Collaborative Journalism - Remarks and Observations

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Martin G. Reynolds
April 26, 2012

Martin G. ReynoldsMartin G. Reynolds, senior editor for community engagement for the Bay Area News Group, spoke at the Logan Symposium in Berkeley, CA to discuss his experiences with collaborative journalism. Bay Area News Group is a 560,000 daily circulation newspaper group that serves 2.7 million readers each week in online and in print.

For a little background, most of the rewarding experiences in my professional life have been rooted in collaborations.

The most notable was serving as a lead editor on the Chauncey Bailey Project that was a mix of established, independent print journalists, journalism education organizations, foundations, such as Knight and SDX, as well as TV and radio.

Other collaborations have been with UC Berkeley and working with students at the J-School, Boalt Hall School of Law, San Francisco State and the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, as well as foundation partners like the California Endowment on our Oakland Voices project.

I am of the belief that our best work is derived from working with talented people inside and outside our organizations.

I was asked by Carrie to participate in Collab Space 2012, where I led a working group on how collaborations can come together to better report on under-represented communities.

On Thursday, I attended the Techraking Summit and then on Friday was the designated stenographer of the collaborative conversation that involved a select group of public and non-profit news organizations of varying shapes, platforms and sizes, many of whom had done collaborations, others that had not.

What I plan to provide this morning are observations derived from these three experiences. Some of what I have to say is critical, but I do this with an eye toward constructive dialogue and with the hope that we can have a productive conversation about the concerns many have around collaboration.

I plan to provide my reflections on these three days and some specific takeaways the various participants offered that any organization looking to collaborate should heed before getting to work.

I have to admit, this has been a tough assignment, in large part because, much of what I heard made me frustrated as hell.

I came away with a mix of feelings that I needed time to process so that it could be relayed in a way that was productive.

I was inspired by energy and openness of the participants at Collab Space _ even though there were concerns raised there around collaborations, and at the Techraking Summit at Google.
Friday brought me back down to earth a bit, as the discussion revolved around what might go wrong in a collaboration, what credentials or insurance someone must have, rather than what could come from a dynamic collaboration.

What I witnessed these few days was an appetite for collaboration that went from ravenous to outright anorexic. But likely more prevalent among the majority of folks on Friday was something in between and perhaps something more difficult to over come: ambivalence.

I was raised in Berkeley, so my parents constantly had me in therapy, so given that Friday felt like we were all on the couch, let’s go with that and I’ll start with the cold pricklies and move on to the warm fuzzies.

Ego:

The egos of journalists, the make-up that in many respects is essential to doing the work we do, is a barrier to collaboration.

It was compelling to hear about how there was a concern about standards of our colleagues, as though any of us or our respective organizations have been immune to mistakes.
This underlying fear that someone was going to screw up, while understandable in terms of wanting to protect one’s brand, perhaps would be better served to be part of the mix of discussion as parameters are set, rather than the first thing you talk about when you get ready to collaborate, or the first worry that comes to mind before considering collaboration.

It’s like talking about getting divorced before you even finish the appetizer on your first date. Not the best way to start a relationship.

I’m doing you a favor:

Now, we’re all family here, maybe not immediate family, but certainly kissing cousins, nieces and nephews. Together here, let us admit that we view our work as a favor to the communities we cover rather than in service to those communities. This is important because how we view what we do has a direct impact on how we approach the communities we cover and the colleagues we may collaborate with.

Thanks, but no thanks

It was clear the Friday group was not particularly interested in looking at how other industries have dealt with the need to innovate and evolve. We are loathe to actually take the steps to consult outsiders to get advice on how to a maneuver through an industry-wide transition that could benefit from collaboration.

Whatever you do, don’t put it on paper!

There was a very troubling resistance to cobbling together a framework for best collaboration practices. There was concern that if you put it to paper and don’t follow it, you somehow open yourself up to liability.

It would seem to make perfect sense to put together a simple and well-constructed outline for what should be discussed by news organizations looking to collaborate. In many ways, such a document would ease the pressure of asking the tough collaborative related question about standards, how we deal with disagreement, fact checking, etc., because the roadmap we’re following gives us all license

Take aways:

Don't be so quick to get to the work.
Walk through the rules of engagement, perhaps not on the first date, but certainly the second and third.
The standards across organizations are not uniform.
An agreed step of basic craftsman-like procedures should be established.
Must be vocal about the concerns.
Be willing to discuss standards from each organization’s perspective.
Don’t go in trying to be right, go in trying to be heard.
Version of footnoted stories.

Conduct fact-checking during the reporting of the story. Don't wait until the end.
Incremental check-ins that go beyond, is this correct?

A master document that everyone contributes to that everyone can connect people and where all the factoids can be maintained.

The print version is a lot easier to change than a long-form documentary or a radio version. To that end, the print version needs to be done first, which the other multi-platform versions can grow from.
If you have data to share, make sure you provide context to the information. Rigorous encouragement to vet what you get is important.
Very important to be pointed in your discussions.
It is OK to ask "how do we get here?" when asking questions about the information that is the cornerstone of the story
Rarely do we after-action work, a distillation of how the collaboration went should be undertaken at the end of the project.

Collaboration comes in many forms.
It also comes in the form of community engagement, another component many news outlets are just beginning to embrace
If a news organization is uncomfortable with collaborating with another news outlet, look to collaborating with individuals or organizations within the community or area of coverage.

In collaborating with communities:

If you are looking to foster relationships in your community, than community engagement can’t just come from the editorial side of the operation.

As such, there may be lines that must be crossed that traditional relationships don’t account for. Therefore, there may need to be structural changes to organizations to account for the change in relationship, and proximity to groups you are working with.

For instance, if you are collaborating on a public forum with an organization you may need to one day cover. How do you do that?

Community engagement can't just be digital.

You need to devote people to it.

In collaborations with the community around content, we can’t just view ourselves as “content pimps” getting what they have and moving on.

There has to be a more robust relationship and therefore you need to devote resources to maintaining these ties.

We can get into more of this during the Q&A.

But I want to end with this; the Chauncey Bailey Project was a potential car wreck waiting to happen. There were independent, print, TV, radio and staff reporters, foundations all in the mix, and what kept us on track was a simple notion: This isn’t about any of us. This is about the story. It’s about the work and the core reason for why we are all in the room.
If everyone involved can embrace that notion at the outset of collaboration, there is an inherent humility that can come with that mindset. It is humility and openness that can provide the habitat needed to produce a successful collaboration.

 
  

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