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The case for a collaborative project coordinator

bySarah GustavusJan 09 in Collaborative Journalism
Leadership

You’ve identified an important issue and lined up media partners who share your vision for a collaborative project. You’ve had meetings, brainstormed sources and even set deadlines. But who will ensure that everyone stays on track?

Whatever title you use – coordinator, editor or manager – having a central leader who is working with all partners and is focused on outcomes will make your collaboration more successful.  

In 2017, when I was a producer at New Mexico PBS, I teamed up with Antonia Gonzales at National Native News to produce a series of radio and television features that examined grassroots health initiatives in Native American communities in the Southwest.

We had support from a fellowship through the USC Annenberg Center for Reporting on Health and funding to cover travel, but it quickly became clear that the logistics of our multi-state project would require a great deal of additional work. Every week meant new deadlines that had nothing to do with our work as journalists – managing budgets, scheduling flights and composing reports on our progress.

Some collaborative projects rely on reporters and other staff to handle logistics and manage relationships with partner organizations. You can make it work, but I believe a project coordinator or manager is a defining element of ambitious projects. They can help ensure that the reporting load is shared fairly and that deadlines are met, especially if you are working with more than one organization.

In the Collaborative Journalism Workbook, Heather Bryant of Project Facet encourages potential collaborators to discuss goals, potential challenges and roles in the project, including who will lead.  

Whether you work for a national news outlet or a small town paper, you probably have more tasks to do than hours in the week. It’s easy for commitments to collaborative projects to get pushed down the to-do list when you need to cover breaking news, fill in for reporters that leave or attend to other priorities. Your project coordinator can assess challenges and help you and your media partners adapt and adjust your collaboration throughout the reporting process.  

Depending on the structure of your project, consider coordination needs like:  

  • Scheduling meetings and check-ins
  • Helping reporters locate resources  
  • Booking travel
  • Managing reporting expenses
  • Writing grant updates and reports

The Solutions Journalism Network summarizes the importance of a Project Editor for the Reentry Project in Philadelphia, which included reporters from 15 newsrooms, this way in the Collaborative Playbook:

"An independent Project Editor to manage the process and address both individual and collective needs efficiently can be the difference between success and failure. There are an infinite number of details to keep track of in a collaborative project of this size. A Project Editor is indispensable to organize coverage, meet deadlines, ensure there is no duplication of efforts and in general maintain oversight of the process. More crucially, a good Project Editor acts almost as a coach, inspiring and coaxing participants and helping everyone keep the eye on the ball.”

A project coordinator or manager can also help partners agree in advance on modes of communication, like how often they will check in, and how they will handle unexpected challenges that might delay or derail the project. Partners should also agree in advance on how much authority the project coordinator will have. How far can they go to ensure that everyone is meeting their deliverables? What will leaders from the partner organizations do to back up the coordinator if there is conflict?

If you’re thinking of adding a project coordinator role to your team, consider candidates with the following qualities:

Organized – There’s a lot happening in a collaborative project and a detail-oriented project manager will help ensure nothing is missed.

Empathetic – Collaboration can be stressful. A coordinator who can relate to people with different needs will ensure everyone is heard.   

Creative – Every project involves at least a few unexpected challenges. A coordinator who can find creative approaches that meet the needs of multiple stakeholders will be valuable for your team.


Sarah Gustavus is the Mountain West Regional Manager for the Solutions Journalism Network. Prior to joining SJN, she was a senior producer at New Mexico PBS where she worked on collaborative projects covering issues like child abuse prevention, rural economic development and grassroots health and wellness initiatives in Native American communities.