Learning to share: evolution of media partnerships
Cooperative agreements between news organizations are not a new concept. Since the advent of the Associated Press in 1848, the media has recognized a distinct economic advantage to shared content. In the face of a turbulent industry and shrinking ad revenue, however, content partnerships have not only grown more frequent but have evolved in their diversity.
In a digital world, distance knows no bounds as organizations in different areas of the country continue to enter into joint collaborations. According to an ongoing investigative report by Editor & Publisher, Boston-based PBS show “Frontline” and New Orleans-based Times-Picayune newspaper recently teamed up with New York-based ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative online news organization, to collaborate on a series called “Law & Disorder.” The joint effort utilizes various platforms and media tools to report on the New Orleans police and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. ProPublica “had dedicated a lot of time to an archipelago of cases in which people were shot by police after Hurricane Katrina in ways that have not been thoroughly investigated. They had done some good research on that,” Times-Picayune managing editor Peter Kovacs told Editor & Publisher. “The idea was to take all the information and cases and put them into a family and uniting theme.”
Back in September, Voice of OC editor in chief Norberto Santana Jr. told inVocus that newspapers and online nonprofit organizations would work best together. “I think some functions like investigative reporting are well-suited for the nonprofit in conjunction with the daily newspaper,” he said. “I think that is the best model – working side by side.” His ideology started to become reality last month when the newest online nonprofit, The Bay Area News Project, announced it would be teaming up with the New York Times to provide news for the paper’s San Francisco editions on Friday and Saturday. While in the past, news mediums were fiercely competitive, nowadays it “makes sense to share,” said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst with the Poynter Institute, in an e-mail interview. “Papers are much more willing than they were to accept content from independent organizations like ProPublica, the collectives in the Bay area and Chicago and many more,” he said.
Meanwhile, content sharing partnerships between daily newspapers continue to surface as well. The Ohio News Organization formed in early 2008 and combines the resources of eight dailies in Ohio: The Columbia Dispatch, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Toledo Blade, Dayton Daily News, Akron Beacon Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer, Canton Repository and Youngstown Vindicator. If one paper is covering a specific story, then the others will pick that article up and link back to the originating newspaper. The same goes for Florida’s largest papers, the Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald and The Palm Beach Post, which formed a partnership in late 2008. In a similar vein, the Tennessean, Commercial Appeal, Chattanooga Times-Free Press and the News-Sentinel joined forces to create the Tennessee Newspaper Network early in 2009. “I think the content sharing movement is well-established now and will continue to gain momentum,” Edmonds said.
Even college-based media has joined the revolution. Last January, Boston University’s College of Communications created the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR-BU), becoming the first nonprofit, university-based investigative reporting collaborative in the country. Those included in the venture are Boston.com, The Boston Globe, New England Cable News and WBUR-TV. In addition, NECIR-BU is also partnered with New England Ethnic News, an online ethnic news service. Then in 2009, two Ohio University students founded the College News Network . According to the organization’s Web site, more than 50 college news organizations from 28 states have joined as of this month.
“As resources for independent reporting shrink, and local news becomes more ‘glocal’ (global + local) such partnerships make sense,” said media analyst and journalist Ellen Hume in an e-mail interview. But there are some drawbacks to such partnerships, she noted. “The negatives include a lack of checks and balances on media – a feeling of ‘gang up’ by media on whatever is being investigated. And if a consortium makes a mistake, all media participating looks bad,” she said. “If a consortium includes people with differing ethics, will all be dragged down to the lowest common denominator in the partnership? Ideally, we need competition to keep each other honest.” Meanwhile, if investigative and accountable journalism is combined with talented journalists who couldn’t have done the story otherwise, then media alliances can be very positive, noted Hume.
The necessity of transparent journalism was evident with the controversial pairing between the Fiscal Times and Washington Post. According to the Nieman Journalism Lab, after the Post ran a story from the Fiscal Times on the nation’s deficits and debts, there was a public outcry. Fiscal Times owner Peter Peterson, philanthropist, former investment banker, and United States Secretary of Commerce from 1972 to 1973, has strong opinions on the national deficit, which is the focus of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. “Is it possible for a deeply opinionated philanthropist to keep his nose out of a newsroom of his own making? I do think it’s possible. Look at ProPublica, funded almost entirely by Herb and Marion Sandler, who also launched the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress” wrote Nieman writer Jim Barnett. “But transparency is key to credibility – and ultimately, to the viability of any news organization, for-profit or nonprofit.”
While content partnerships may continue to change and evolve, both Edmonds and Hume agree that such agreements between news organizations are a positive move for an industry that is continually transforming. Content partnerships “will help continue the media mandate to hold the powerful accountable,” Hume said.
— Katrina M. Mendolera
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