If you’re like me, a journalist at a small publication, you likely have a mental list of deeper stories you’d like to go back and write someday — ideas that have built up over months or longer.
It’s challenging to ever get around to any of them.
In Las Cruces, New Mexico, we’ve worked to build a collaborative model in recent years that’s allowed our newsrooms to tackle some big projects, including a recent, solutions-focused investigation of our community’s inadequate behavioral health system.
Here’s what I’ve learned from those collaborations:
You need a diverse team of partners. Plan a project that has defined and important roles for each participant to increase participation, and set clear expectations to ensure that everyone is committed to the project and sees it through.
Building a multimedia team — including print, online, radio and television — will force you to consider new storytelling techniques and to learn from each other. A team with diverse areas of expertise will spark creativity and build camaraderie. It is also critical to ensure that your team has racial and gender diversity in order to bring different perspectives to the table, which makes for a better team, and better journalism.
You need money. In order to accomplish a months-long collaboration, you may have to work outside your day job, but you shouldn’t do extra work without getting paid. If your employers can’t — or won’t — pay for your time, find a grant to ensure that everyone who is working extra hours gets extra money. The Fund for Investigative Journalism and Solutions Journalism Network are among the groups that offer small grants for big projects.
You need a project editor and coordinator. Mid-level editors have all but vanished in local newsrooms, which is one of the main reasons investigative reporting is vanishing. Reporters need help seeing big projects through to completion while they also work on daily stories. Someone needs to keep track of it all, from grant writing and planning to tracking time and money. When reporters, photographers and videographers start producing content, someone needs to edit it all. Think of your collaborative project as its own newsroom. You need someone to be the editor and publisher.
You need a clear proposal and a plan to carry it out. You need to start with a sharp and focused thesis and a story plan. Eventually, you will have to go where the story takes you, but a sharp and focused thesis and a clear plan will increase efficiency and improve the output altogether. Tackling a project related to an ongoing issue you have been covering can help develop a work plan since you already have a sense of what needs reported. Writing a grant proposal can also help since it will force you to think through the project in advance because you’re promising up front what you’ll deliver in exchange for funding.
Don’t be overly protective of your content. Remember, this is a collaboration. All news organizations that contribute to the project should have access to publish and broadcast as they see fit. Each of you has a different distribution network. The more widely you share it, the greater the impact.
Plan to enter contests and report on the impact of your work. Celebrate the accomplishment of helping your community think through a significant problem, and give your community a chance to do it with you. This might be a public forum to discuss the project, build community buy-in and get ideas. You could also throw a launch party at the time of publication to generate buzz. Projects like these earn your news organization respect and credibility, and you should share that as widely as you can.
Completing an ambitious, collaborative project is hard work, but the benefit is that you get to do big stories that you can’t find time to tackle on your own. These stories can make a difference in your community and win awards. Collaboration is a great opportunity to work with new people, build stronger relationships and learn new skills.
Check out the behavioral health project that I mentioned above, which was a collaboration between myself at NMPolitics.net and staff at the Las Cruces Sun-News and KRWG.
Here are some additional projects to check out if you’re looking for ideas:
- The Wall, a series about the president’s proposed border wall by the USA Today Network
- Accused in Elkhart, a joint project of ProPublica and the South Bend Tribune examining justice in one Indiana County
- Broke in Philly, a collaboration among 19 newsrooms to cover poverty in Philadelphia