The Journalism Accelerator/Collab Central forum on collaboration and revenue held earlier this spring surfaced more than two dozen examples of collaboration in action. One detailed use case involved an investigative report on deportations from the U.S. to Haiti.

Originally commissioned by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting with a grant from The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, the project deepened the budding relationship between FCIR and Florida public radio station WLRN. It also provided early experience in content sharing for members of the Investigative News Network. Eventually, more than 30 news organizations, both commercial and nonprofit, published an online or print version of the piece.

How the story happened reveals what it takes for early collaborations to blossom into more substantial partnerships, even laying the groundwork to seek and bring in revenue together.

how it all came about

Reporter Jacob Kushner had found a good story. The recent University of Wisconsin graduate was freelancing in post-earthquake Haiti, a place he knew from studies and visits while in college. Kushner had learned that one out of two Haitians being deported by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency were taken straight to Haitian jails, although they had not been convicted of violating Haitian law. Many had only minor convictions in the United States. Jail conditions were bad enough that at least one deportee died. Kushner suspected that what he saw on the ground contradicted stated U.S. policy, as well as Haitian and international law.

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Jacob Kushner

Kushner pitched the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR). It was early 2011, and FCIR was just over a year old. Since its inception, co-founders Trevor Aaronson and Mc Nelly Torres had sought partnerships to expand the center’s reach.

“Because of our capacity and the amount of money we thought we could raise, there was no way we could join the Florida media and say, here we are, we’re going to compete with you,” says Aaronson now. “We really reach our larger audiences through traditional media.”

FCIR works with local newspapers and television stations, but Aaronson thought this piece would be a natural fit for public radio. It had strong narrative elements and people who could tell their own stories firsthand. Kushner had only done a couple of audio slideshows online, but he was eager to try radio.

In its first year, FCIR had developed relationships with two major Florida public radio stations, WUSF in Tampa and WLRN in Miami, which is embedded in the Miami Herald newsroom. “Our very first investigation, we didn’t even have a print partner. [A local affiliate of] NPR did a two-way with us where they interviewed our reporter and did a story about our findings,” Aaronson remembers. “Then slowly we started escalating our types of involvement.”

By the time Kushner’s pitch came in, FCIR was deep in a collaboration with WLRN on a different story. In that case, the reporter was newly associated with FCIR but had previously freelanced for the station. In Kushner’s case, news director of WLRN-Miami Herald News Dan Grech took a chance, investing time to advise the radio novice on story approach and equipment, even though he wasn’t sure it would bring a return.

“Here’s a guy, he’s obviously relatively young, who’s got this grant from this group and wants to make a radio story. And trust me, I hear this a lot,” Grech said. But the relationship with FCIR had been good so far, and Grech valued the extra depth FCIR reporting brought WLRN listeners.

“The reason why we do investigations in collaboration with newspapers like the Miami Herald or places like the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, which are grant funded, is because they have both the legal recourses and the resources to put into the months long work it takes to come up with investigative findings,” he said. “And my station, small as it is, is just simply not able to come up with those findings in many cases on our own.”

WLRN aired five awards for investigative reporting last year, two in collaboration with FCIR. All won national or regional awards; this story about deportees won several Green Eyeshades and contributed to a reporting package that won a regional Edward R. Murrow award.

The first step for a successful collaboration: mutual benefit. FCIR wanted a larger audience. WLRN wanted to solidify its reputation with investigative reporting.

Paying the way

When you share a story, who pays for what? The bulk of Kushner’s costs were covered by a $4,000 grant from The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, plus $500 from FCIR coffers. The still-fledgling Investigative News Network (INN), interested in making the story available to its members, helped out with another $500. WLRN had no financial commitment; Aaronson’s aim in that collaboration was simply to broaden the distribution of FCIR’s investigative work. Plus, Aaronson said, WLRN’s radio story was something the center just couldn’t do on it’s own.

“It’s not difficult to ask a newspaper to pay us for a story because we just give them the story and they run it,” he said. “[WLRN] is taking our story and helping us produce a radio version of it. So they’re actually helping us create it and are more of a partner than a client.”

Aaronson did ask two INN members who were interested in localizing the story to cover Kushner’s additional reporting costs. California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ) contributed $750 and $1,000, respectively. Each got an exclusive profile of a person deported from their coverage area, plus either photos or a video interview. And in the end, WLRN paid Kushner $500 for extra work needed to get the right details and sound to tell the story for radio.

“One of the lessons we learned is to be very explicit about who is paying what,” said FCIR’s Aaronson.

WLRN’s Grech found value in absorbing some costs. “If you look at the actual revenue, this was a huge money-losing operation for us. We did not raise any revenue around this particular piece,” Grech said. “But investigative reporting in particular has an incredibly important role in our station as part of who we are as an operation and part of the story we tell to funders and partners.”

Step two in a successful collaboration: Know the value a collaboration brings you, financially and otherwise. Does it affect your reputation? Will it build a long-term relationship? Could the partnership bring in revenue?

Editorial and legal challenges

When you read or listen to the four major versions of this story (here they are: from FCIR, WLRN, California Watch and WCIJ), some differences are obvious. For example, the California Watch story highlights the experience of a man from Los Angeles, while the WCIJ piece focuses on a man who grew up in Chicago and was detained in Wisconsin. The fact that Kushner had enough material to tell individual, localized stories was a big reason both organizations wanted the story, and paid for it.

But more subtle editorial differences cut to the heart of collaborative challenges. For example, the FCIR piece says the Obama administration “has not followed its own policy” of deporting people to unsafe conditions instead of seeking alternatives. WCIJ said that FCIR “found evidence” that the Obama administration hadn’t followed its policy, but, as WCIJ’s executive director, Andy Hall, characterizes the difference, “doesn’t bluntly assert” that as a fact. California Watch “found discrepancies” between stated administration policy and practice.

Deportees jailed in Haiti were kept locked up for as long as 11 days. FCIR and California Watch wrote that these detentions “violate Haitian law and United Nations treaties when deportees have not been charged with crimes in Haiti.” WCIJ provided more context and softened the verb, writing that the detentions, “have occurred although the Haitian constitution bans the detention of anyone for more than 48 hours without appearing before a judge, and a United Nations treaty states that ‘no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.’”

A panel discussing this collaboration at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference characterized these different edits as “serious journalistic disagreements.” Hall told the JA the wording in the story required careful consideration. “The initial version of the story, in my view, wasn’t fully supported by the documentation that was supplied,” he said. “We took a slightly more cautious tone.”

Meanwhile, Bob Salladay, managing editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting, which produces California Watch, said he liked the Wisconsin version better but hadn’t seen it before California Watch published. “For future collaborations, maybe we could all share the different versions,” he said. “People could read them and highlight potential problem areas.”

Evelyn Larrubia moderated the IRE panel. “Everyone walked away friends” from this story, she said. But she thinks editorial differences could be a growing challenge as more media outlets collaborate as equals. “You could easily see a situation where someone would say: ‘It’s my story, either run it my way or you won’t run it,’” she said. “In this case there was a lot of goodwill because they knew and trusted each other. “

Salladay noted that when CIR provides stories to its partners, it also takes on the legal responsibility of libel lawsuits, as long as the stories run unchanged. Libel wasn’t a concern in this story, he said, and each news organization simply followed its own practice to fact-check, relying on the FCIR to vet of much of the reporting.

Step three: Make legal responsibilities and any editorial terms of collaboration clear in advance, but consider leaving breathing room for local control. It can be an important aspect of local branding — and approached right, it can build trust, which necessary for any collaboration, but particularly if money is involved.

Collaboration or freelance?

In many ways, the “collaboration” on the deportee piece resembles a classic freelance success. An enterprising reporter lands a difficult story of interest to many different news outlets. He tweaks it for local markets and sells it multiple times. Indeed, Kushner, the reporter on this story, worked directly and individually with the editors of various outlets. But Kushner considered it collaborative work from day one. “INN was interested from the start; they chipped in a little funding for it before it began,” he said. “Editors caught a couple things in the editing that made us take a new look at parts of our story. The larger process certainly is collaborative, because you begin to have news outlets working together to put out content in a way that’s meaningful.”

Without that effort, he said, the story “would have been published in Florida, in print or online, and also published on the website of The Nation Institute. And that [would have been] it. Instead, this went all over the country: all over the Midwest, because of the Wisconsin collaboration, all of the West Coast because of the California one, national … because the California version got picked up by the Huffington Post and some other national outlets. So what would have been just a local, maybe statewide story instead became a highly played, very well-read national story.”

Step four for a successful collaboration: Find new ways to think about old practices.

Toward collaborative revenue

The Florida Center for Investigative reporting is now in a broad relationship with local public radio stations in Florida. Building on the relationship developed through collaborations, including the deportee story, FCIR is a reporting partner with WUSF and WLRN on NPR’s grant-funded StateImpact Project, which in Florida is focused on education.

Aaronson said that for the first time, he and broadcast partners wrote a memorandum of understanding outlining each partners’ responsibilities. In the past, they had relied on trust and emails. The MOU includes specific work, due dates, payments, content sharing with other news organizations, and credit, including for awards. “Even though we have this very collegial relationship, just like any business relationship we try to make sure that everyone knows what the others are doing, and what obligations the others have,” Aaronson said.

The bottom line: Just as small amounts of money from a half a dozen news organizations can add up to more coverage than any one could buy on its own, small collaborative steps can lead to deeper partnerships, including projects that bring in revenue.

This post originally appeared on the Journalism Accelerator blog. The Journalism Accelerator is a website focused on crowdsourcing knowledge to help journalism find new, sustainable financial models. You can follow us on Twitter.

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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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