When I first heard about The Climate Desk back in April, I was impressed by its ambitious mission:

The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact — human, environmental, economic, political — of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS’s new public affairs show “Need To Know.”

As someone who’s managed several large-scale journalistic partnerships, I was curious to peek under the proverbial hood and see how the project was going several months in. Were the partners achieving their goals? What could other journalists interested in cross-organization collaboration learn from their experiences? I checked in with one of Climate Desk’s de facto managers, Monika Bauerlein, co-editor at Mother Jones; a transcript of our email conversation follows.

Q&A

Please describe how Climate Desk is structured and staffed.

Monika Bauerlein: The Climate Desk is designed to produce a few major projects per year, with ad-hoc collaborations, content exchange, and link love continuing in between. Our first major project was a series exploring how business is adapting to climate change. We have several projects planned for the coming year. At the moment, we are focusing on collaboratively covering and exchanging content on the BP oil disaster.

It’s a very flat structure, basically a consortium of peers — there are one or two editors who serve as the main contacts at each of the partner organizations. We have met in person twice and talk via conference call regularly.

Among the group of editors involved, Clara (Jeffery, co-editor, Mother Jones) and I have thus far taken on most of the coordination and cat-herding (which can be quite time-consuming — at key moments it’s probably taken more than 50 percent of our time, but most of the time it’s quite a bit less). All decisions are made collaboratively.

There was not really another project similar enough for us to model this collaboration on — most of the ones we’re aware of have been one-shot reporting projects (e.g. The Arizona Project and the Chauncey Bailey Project, both focused on the killing of reporters), whereas this is more of a soup-to-nuts, brainstorm-to-publication-to- tweetstream collaboration.

But we certainly got ideas from a range of other projects and hope to in turn make our experience available to others.

How are project participants defining “collaboration” for the purposes of this project? How did you arrive at that definition?

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Monika Bauerlein

Bauerlein: We started out with a very simple thought: How cool would it be if some of the smartest editors we know got in a room together? A cross between imaginary dinner party and dream-team edit meeting, if you will. We wanted to share three things: ideas, content, and audiences. We hoped that the resulting cross-pollination would produce a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. That’s proven true — we’ve all really enjoyed the exchange of ideas, we’ve all gotten great content out of it, and we’ve been able to introduce some of our users to each other’s work.

In practice, here’s what we did: We brainstormed how the collaboration should work and, for our first big project, settled on doing a distributed package of stories as a pilot project. As our topic, we chose an exploration of how business is adapting to climate change. Several of the main feature stories were conceived and assigned by the group; in addition, each partner organization produced stories that were made available to the group as part of the package. Some partners also produced stories that were not shared, but were linked to from other partner sites.

During the publication phase of this series (the two weeks surrounding Earth Day 2010), the stories ran on all the partner sites, and we used a collaborative widget from Publish2 to give users a running feed of the entire package. We also built theclimatedesk.org as a repository for our FAQ and story feed; it continues to be updated with reporting from the partner organizations.

What has been the project’s biggest success so far, and why? What success metrics are you using?

Bauerlein: Honestly, for this many journalists from fairly different organizations to play well together and enjoy themselves felt like a big success. Demonstrating to ourselves that it could be done, and be fun, was great.

Beyond that, we produced a lot of really good content that got widely seen and commented on, as well as buzz in the trade press and great feedback from the rest of the journalism community. And, perhaps most importantly, through the pilot project we created both a framework for working together and a great deal of trust among the group, which has already helped us seize opportunities for further collaboration.

For example, we were in the planning stages for our next project when news of the BP oil spill hit; at that point, we shifted gears to focus on this major story, with an ongoing content exchange and ad-hoc collaborations among individual members of the group. In the past few weeks, “Need to Know” has teamed up with the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and Grist to produce segments for its show. All the partners have exchanged content about the spill. In the meantime, we have started a podcast and are continuing to work on our next big project.

What has been harder than you expected? What would it take to ease this difficulty?

Bauerlein: It’s really all about time and bandwidth, but we’ve managed to find both because the rewards are great. What we’d love to do is raise enough money to have a dedicated project manager as well as technology/interactive design and user participation talent. This would allow us to really pull in the best ideas from each of the partners and develop the collaboration to its full potential.

If a genie appeared and could grant you three wishes to make Climate Desk succeed beyond your wildest dreams — what would your three wishes be?

Bauerlein: 1. Major celebrity and massive funder falls in love with this project.

2. We create cutting-edge projects that engage a broad audience — even beyond our existing 27 million users — and fundamentally change the conversation about climate. It’s a very abstract concept for many people; what we want to do is make it tangible and intellectually engaging.

3. Is this where we ask the genie for three more wishes?

The former editorial director of PBS.org, Amanda Hirsch is a digital media consultant who recently managed the EconomyStory collaboration, a journalistic partnership between 12 public media organizations. Learn more about Amanda’s background at amandahirsch.com and follow her on Twitter at @publicmediagirl.

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