Carrie Lozano nailed a real need in her No. 1 takeaway from last month’s “collaboration marathon” of back-to-back conferences in Berkeley, Calif. “We need to come up with useful cost-benefit analyses of collaboration,” she wrote on Collaboration Central last week.

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That work is underway. Journalists and others experienced in collaboration began to assess the costs and benefits in a conversation that started at the Collab/Space 2012 conference, then continued online at the Journalism Accelerator. The kickoff question focused on financial pros and cons, but people brought all sorts of costs and benefits into the discussion.

Here are some highlights.

Benefits

Two major benefits of collaboration emerged from the JA conversation: exposure and the chance to try new things. For example, Steve Waldman cited collaborations between Beliefnet, the company he founded in 1999 and led for a decade, and ABC News. Beliefnet wasn’t paid for the content it gave ABC, and he said the link from the network site brought Beliefnet very little traffic. But Waldman wrote that it did “enable us to class up our brand and improve the quality of our advertisers, and thereby fetch higher CPMs.”

Trevor Aaronson, co-director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, said collaborations that show more people FCIR’s stories puts his organization in a better position to win grant money. One example: a report on extraditions that was done with local NPR stations. Now FICR and a group of stations are applying for funding together. In addition, part of FICR’s mission is to do investigative reports that reach Spanish-speaking communities. “We can’t do that without collaborations,” Aaronson wrote in the JA forum, “and while we don’t generate direct revenue from these collaborations, we do believe [they] make our organization more attractive to foundations assisting with development in these communities.”

The opportunity to innovate appears to be another major draw of collaboration among journalists. These benefits aren’t clearly tested, but they’re tempting. Keith Hammonds of Ashoka mentioned a new pilot project with a national media organization that will link news stories to opportunities for readers to take action. Hammonds said this collaboration could create a stronger relationship between a news organization and its audience. “Readers who are activated by content to actually participate in change-making activities should have higher loyalty and brand affiliation.”

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Ben Werdmuller

Collaborations outside news organizations seem to have the potential to open doors wide for innovation. Ben Werdmuller, CTO at Latakoo, encourages partnering with one of the many consumer companies that specialize in reaching wide audiences, and making money through that reach. “If you’re producing long-form video journalism, for example, why not partner with Netflix or Hulu?” he wrote in the forum. A strategic partnership could “future-proof distribution strategies, while reaching new audiences and allowing you to concentrate on creating great content.”

And Michael Skoler, vice president of digital for Public Radio International, suggested that collaborating with game creators might offer a chance at revenue while engaging people with news. “What if a game helped you question the tax assessment on your home? That might be something that you would pay for.” Another idea: Pull education coverage together in a special report and collaborate with realtors to sell them. “I would pay for that when I move to a new place,” he wrote.

Being more efficient in administration, capitalizing on partners’ strengths, and improving the quality of reporting were also noted as potential benefits of collaboration. They are tempered by the realization that working together does take more time.

Costs

Time is the clearest cost of collaboration spelled out in the JA conversation. “Collaborations always mean more work,” wrote FCIR’s Aaronson, “more coordination, more emails, more egos, more cat-herding.” Media Consortium Executive Director Jo Ellen Green Kaiser said given the reduced capacity of many news organizations, it can be impossible to add that work to the routine daily load. “When more than three organizations collaborate,” she advised, “it’s most efficient to have an intermediary.”

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Jo Ellen Green Kaiser

Some advice on how to make collaborations work reveals real barriers to consider. For example: Pick a project manager from each collaboration partner and make sure they’re in regular contact. Establish a shared vision and shared goals early on. Make sure you like each other. And do think of the return: If this partnership won’t bring in money, what, specifically will it do?

The biggest cost of collaborating on content may be this: It may not move journalism closer to a new, sustainable financial model. Rick Waghorn, a former sports reporter, now a partner in the ad platform Addiply, wrote in the forum that journalists focused on collaborating with other journalists may not bring the financial gains the industry needs. “We all suck at making bucks,” he says. “Making waves, fine. Bucks? No chance.”

So what next?

The lack of a direct line between collaboration and revenue means it might be smart to measure other results as well. It’s tough. Quantifying reach is perhaps the biggest challenge. New audiences have “tremendous value,” wrote Aaronson. “But it’s hard for us tell you with specificity — and, as such, value it — the size and influence of the audience that hears our journalism on Florida NPR or reads it in the Miami Herald or in Spanish-language newspapers. It’s a key problem facing nonprofits like FCIR: How do you fully measure and value a fragmented audience on multiple platforms?”

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Trevor Aaronson

PRI’s Skoler is in the middle of the State Integrity Investigation, a major collaboration among three organizations — two journalism, one policy. He said SII deliberately built in tools designed to measure impact, including how many people email state officials based on the information they learn from SII’s work, and how many reforms are introduced in state legislatures. “We have already seen actions taken in five states that cite the investigation,” he wrote, and are tracking such measures online.

Right now, the benefits of collaboration seem tangible to those who do it, if not always trackable. And the potential for revenue to be built into collaboration is beginning to bubble up. There’s plenty of room for sharing more experiences and continuing this collaborative conversation.

A version of this post also appeared on the Journalism Accelerator blog.

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Emily Harris is editorial director of the Journalism Accelerator, a website designed to help journalism find more financial sustainability. She comes from public broadcasting; Harris reported for National Public Radio from Europe, Afghanistan, Iraq and Washington, D.C., and shared in NPR’s 2005 Peabody Award for coverage of Iraq. She has produced and reported for many radio and television programs, including Marketplace, NOW with Bill Moyers, Which Way, LA? and Fox News. She spent a year at Stanford as a Knight Journalism Fellow and helped launch and hosted the award-winning public affairs program Think Out Loud on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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