Collaboration: preparing for potential challenges

bySarah GustavusJan 9, 2019 in Collaborative Journalism

Collaboration offers opportunities to bring new perspectives and additional resources to reporting projects. However, working with new partners, including those outside your newsroom, can be challenging.

Here are just a few issues you might face during a collaborative project:

  • A partner organization loses a key reporter
  • Someone has to drop out for health reasons or personal needs
  • New leadership means priorities change for a newsroom or organization
  • Unexpected expenses arise

Talk with your media partners before you get started about these changes that might impact the ability of one or more partners to carry out their part of a collaborative project. Having a conversation before the project begins allows you to anticipate and prepare for many potential challenges. Below are some strategies you can employ:

Set realistic expectations. It’s important that partners in the collaboration are honest — with themselves and others — about their capacity. Set ambitious, but reasonable, goals for your staff and the timeline you create for the project. Review deadlines regularly when you check in about stories to ensure all partners are on track.

Consider the timing. There are regular events and seasons that might impact the ability of your newsroom to successfully collaborate. Consider legislative sessions, elections, wildfire or hurricane season and holidays when planning a collaborative project. Pick a time of year that is likely to be free of major competing obligations in your newsroom.

A longer project comes with more risks. When establishing how long a collaboration will last, consider what might change over that period of time. A project that will last more than six months might increase the chance that some partners will experience changes such as staff turnover. How will you adapt if reporters leave or news stories break that take away a partner for weeks or months?

Outline responsibilities. When you start planning a collaborative project, define roles and duties for all partners. Be upfront about your staff size, capacity and abilities, then assign roles accordingly. Use the strengths of your partners to your advantage.

Even with a clearly defined plan, you can’t anticipate everything.

Be ready to ...  

Adapt to the unexpected. Nearly every project involves at least some challenges that require you to make changes. You have several options including updating deadlines or trading tasks if an individual or organization departs or will be unavailable for an extended period of time.

Hold each other accountable. Sometimes a partner doesn’t follow through. A project coordinator or other leader(s) should hold partners accountable throughout the project before the pressure of grant deadlines or final deliverables. If you address issues early and have difficult conversations, there will be no surprises at the end.

Build in an “exit ramp.” Make it possible for people or organizations to gracefully exit a collaboration. Before you begin the work, talk about options and when partners should speak up if their capacity changes. Can you replace them with a new partner? If there are multiple partners, could one of them pick up additional work if funds are reallocated? Once these “exit ramp” guidelines are established, make sure you and your partners follow through on the plan. The goal is to ensure that you can maintain a positive relationship while also ensuring the project will meet its goals.

Collaboration among media outlets continues to evolve as we all learn what works and what doesn’t on various projects. If you experience challenges, you are not alone. Every collaborative project is a learning experience – for reporters and newsroom leaders.

Additional resources on collaborative reporting:

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.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Hayden Walker.