t have video,” said Brad Racino, who oversees partnerships and innovation for inewsource.
It’s not enough to do good journalism. Often overlooked, logistics can cause partnerships to fail when either side comes up short.
The hardest partnerships at InvestigateWest were when one of the two sides didn’t make it easy for the other to work with them. Like many nonprofit newsrooms, InvestigateWest has employed a rotating cast of part-time reporters, interns and full-timers who share editorial and fundraising responsibilities. That’s hard on partners, who want to know whom they will be working with. Meanwhile, InvestigateWest ran into trouble when a partner didn’t communicate how decisions were to be made. Uncertainty — whether a steady stream of new faces or a new voice late in the process — makes it hard to work together.
Finally, while commercial newsrooms have different needs than nonprofits, they too value high-quality journalism. Every journalist I spoke with at commercial newsrooms praised the quality of the work produced by their nonprofit partners.
When The Marshall Project and the Houston Chronicle began work on “Next to Die,” the death penalty project, the nonprofit’s reputation was a selling point. Capital punishment and the appeals process can be hard to get right, even for experts.
While commercial newsrooms have different needs than nonprofits, they too value high-quality journalism.
“We already knew The Marshall Project would be a reliable, ethical partner. We weren’t going to have to worry about fact-checking,” the Chronicle’s Lise Olsen said. “We knew this was a partner that would uphold our own standards.”
In Washington, The News Tribune and The Olympian were covering state government less than they used to, especially environmental and healthcare matters. (The sister papers, owned by McClatchy, share many resources.) The health care beat had fallen by the wayside during cuts and had never been reassigned.
“We knew that there were some holes in our game,” said Kim Bradford, then the state and local news editor at The News Tribune.
By traditional digital metrics like engagement and pageviews, their state government reporting didn’t do that well. But Bradford believed in the value of covering the legislative process, and she wanted to find a way to keep producing it. She found her answer in a partnership with InvestigateWest.
“There’s some stuff you do because it’s accountability; it’s possibly going to lead to change,” she said. “You can measure worth that way too.”
Throughout the 2016 state legislative session, the two newspapers shared their reporting plans. Each week, they published stories by InvestigateWest reporters. The partnership, which provided revenue to InvestigateWest, improved the newspapers’ statehouse coverage through big-picture enterprise stories, analyses and deep reporting.
“For the best editors and the best publishers,” Doctor said, “they value the journalism that they’re able to offer their readers that they’re otherwise unable to pay for.”
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:
- The Institute for Nonprofit News provides training and support to its membership of mission-driven news organizations. The INN member directory, which includes about 120 organizations, allows you to filter by state and editorial focus.
- Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) represents independent news sites at the city or state level, including commercial and nonprofit newsrooms. The LION member directory has more than 130 local publishers.
- Media Impact Funders and the Foundation Center maintain a geographic database of which nonprofits have received grants for media. You can search by state and topic. Not all of the grantees are nonprofit newsrooms, though.
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.
Key issues to discuss before you embark on a news partnership
While the news is unpredictable, news partnerships don’t have to be. John Bebow, publisher of Bridge Magazine, said there haven’t been any knotty moments in his partnership with Crain’s Detroit Business.
“I know this sounds like sunny bullshit,” he said. “Part of the reason is, we sat down and negotiated every last detail.”
That was wise, given the nature of the deal: a shared business reporter in the state capital. They had many conversations about issues such as whom the reporter would answer to and whose payroll she would be on. They developed a job description together and agreed on whom to hire.
“That setup work is really important. It’s so much more important to do this up front well, rather than quickly,” Bebow said.
At The Marshall Project, managing editor Kirsten Danis learned a lesson about prep work after a newspaper partnership broke down. “We never sat down with them, although this newspaper was not far away from us. We could’ve done it,” she said. If she could do it over, Danis said would have met with everyone first and reassigned the project when relationships became rocky.
It’s not always obvious when a collaboration is failing. One sign is when you see pushback from people whose support is needed, such as editors or even the reporters themselves. They may ask questions about the direction of the story or who’s making decisions. Other times, problems stem from a mismatch of priorities: One newsroom is very focused on the project, but it’s on the back burner at the other.
You can head off many problems with good planning. Here are some questions you should address. Put the answers in writing.
1. Roles and responsibilities
On the editorial side:
Who is responsible for the reporting, the writing and the editing? If there are disagreements, who makes the final decision? How will people share their work with others?
How will the partners decide which stories and topics to pursue? Who will participate in editorial meetings?
How will the editing work? How much time does everyone have to review drafts or rough cuts? Will one organization’s style guide prevail?
What are the interim deadlines for the project? What’s the target publication date? Is it flexible? What happens if you change it?
When the partners are on different platforms: Will a print or digital reporter hand off interviews to a reporter or producer at a television station, or will they conduct interviews jointly? Which interviews need to be on tape for a radio partnership, and how will they be handled?
Jeff Woodard, the WGRZ-TV news director who set up its partnership with Investigative Post in Buffalo, said the nonprofit’s staff didn’t have any experience shooting or editing video when they started. WGRZ had to work with them on writing for television, too.
On the business side:
If money has to be raised for the partnership, who will raise it? If the nonprofit embarks on a crowdfunding campaign, will the commercial partner support it with staff time, marketing or a contribution? If two outlets share a staffer, whose payroll will the reporter be on?
Who will make sure non-editorial support is provided, if that is part of the agreement? For example, who controls access to facilities? Who will create promotional material such as teasers and house ads?
2. Chain of command
The chain of command in partnerships depends on the circumstances and people involved.
One model is to put a single person in charge. If you do that, make it perfectly clear, said Ken Foskett, senior editor for investigations at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference last year.
“My own personal philosophy,” he said, “is you should really try to make decisions as collaboratively as possible with the team that you have. But everybody also needs to understand that there is one person that gets to make the final decision.”
Another model is to give each partner veto power over what gets published or broadcast on its platforms and social channels. That’s how it works in Buffalo between Investigative Post and WGRZ.
My own personal philosophy is you should really try to make decisions as collaboratively as possible with the team that you have. But everybody also needs to understand that there is one person that gets to make the final decision.
The content belongs to Investigative Post, Woodard said. But the TV station “had the right — we never used this while I was there — to kill that and not put it on air.”
The other key person to identify is the project manager, who is usually different from the person who sets the editorial direction. The project manager on a partnership watches deadlines, manages communications and makes sure everything runs smoothly.
“I kept track of what the different partners were doing, whether or not we’d talked to particular sources,” said Lee van der Voo of InvestigateWest, who managed a collaboration over the last year with Pamplin Media Group, a newspaper publisher in Oregon. “I was manning the relationships, setting up the meetings, writing the [agreements] for all the partners,” she said.
Sometimes the project manager will have a counterpart or a point of contact at the partner organization. A nonprofit newsroom with a track record of partnerships often has experienced staff who can manage the project for both organizations. Some, like The Marshall Project and inewsource, have a team member dedicated to ensuring partnerships succeed.
Has someone estimated how much the project will cost, and have both sides signed off on it? What will happen if costs exceed expectations or the scope changes? Is there a maximum commitment?
If money is changing hands, when will that happen? Who will pay the writer and photographer? What about travel expenses? Infographics or digital features?
If one side is providing in-kind support, how much is it valued? When will it be made available?
Who owns the copyright to the content? What rights does each partner have to it? Do you need to account for obligations to third parties, such as exclusive distribution agreements?
Nonprofits typically will want to secure the right to publish jointly produced stories, photographs and other material on their site and in the future. Oftentimes they will use portions of these stories in fundraising and marketing, so that may need to be addressed up front.
The nonprofit ProPublica licenses most of its stories under Creative Commons for others to freely distribute, but retains some pieces as exclusives for its commercial partners.
InvestigateWest hung posters of front-page stories at its live events, and its fundraising brochures featured photography from major stories. The Food & Environment Reporting Network (also known as FERN) published an anthology with sixteen of its best stories from 2011 to 2016, which would’ve been harder to do if it hadn’t negotiated all along for that right.
These issues aren’t addressed in a standard freelance contract that treats a story as a “work for hire.” You need an agreement that allows each partner to retain ownership of original work and licenses publication and usage rights for jointly created work.
“When you’re writing a contract, the lawyers don’t always get that,” said Sam Fromartz of FERN. “We’re ready to walk on that issue.”
5. Marketing and branding
Decide how you will market the partnership. Does it require its own branding and logo, and if so, who will handle that? Will one partner take the lead on marketing or will each handle it independently?
One key consideration is how each side will be credited. Don’t wait until you’re ready to publish before you decide this.
“We want some recognition in terms of credit with the story, so that it’s described as a collaboration of FERN and whatever media company it is,” Fromartz said.
You can avoid an oversight on deadline if you share something in writing with TV producers, the social media team, on-air talent, page designers, and web producers — particularly if weeks or months have passed since the initial agreement.
These questions are all the more important because commercial partners usually have greater name recognition than the nonprofit. Jim Heaney of Investigative Post said TV viewers often think he works in WGRZ’s newsroom. That happens even though the station identifies Heaney and other Investigative Post journalists with lower-thirds and the nonprofit’s logo whenever they are on air.
Best practices for partnership agreements
Here are a few actual agreements that show how partnerships are negotiated and formalized.
Charlottesville Tomorrow and The Daily Progress
The contract between these two Virginia publishers spells out several deals: an editorial collaboration, advertising, printing and distribution of an annual report, and biannual local election coverage.
Advertising and marketing:
Bridge Magazine and Crain’s Detroit Business
This contract covers intellectual property rights as well as a number of other topics:
- The reporter would be jointly interviewed and hired.
- The reporter would be employed by Bridge but would report to Crain’s. Major projects would be jointly planned by the reporter, Crain’s and Bridge.
- Crain’s would pay half the cost for the shared reporter, in quarterly payments.
- The reporter would work in the Bridge office in Lansing but do orientation in the Crain’s newsroom and work one or two days a month at its office in Detroit.
- Crain’s editors would set performance goals, such as a weekly print column and a certain number of breaking news stories.
- It included details about how and when stories would be posted on each partner’s site.
InvestigateWest’s contracts weren’t as extensive because most of its partnerships dealt with individual stories. A typical contract, such as one with the KING 5 television station in Seattle, addressed the scope of work, ownership, credit, publicity and payment:
Institute for Nonprofit News
INN offers a standard publication agreement that its members can use in drafting their own. The INN agreement spells out publication date, contractual limits on third-party edits, licensing fees and the scope of publication rights.
Food & Environment Reporting Network
FERN’s standard contract offers limited exclusivity to its partners (typically 30 days), during which the story can appear only on the partner and FERN’s sites. After that, publication rights are nonexclusive.
The contract also lays out basic expectations about marketing and promotion of the story, as well as the author’s media appearances, so FERN can track their impact and derive some benefit from them.
The contract describes the process for pre-publication editorial review and approval and what happens if there’s an intractable disagreement.
Do you need a lawyer?
The short answer: It depends.
The longer, more lawyerly answer: Your individual circumstances and the scope of the partnership will determine whether you need to bring in a lawyer to draft your partnership agreement.
The partnerships in this report represent a mix of contractual and informal arrangements. For a partnership involving a single story or project, an agreement by email often suffices.
The stakes are higher in long-term partnerships, so it’s helpful to have lawyers review or draft a contract. Lawyers should get involved for agreements that involve a substantial amount of money or a joint hire.
If you’re a nonprofit and you don’t have a lawyer on retainer, local law firms sometimes will provide pro bono services. The Institute for Nonprofit News has a page with legal resources.
Getting the right level of detail in an agreement
How much detail do you really need? Here’s are best practices based on our research.
Lay out your plans in an email if:
- It’s a one-off collaboration.
- It is just a distribution deal.
- You’ve worked with the organization before.
- There’s just one editor involved on each side.
- There’s just one reporter involved.
A letter of agreement is good for key details if:
- There will be reporting expenses.
- Stories will run in more than one format.
- You’ve worked together before, but it could it have gone better.
- Money is changing hands.
- More than one reporter is involved, or more than one editor is involved on each side.
A contract sounds like a good idea if:
- A lot of money is changing hands.
- There are a lot of reporting expenses.
- There is legal risk with the story.
- You’ll be sharing an employee.
Nurturing a partnership
The best partnerships between nonprofit and commercial newsrooms do more than outsource reporting or increase distribution. Over time, they change how news organizations do their work — and that makes these partnerships critical to how journalism is produced today.
John Schrag, executive editor of Pamplin Media Group, which publishes two dozen community newspapers in Oregon, said he’s stunned more news outlets don’t collaborate.
Over the last year, Pamplin partnered with the nonprofit newsroom InvestigateWest and independent journalist Kate Willson on “Unequal Justice,” a series of investigations into racial disparities in Oregon’s criminal justice system. It was a major undertaking: Reporters analyzed 5.5 million charges over a decade to understand how policing affects communities of color.
Willson and InvestigateWest brought the data and analysis to the newspaper chain, which contributed a project editor and significant reporting. Pamplin continues to publish stories in its largest paper, the Portland Tribune.
If we want to do good journalism, we can’t do it by ourselves anymore.
“If we want to do good journalism, we can’t do it by ourselves anymore,” Schrag said. “For the first time in a long time, I’m really hopeful about the future of journalism.”
Partnerships like this can be an opportunity for newsrooms to learn because they encourage editors and reporters to step outside their news production processes. InvestigateWest and Pamplin each came to the project with their own way of doing journalism. The nonprofit serves the entire Pacific Northwest with a small digital staff, while Pamplin publishes newspapers in western Oregon as well as the twice-weekly Tribune. “Unequal Justice” is a blend of the two approaches: deeply analytical, with the cadence of community news.
The combination had a surprising result. Two of the Portland Tribune’s most popular stories this spring were part of the “Unequal Justice” series. They were about Latinos being disproportionately charged with motor vehicle violations. Both focused on cities outside Pamplin’s typical footprint.
“For us, it was a lesson that there’s an audience for good journalism in our publication outside of Portland,” Schrag said.
Pamplin and InvestigateWest are now talking about their next project.
A Michigan partnership between Crain’s Detroit Business and Bridge Magazine is a case in which collaboration even more fundamentally changed two newsrooms. The reporter they hired last year (and whose salary is split between the two news organizations) produces more than the average Bridge reporter. That’s partly because she writes a lot of daily stories about the state legislature, said Bridge publisher John Bebow.
“But she also does really deep reporting inspired by Bridge’s deep reporting ethic,” he said. That has proved so valuable to Crain’s that it purchased the right to republish all of Bridge’s stories before anyone else, starting this January.
“No medium has enough revenue to support a newsroom the way it would like to, so we have to get smarter about collaborations,” said Crain’s group publisher Mary Kramer.
An initial partnership can lead to further collaboration
Once two newsrooms are comfortable with each other, they often find ways to collaborate outside the initial arrangement.
Last year, for instance, Bridge Magazine received a tip that Dow Chemical Co., one of Michigan’s largest employers, was being courted by other states. Two reporters were put on the story, the one who works for both newsrooms and another who works just for Bridge. By working their publications’ respective sources — one in government, the other in business — they had an exclusive story two days later.
In most newsrooms, reporters try to look into tips while they’re juggling other work. But they don’t have time to dig into everything, especially as newsrooms get smaller. Some tips get buried on their desks or in their inboxes.
Newsrooms that work together, however, have a collaborative mindset. Editors know whom to contact, they know the quality of their partner’s work, and they trust them. Their reporters are not only more comfortable sharing tips with their counterparts in the other newsroom, they have an incentive to do so.
Newsrooms that work together, however, have a collaborative mindset. … Their reporters are not only more comfortable sharing tips with their counterparts in the other newsroom, they have an incentive to do so.
Let’s say one newsroom doesn’t have time to look into a tip. If it passes it over to a partner and the tip pans out, the first newsroom can decide if it wants to contribute reporting and co-publish. Even if it doesn’t help out, it could still share credit on the story.
All this is more likely when newsrooms have a system in place for working together.
The shift from a single partnership to ongoing collaboration is so natural, there are many examples around the country.
The Marshall Project took a tip from one of its partners, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and developed it into a story with The New York Times, another partner. “Inside the Deadly World of Private Prisoner Transport” started with a prisoner found dead inside a van in Georgia. That death wasn’t a major story, but it led to an investigation into 26 states where corrections departments outsource transportation to for-profit companies.
The success of “Unequal Justice” led to immediate talks about further collaboration between Pamplin and InvestigateWest. The stories had such an effect, “people at the top of the company really noticed. Even the top-tier management,” said InvestigateWest managing editor Lee van der Voo.
This is when the investment in a partnership really starts to pay off. “It’s not an anchor around your neck; it’s an opportunity,” Bebow said.
How partnerships can flourish
The first time a commercial and a nonprofit newsroom work together, the stakes are usually low. They’re typically looking to fill a particular need: distribution for their stories, a hand in reporting or specialized knowledge.
The stakes were certainly low in Buffalo when nonprofit Investigative Post signed its first contract with WGRZ-TV. Under the first contract, Investigative Post would supply a dozen on-air stories. It was the single largest revenue stream for the startup nonprofit, but if it didn’t work, the contract had an expiration date, and Investigative Post had other potential partners. The risk was small.
Five years later, Investigative Post’s staff has grown along with its contract with WGRZ. The four-person newsroom now includes a veteran environmental reporter and two talented young investigative journalists.
“I don’t know where I’d be without Channel 2,” said Investigative Post founder Jim Heaney. “I wouldn’t be nearly as successful.”
From the TV station’s perspective, former news director Jeff Woodard said, “For the cost of one halfway decent reporter, we get an entire team of reporters on Jim’s staff. … As he built his staff and asked for more, the proportion was still outstanding for us.”
Starting with that first deal, Heaney and management at the TV station developed a relationship deeper than the one on paper. When issues arise with a story, they can work it out. Occasionally a city official will call station management to try to influence a story or complain about Investigative Post’s reporting. The station defends the reporting every time, just as it would with one of its own reporters, according to Woodard and Heaney.
The first partnership between The Marshall Project and Vice News resulted in a single story on the prison system in Germany. Then The Marshall Project proposed a weekly column, which became “Life Inside,” co-published by both outlets. Once it was successful, Vice started paying for it.
The Houston Chronicle sees its partnership with The Marshall Project on “The Next to Die” as something to build on over time. “We’re thinking down the road we can find other opportunities to work together,” said Lise Olsen, the Houston Chronicle’s deputy investigations editor who oversees the partnership.
As partnerships grow, new problems can arise
Deeper collaboration and increased reliance on each other can spur fresh conflicts.
When these disagreements are about the journalism, they won’t threaten the relationship — as long as the two sides have built up some trust. Pay attention, though, when the disagreement is about the nature of the partnership itself and the value exchange.
News organizations aren’t static; the things they need and offer change all the time. A new editor, even if she’s not the boss, can decide to take things in a different direction. What felt like a fair deal at first could feel unbalanced later, particularly if one side isn’t seeing the benefits it expected. Sometimes the balance of responsibilities isn’t as equally distributed as envisioned.
The Food & Environment Reporting Network, for instance, is shifting its approach to partnerships since the organization has matured.
“It’s really hard to sell stories story-by-story,” said Sam Fromartz, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. That’s how it’s always been done at FERN, and it made sense when it was new and unfamiliar to commercial news outlets.
Deeper collaboration and increased reliance on each other can spur fresh conflicts.
But as the organization has grown, both in the number of stories it publishes and the number of partners that want to work with its writers, that type of partnership doesn’t scale particularly well.
“What we’re trying to conceive now,” Fromartz said, “is partnering on series, or several stories on a related topic that work for them and for us.”
Other complications can arise from bringing in too many partners. You can get wider distribution and more resources with more outlets, but you also have to figure out how to best serve everyone. And it’s harder to maintain an equal value exchange.
For instance, for the 2017 legislative session in Washington, InvestigateWest partnered with just one news organization for its statehouse reporting project rather than several as it had in previous years. (There were several reasons, including the fact that its executive director was on a fellowship.) The nonprofit found that having multiple partners made it harder to coordinate coverage and demonstrate value.
InvestigateWest’s partnership with Pamplin Media Group was originally a three-newsroom arrangement, but the broadcast partner dropped out. Pamplin’s John Schrag thinks that was a good thing for the collaboration, especially because it was his first time editing a project with another news organization.
“I support everything InvestigateWest did. Adding a third editor to the mix, it would complicate things. I don’t know how far this collaborative process could go,” he said.
Veterans of partnerships shared these tips to nip problems in the bud as you cultivate a relationship:
- Follow through on commitments
Partnerships are often hard on reporters, producers and editors because they require them to do their work differently. They need to know that the people they’re working with are diligent, responsible journalists who are equally invested in the success of the project.So be the kind of partner you want to have. Demonstrate that you deserve your partner’s trust by following through on commitments. In business, the axiom is that the customer is always right. Treat your partner as your customer and strive to do right by them.
- Focus on the opportunity
Partnerships are a way to say “yes” to ambitious projects you would normally have to turn away. That means they are going to be challenging and not at all routine. When you’re working through rough patches, remind yourself why you’re working together in the first place. Think about how your readers, your newsroom and your community will respond when the project is published.
- Talk about your wins
When a partnership goes well, talk about it. Hold a brown bag, stream a conversation on Facebook Live, or even organize a public event that brings together the audiences of both organizations to hear from the reporting team.Partnerships are a bright spot in media right now, often accomplishing important journalism that has an impact and makes communities proud. Tell that story loudly.
Today, partnerships between commercial and nonprofit newsrooms provide an opportunity to innovate and dive deep; to deliver meaningful, relevant, and well-reported coverage to their communities; and to make the most of limited resources. That’s why more and more news organizations of all kinds and sizes are looking at partnerships.
When Bridge Magazine’s John Bebow worked at newspapers, the core value was competition. “It was all about the exclusive,” he said. “It can’t be about the exclusive any more. That model is broken. We’re trying to change it.”
The nonprofit Charlottesville Tomorrow and its newspaper partner The Daily Progress recently won top awards from the Virginia Press Association in their respective divisions. “What that means is our newsrooms produce the best journalism,” said Charlottesville Tomorrow Executive Director Brian Wheeler. “What that means for residents is getting the best news coverage possible today.”
Once upon a time, news outlets around the country had business models that allowed them to regularly produce award-winning journalism. More and more, this level of work first requires commercial and nonprofit media to find creative ways to work together. Successful news partnerships solve a business problem, allowing news organizations to do their best work.
In Charlottesville, that partnership has “allowed us to make sure the amount of civic media about local government is growing, not shrinking,” Wheeler said. “That should be equally mind-blowing.”
Special thanks to everyone who contributed their insights to this report: John Bebow, Kim Bradford, Sue Cross, Kirsten Danis, Ken Doctor, Sam Fromartz, Jim Heaney, Lorie Hearn, Mike Kanin, Mary Kramer, Steve Myers, Lise Olsen, Brad Racino, Jon Sawyer, John Schrag, Matt Taylor, Lee van der Voo, Brian Wheeler, and Jeff Woodard.
- Editor’s note: Steve Myers helped edit and direct the production of this study for API. ↩