One recurring theme in the Pew Research Center’s journalism research over the last two years has been that of newsroom collaborations. In its examinations of nonprofit news outlets, newspaper innovations, statehouse reporting and digital startups, The center has encountered news providers teaming up in new ways. Legacy media outlets are looking more than ever for ways to augment what they can produce with a depleted staff, and news startups are eager to place their work before a wider audience and figure out roads to sustainability.

Jim Brady, immediate past president of the Online News Association and a seasoned digital and newspaper executive, puts the case for collaboration succinctly. “This is a time when journalists need to huddle together for warmth.”

What these collaborations mean for the public—at least in theory—is broader and deeper news coverage, more easily accessed or discovered. What they mean for news organizations is—depending on one’s place at the table—a more diverse mix of content to offer, broader reach and more scalable reporting.

What these collaborations mean for the public—at least in theory—is broader and deeper news coverage, more easily accessed or discovered.

But content collaborations are not easy. The Pew Research Center’s conversations with various players in the news space speak to a range of structures and levels of success—and to a sense from many of interest but uncertainty as to what works and what proves most challenging. Thus we thought it would be helpful to closely examine a handful of existing arrangements, delving into the detail of how various sharing arrangements are structured, how they came into being and how they are ultimately serving both the producers and the public.

Detailed below are five such cases which offer a mix of sharing structures, of players and of levels of success.

Our examples include:

These five cases certainly don’t touch on every possibility, but they do speak to forces that bring two outlets together, key elements in making collaborations work and the challenges of sustaining them. A few of the major takeaways:

  1. Economics were and still are the driver for these partnerships. Precipitous advertising losses at newspapers and the deep newsroom cuts that followed kicked the partnership movement into gear in 2008 and 2009. As the worst of the emergency passed, energy turned elsewhere. Less successful collaborations were phased out, and some first-wave non-profits failed. However, continued revenue losses and pinched resources are encouraging a second look at opportunities for partnering. Broadcasters (commercial and public), have also become attuned to the business case for adding good content originated elsewhere.
  2. Paradoxically, often little if any money changes hands. In that way, the arrangement stays simple. Deals can be sealed with a handshake, and there are often no rigid expectations of how frequently stories are exchanged. If there are clear benefits for both sides, that may be all it takes. Put another way, with a small commitment of editing resources, legacy media pick up valuable coverage such as investigative projects or in-depth beat coverage that they cannot afford on their own.
  3. Things can easily go wrong. While this report mostly profiles successes, many such efforts do not make it. Execution can be high maintenance, and a promising initiative may get shelved if foundation start-up funding stops or those committed to the collaboration change jobs. One Knight-funded grant series to pilot eight collaborations between news outlets and community contributors had only one active participant when the seed money ran out.
  4. Imaginative ad hoc partnering may be the next wave. The wired, distributed nature of the web makes it easy to create collaborations around shared communities of interest—topic-by-topic or even story-by-story. That strategy makes sense, for instance, for coverage of “valley fever,” a debilitating fungal disease that is on the rise in California’s Central Valley and parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico (but unknown east of the Mississippi). Or the local environmental impact of fracking—a big issue in some states yet not so immediate in others. The borders of local news no longer stop at the city or even the state line.
  5. Oddly, though digital disruption and competition is the change agent, digital partnering may be secondary. Incompatible content management systems as well as differing paywall structures and audience metrics can make digital sharing more difficult than legacy forms like print or broadcast. For now at least, the default is to link to the site originating the content and let it harvest the audience and any accompanying advertising.
  6. Quality counts; quality plus engagement is even better. Foundations and corporate underwriters gravitate to high-impact investigative work. But several of the savvy successes profiled here are careful to pick projects that will also spark discussion. They take the initiative to convene forums and events where that dialogue takes place. That’s good for the traditional journalism mission of supporting deliberative democracy. It resonates with funders as well.

Many feel that as long as there are needs to fill on both sides, this new era of collaborative content will only grow.

“The volume of this shared work will increase,” Nancy Barnes, editor of the Houston Chronicle said. “As non-profits become more established and credible, they will become an increasing asset to traditional news organizations. Readers don’t care where the content comes from so long as the quality is consistent, fair and accurate. Our job as editors is to make sure that’s the case.”

About This Report

This report examines five case studies of existing journalism partnerships to understand how they came to be and how they are ultimately serving both the producers and the public.

This report was written by Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for The Poynter Institute and consultant to Pew Research Center and Amy Mitchell, Pew Research Center’s director of journalism research. Special thanks to Jan Schaffer, executive director of the J-Lab at American University, and Sue Cross, former senior vice president of the Associated Press. Both contributed to an overview of the current state of news partnerships but are not quoted directly in the report.