At last week’s Future Civic Media conference at MIT there was a barcamp session on “collaborations in the newsroom” led by Josh Stearns from Save The News. (See his excellent list of journalism collaborations.) In many ways, this was a continuation of a conversation in San Francisco where Josh took fantastic notes. I hope to return the favor here.

Collaboration is a buzzword in journalism. As a result, some of its meaning gets lost, similar to how “social media” can mean just about anything and nothing.

Scott Rosenberg summed up the problem very well: There is a professional transition in the field from an environment where competition was the dominant mode of interacting with other organizations to an era where dividing labor and sharing might serve the public better.

Following this thread to provide a case study, Sterns posed a question to Kyle Pope, the new editor of the New York Observer: Why have you recently started collaborations?

Here’s my not-an-exact-transcript of what he said:

We need to pick our shots and figure out how to do good and deep reporting. With help from the Nation Institute we tackled an investigation of Bloombergs’ money shifts offshore. I spent 10 years at the Wall Street Journal and the idea of success was to beat the other guy — but I don’t think any of us can afford that. And perhaps the readers don’t care that much. To spend X dollars to beat the other guy by two hours — is it really worth it?

Margaret Rosas put the challenge as this: Can or should collaboration be institutionalized? What can be gained, what will be lost? Indeed, at the end of this session Stearns felt as though an underlying thread was that there is grassroots collaboration and institutionalized collaboration. The question is whether we can figure out circumstances that lend itself to one or the other.

Why Not Collaborate?

Stearns also asked whether there are stories that don’t lend themselves to collaboration, or times when collaboration is a bad idea. I say it depends on if you are ready to do it right. Scott Rosenberg put it better: “It’s in the coordination costs.”

All collaborations have coordination costs and you have to be ready for that. So what are the key elements to coordination costs? Here are some thrown out by the group:

  • Recognition for parties/participants.
  • Communication is key: one person who is tasked with collaboration. It is a significant amount of that person’s time. But that was a key element.
  • Ownership of parts of the project.
  • Financial agreements (time/resources/money).

The group also tackled the question of what is and isn’t a collaboration. We’ve heard two newsrooms working together, seven newsrooms working together, newsrooms working with the public. There is no concrete definition.

I think this could be broken down. There is a large umbrella term “collaboration,” but there are types of collaboration that require different insights. Here are a few examples:

  • Some collaborations save resources (so not everyone has to file Freedom of Information Act requests).
  • Some collaborations can enable new forms of journalism (such as distributed reporting across many organizations on a single topic).
  • Some collaborations can reach new audiences.
  • Some collaborations don’t treat people like “audiences” but as collaborators.
  • There is also collaboration with syndication, as is being done by California Watch.

Journalists as Community Organizers

From there the meeting shifted gears to talk about collaboration with the public.

There is an opportunity for journalists to be community organizers, and there is a feeling that some traditional organizations are missing this boat. But everyone has different types of organizations, motivations and sets of power. There still seemed to be some tension between traditional and community media, which is interesting to note.

As the discussion continued, we came around to a potential reason why this tension has never resolved: A lot of traditional media houses are getting into citizen journalism for two reasons:

1. Community engagement.
2. Free content.

These assumptions put the community members in a bind. They need to have mainstream media to get the impact/reach they don’t have — but they also want to turn it into a viable business themselves.

At the same time, mainstream journalists are trying to protect their jobs. They can benefit from the free content — but it also undermines the work they do.

We went back and forth on this problem but eventually had to break and Stearns left us with a question: Are collaborations better served or sparked more naturally through an organic process or an institutional process?

We’ve heard examples where new collaborations are made via institutions like USC Annenberg, Spot.Us and the Media Consortium, and we’ve also heard examples where a collaboration starts when two people converse, trust each other and push things forward from there.

The question we are left with is this: Do we need institutions to help facilitate collaboration between institutions? Or should it be more organic? It is probably not an either/or, but these two are fundamental questions that underpinned the discussion.

What do you think? What kinds of collaborations have you participated in, and what worked and didn’t? Share your thoughts in the comments below.