On both sides of the Atlantic, 2016 was the year of editorial collaborations, championed by the US election, Brexit and other political events that reinforced the need for journalists to work together to inform their audiences.

Whether it was local newsrooms working together with national ones, or news organisations approaching universities and civil-rights groups for projects, collaborations in both the US and Europe have covered topics from hate crime and bias incidents, to disinformation surrounding the French elections and voter power in the UK.

So what are some of the incentives for newsrooms large and small to partner, and equally, what are some of the impediments that can hinder the collaboration process?

Tim Griggs is a consultant and advisor to media companies who spent most of his career working as a journalist, as well as leading strategy and product development for organisations such as The New York Times and Texas Tribune. In May, he published research looking at how to make local and national collaborations work in the US for the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, and shared some of his findings and advice in a recent Journalism.co.uk podcast.

"In all my previous roles, partnerships were a really key part of the strategy, be it for distribution and reach, or to do better journalism, or for sustainability and revenue reasons.

"I've always been a big believer that when one plus one equals more than two, you have something really powerful – we can do more together than we can do on our own, often."

'The reason why any type of partnership works is to expand capability or capacity'

For his research, Griggs spoke to local and national outlets who had successfully collaborated, but also to those who had attempted to do so, with varying degrees of success, and those who had shown no interest in working with others.

He said that from a local title's perspective, collaboration can manifest itself in three ways:

  • being aware of national stories and news trends and publishing or aggregating those pieces

  • taking national stories and localising them by providing a local context to country-wide issues

  • working "hand in hand" with national outlets on reporting initiatives

"If you offer something that I don't have, I can either go out and try to develop that skill or hire more people to do the thing that you do. Or I can just work with you and take advantage of the skills and capacity you have, and then provide something that I have that you don't."

For local outlets, collaborations will often mean access to some sort of expertise they don't have themselves, such as data analysis or multimedia storytelling, or the advantages that come with simply being associated with a national title in a byline.

For national organisations, the advantage of working together with smaller newsrooms is reach – targeting communities in parts of the country where they lack a strong presence, or access to "expertise in the form of local knowledge, so 'feet on the street' reporting".

Have a sense of your strategy and try to simplify the collaboration process

Griggs said instances where working together has yielded positive results for both parties have mostly consisted of one outlet approaching the other and saying ''you've done this stuff before, you can provide something that we can't or easier than we can do it ourselves – let's talk".

Newsrooms who are "good at building relationships with other organisations" tend to "do more, better and more interesting collaborative work", and so do those that have a sense of what it is they are trying to achieve by working with someone else.

"Successful partnerships were those where both partners got together early and often in the process to talk about their values, because a lot of these things get derailed when the two parties aren't on the same page, even though they thought they were.

"Same for those that try to make collaboration really easy, without complicated contracts, who have found ways to make connecting with their partners easier by using tools like Slack."

Avoid 'size bias'

So why is collaboration not a regular part of newsroom workflows? The hurdles to reaching out to another outlet to work together differ for local and national titles.

Editors at local outlets might not have the right contacts, or they tend to see partnerships as "daunting", Griggs added, while nationals have a "tendency to want to do it all themselves", because they have more resources, or because they are bound by complex administrative processes required for collaborations to go forward.

"Both [types of outlets] have what I call 'size bias', which means that it's easier to think about working together with enterprises that are of the same or similar size.

"If I'm going to be growing an audience nationally, it will be to my benefit to work with news organisations that already have an audience in those markets.

"And from a national perspective – sure, I can send a reporter to X state to cover the riots there, but it may be beneficial to have a partnership with the local radio station for example, who already has a reporting team on the ground covering that issue."

Collaboration is still quite new, Griggs said, but there are certain aspects that make it more likely for organisations to work together more often going forward. For example, the way readers consume news online now – often going to a national source for local news – and the fact that if national outlets want to reach certain communities "they need to go out and make that happen".

"The US election fundamentally shifted the openness to collaboration – national newsrooms are saying they should get out of the West and East coast bubble and they see that they won't be able to parachute in all the time on their own.

"They need to work with organisations that are already in those parts of the country," Griggs said.

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