The collaboration trend in local news is leading to a number of arrangements in which multiple news organizations work together on both the funding and editing for a single reporter.
Whether you call it reporter-sharing or co-sponsored reporting or something else, these types of reporter-editor set-ups are boosting in-depth journalism at a time when local news organizations are under tremendous pressure to tighten staffing.
Open Campus, a national nonprofit digital news outlet focused on coverage of higher education, has arrangements to work with reporters in seven local newsrooms in six states to produce stories for both the local site and Open Campus’ site. In most of the cases, Open Campus and the local newsroom share in the costs of the reporter, and in all cases they collaborate on story development.
Since 2018, the ProPublica investigative outlet has funded 59 projects with 50 different newsrooms to allow reporters to stay in local newsrooms and focus on in-depth reporting. Their work is published by both ProPublica and the local site, with both newsrooms commonly involved in the editing.
In these projects supported by Open Campus and ProPublica, the goal is to bring more depth and expertise to local reporting.
“It’s a paradigm shift, actually,” said Open Campus co-founder Sara Hebel, “and one that I’m excited about. Collaboration is at the core of our model and … in a time of scarcity with the diminishment of local news, we need to find ways to be force multipliers.”
So how do separate news organizations working on the same story avoid stepping on each other’s toes?
“A lot of in-person communication, phone and Zoom communication,” said ProPublica Managing Editor/Local Charles Ornstein, “but really having a good dialogue so that if there are any disagreements, we can work them out before they become bigger than that.”
Will this trend grow in coming years? That largely depends on philanthropy, which has bankrolled the Open Campus and ProPublica efforts. But the emergence of charitable giving as a key revenue source for many newsrooms has been one of the most significant trends in local journalism in recent years.
In any case, it’s clear that these joint arrangements between national and local outlets come at a time when attitudes are changing in many local newsrooms about collaboration vs. competition. News organizations that never before considered working with other outlets, especially in their own markets, are now doing so. When reporting resources are under siege, journalists find a way.
The Open Campus System
Hebel and co-founder Scott Smallwood started Open Campus in 2019 with strong momentum from their previous editing work at the Chronicle of Higher Education.
As some legacy news outlets cut back on higher ed coverage, Hebel and Smallwood saw a growing need for such reporting on a local level. And, truth be told, some newsrooms haven’t conducted much reporting on that subject historically. Before Open Campus teamed up with Mississippi Today to create a full-time reporting position, that state had no reporter dedicated to higher education.
The funding arrangements vary by location.
“It works slightly differently depending on the partnership, but in most cases we pay partial salary and the newsroom and/or newsroom funds from local funders … pay for the rest,” Hebel said. “Mississippi Today is one example. We have national funding that we sent to them. They had a potential local funder who had actually never given them money before but they thought they might be interested in higher education reporting specifically.”
Its collaboration with the Colorado outlet of the Chalkbeat education news network works differently, Hebel said.
“In this case, Chalkbeat pays,” she said. “They were already thinking about adding a higher education reporter to their beat. They got the funding for the position. We were involved in some of the conversations with that funder and Chalkbeat decided that they would like to contract with us at Open Campus to help them build the higher education beat.”
Erica Meltzer, bureau chief of Chalkbeat Colorado in Denver, said Open Campus brings higher ed expertise to the partnership.
“It just puts more brains on the problem,” she said.
“The person that we hired, Jason Gonzales, he had covered higher ed in Tennessee and he’s from Colorado so it’s not like he would have had no knowledge,” Meltzer said. “But what Open Campus really helps us with is, we have two editors there who have spent their career in higher ed and know the landscape inside and out. … Scott [Smallwood] loves to play with data, and sometimes he’ll just run a data set and say, ‘Hey, I see that Colorado is really an outlier in this way,’ and we’ll talk about that more and see what kind of story that might suggest. Or ‘I’m working on this and I don’t know who to talk to to bring this perspective.’ They always have someone to suggest. We have a standing meeting with them every other week. … We’re also on Slack with them and just talk all the time.”
These reporters work for the local newsrooms. We’re clear about that.Sara Hebel, Co-founder, Open Campus
The joint effort in Mississippi began in January with the hiring of a reporter from New York named Molly Minta. Mississippi Today’s Managing Editor, Kayleigh Skinner, said it was important to establish strong communications and areas of responsibility at the outset.
“The key, now that we have a few months to look back on it, it requires a lot of planning on the front end,” Skinner said. “… Once we had secured the funding on our end and they had secured the funding on their end, they let us do the hiring. … Once we had settled on a candidate, which ended up being Molly, Sarah reached out to me directly and said, do you mind if Scott and I set up our own meeting with this person? So by the time Molly had started, she had already met everyone at Open Campus and everyone at Mississippi Today, so it wasn’t so ‘Here you are jumping into a new job in a new state where you know nobody and you’re also working for two organizations.’”
At Mississippi Today, Minta serves as a test case for this type of reporting structure, Skinner said, but “I think this could apply to any beat really. I guess it’s a nonprofit journalism thing that funding seems to be tied to topics, so I don’t see why this couldn’t be remodeled in any beat.”
A signed memo of understanding helps avoid any supervisory clashes or misunderstandings.
“These reporters work for the local newsrooms. We’re clear about that,” Hebel said.
“If we feel strongly at Open Campus about a great story that we think would make a lot of sense for El Paso or Mississippi or Pittsburgh or Cleveland, we’ll say that,” she said. “We’ll be explicit about it, and if we feel really strongly then we’ll keep bringing it up. But if at some point it doesn’t work out, we have other fish to fry. I think that’s the thing that’s nice about this, that our goal is broad. It’s better coverage of higher education.”
Chalkbeat’s Meltzer said “mission alignment” helps avoid any conflicts.
“At the end of the day, Chalkbeat has the final call on a story, but [Open Campus editors] are always very gracious,” Meltzer said. “And I think the main thing is just to have a lot of communication around the stories. … If we do this for another 10 years, there may be a story that there are strong feelings about, on direction and stuff, but it hasn’t come up yet that there is an issue.”
Mississippi reporter Molly Minta appreciates having multiple editors advising on her stories. “The way we have it structured, I don’t see any disadvantages in how it works,” she said.
Hebel said Open Campus will soon have its own reporters as well. “This summer we are hiring for five positions at Open Campus directly, which is our first set of hires. One’s a revenue person, one’s an audience person, and then we’re hiring three national reporters.”
But the partnerships with local outlets will continue. The key to making them work, according to Hebel: “It’s clear lines of communication, clear lines of expectation, clear lines of authority, and everybody respecting those.
ProPublica Brings Dollars, Expertise
ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, launched the Local Reporting Network in 2018. Through this initiative, ProPublica partners with local reporters to produce a deep-dive investigative project in a community for one year. ProPublica pays up to $75,000 in salary plus a stipend for benefits.
“We pay the salary and benefits for a reporter who is at a local news organization, and the news organization agrees to allow the reporter to exclusively work on the project over the course of the year,” said ProPublica’s Ornstein. “Our projects have achieved dramatic change in places [where] they’ve been published. We’re also certain that many of these projects would not have been told were it not for our involvement, and they wouldn’t have been told in the same ways. So that is achieving what we’re trying to do, which is to tell stories that reporters know are important to their communities. But increasingly, the idea of taking several months or a year to work on a project is impractical, if not impossible.”
In addition to its one-year program, the investigative outlet launched a ProPublica Distinguished Fellows program last year that funds the salaries and benefits of local reporters for three years. ProPublica is now providing funds for about 15 local reporters — nine for one year and six for three years — with more expected to be added in September.
When submitting a proposal to the Local Reporting Network, the reporter already must have a solid story they would like to investigate. In 2018, Lynn Arditi, a health reporter for The Public’s Radio in Rhode Island, was concerned about the way the 911 system in Rhode Island was handling calls for people in cardiac arrest. Her proposal was accepted by ProPublica and her news outlet hired a reporter to cover her beat while she focused on producing a series about the 911 flaws for radio, print and web.
“I knew the demands of just trying to keep up with the news flow, and how time is the biggest barrier, the lack of time, in order to do in-depth investigative reporting for any kind of in-depth projects,” said Arditi. “So, the idea that you could have an organization basically pay your salary so that your organization can then go and hire somebody to do your daily reporting work was just a total game changer.”
Throughout her series, Arditi wrote the more-detailed print and web piece first, and her ProPublica editor, Ornstein, edited it. Then she turned that story into a radio script, which was overseen by her station editor, Sally Eisele. The stories were released the same day.
“That worked out really well, because I think if you have two editors on everything it would be really hard,” Arditi said. “It’s fine to have two editors, but they can’t be at the same time. You have to have one primary person you work with. So that’s the way Charlie and she worked it out and it worked out well that way.”
The editing lanes vary depending on the participating news outlet.
“Every piece has to meet the standards of both newsrooms,” Ornstein said. “Usually that means they are edited by both. The contours of the editing process look different with different partners, based on their preferences.”
We meet with the local editor at least once a week to chat, sometimes more. We felt right from the beginning that communication is the hallmark of our relationships.
Collaboration is the key.
“We meet with the local editor at least once a week to chat, sometimes more,” Ornstein said. “We felt right from the beginning that communication is the hallmark of our relationships. So that involves, pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, traveling to our partner newsrooms visiting with them there at least twice a year, having them come to New York and visit with us.”
Arditi’s reporting for ProPublica and The Public’s Radio raised questions about whether the lack of training for the state’s 911 call takers was costing lives. The investigation prompted Rhode Island lawmakers to agree to invest money to revamp the system and to train all 911 call takers to respond more effectively to cardiac arrests and other medical emergencies. She says without this collaboration and ability to pour the valuable time into her story, it would not have had this potentially life-changing impact.
“If you really want to change policy, and change the direction, you really need to have a more sustained story. Can’t be just one example. It has to really look at the whole system problem. And that’s what ProPublica really is all about,” said Arditi.
In a time of shrinking resources among news outlets, Ornstein believes this type of collaboration will continue to be a problem-solving trend.
“The good news is there’s a lot of different efforts underway that are being done trying to fill a void,” said Ornstein. “’Frontline’ has a program that is similar to our Local Reporting Network that is trying to help with local projects, and public broadcasting. From time to time Reveal has done a project involving local journalism. I do see these (types of) projects sprouting up and organizations contact us regularly to express their interest in trying to help make the local journalism situation better. So that does give me hope.”
Article image by The Climate Reality Project used under Unsplash license (Unsplash)