“Online: Content is king. I don’t disagree. But collaboration is queen. In chess the king is the most important, but the queen is the most powerful.” - David Cohn
We in public media produce a lot of content, but historically we haven’t had a lot of collaboration. That’s been changing recently, and I’m fortunate enough to have a front row seat.
I’m the project manager for public media’s collaboration about the economy, EconomyStory, a project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that brings together 12 public media organizations to cover the current economic crisis, online and on-air. The idea was straightforward: By coordinating efforts across newsrooms, we can deliver to the American public news coverage and resources that are greater than the sum of their parts, and that leverage each organization’s strengths. (For a list of partners and their contributions, see EconomyStory.org).
I previously managed a similar effort, also funded by CPB, around the 2008 election. Eight organizations were involved in that project. Over the course of these two projects, I’ve witnessed a series of triumphs and frustrations that are deeply relevant to the current conversation among journalists, and those interested in journalism, regarding the future of news. Below are my top three lessons learned. I hope other organizations can benefit from our experience, and build on what we’ve learned. I’d also love to hear what you’ve learned from similar projects.
Lesson #1: Collaboration Isn’t Efficient, But Still Worth It
At the outset of the election project, I expected collaboration to create efficiencies. After all, instead of eight organizations having eight conversations about how to cover the same story, we were having one conversation. Certainly, the thinking went, this would reduce, if not eliminate, redundancies. But reducing redundancies, it turns out, doesn’t necessarily mean reducing effort; coordinating with people at other organizations that have different ways of doing things takes time — lots of it.
For example, during the 2008 election, NPR and PBS NewsHour jointly developed an interactive map that was featured on each of their websites, as well as on over 150 local station sites. With a curator assigned at both NPR and NewsHour, the map fused local and national coverage — in text, audio and video — from across public media. Having a collaborative map was convenient for stations, and, in my opinion, yielded a superior end product, which better served the public.
Both NPR and NewsHour could have launched the map earlier in the election cycle if they’d pursued individual products. Instead, they took the time to jointly develop the feature’s specifications and select a vendor, among other tasks — all of which lengthened the production process.
Was this strategic? Absolutely. Efficient? Not really. Yes, the public media system as a whole was focusing its resources more effectively; but individuals were not producing results as quickly as they would have if they’d worked alone.
Of course, collaboration doesn’t always increase effort. It depends on the nature and timing of the project, and whether the partners have worked together before. My point is simply this: Don’t assume that working together means saving time — that’s not the value proposition of collaboration. The value proposition is about quality, to the extent that you’re equipped to turn quality into revenue.
In other words: Working together yields a superior and more distinctive end product; more distinctive end products, when promoted effectively, build audiences; bigger audiences are the raw material from which revenue may be extracted.
Lesson #2: You Need the Muckety-Mucks
The web department still operates as something of a ghetto at many media organizations. Despite pockets of leadership and innovation, public media organizations are, for the most part, no exception.
Sure, everyone knows the future’s in digital, but, more often than not, the people with power and influence work in the organization’s legacy media area, such as print or broadcast. I witnessed this directly during the election collaboration, which primarily involved web managers and producers at partner organizations. This hampered the project’s impact, either by limiting promotion or preventing more meaningful editorial collaboration. (Much of our “collaboration” during election 2008, aside from the NPR/NewsHour map, took the form of cross-promotion — a type of collaboration, to be sure, but not the deepest type.)
Having learned our lesson, the kickoff meeting for EconomyStory included multi-disciplinary teams from each partner organization. We then broke off into strands for in-depth brainstorming sessions. At one point, producers of several blue-chip public media programs locked eyes and admitted they didn’t trust each other. Then they laughed about it. Then they started talking.
The immediate result? At least one co-production, which aired on both radio and TV, with related web content. The longer-term impact is that the channels of communication are open between these organizations, including at the executive level. This sets the tone and empowers people at every level to explore creative ways of working together. Now it seems I hear each week about a new collaborative effort between some subset of our project’s partners.
Lest you think the lesson here is that change only comes from the top down, I’ll underscore that the idea to collaborate for the election and the economic crisis was largely hatched within public media’s web community. This community just needed to engage the right executives in order to begin realizing the full power of its vision.
Lesson #3: Autopilot? I Don’t Think So.
People were enthusiastic when they left the kick-off meeting, but then they returned to busy offices, overflowing inboxes, and lengthy to-do lists. In other words, it was going to take more than goodwill to drive the project forward. Specifically, success was going to require:
> Formal Communication Channels: For the election project, partners relied on the phone and email to stay in touch with each other, and with me. This time around, I introduced Basecamp, a project management tool from 37 Signals. I made it clear at the outset (and in partner contracts) that participation on Basecamp was a requirement. Sound harsh? Yes, but I knew I was dealing with busy people who needed extra prodding to remember to share information outside of their own shops.
It’s been a huge success because it’s far more effective for partners to share information with each other, than for information to flow only from them to me. Why rely on a switchboard operator in the digital age?
One success story: near the beginning of the economy project, a producer at PBS posted a programming pipeline, including information about an upcoming Frontline special called “The Warning.” It was about a lone regulator who warned of the potential for economic meltdown in the late 1990s. A producer at Marketplace saw this information and ended up commissioning a series of original radio reports, including an interview with the regulator, Brooksley Born.*
[See an UPDATE that corrects the above paragraph at the end of the story.]
This may not sound like rocket science (and it isn’t), but without this project, and without a central information-sharing hub, it wouldn’t have happened.
> Strong Central Staff: After the election project, it was clear that there were central project functions beyond project management that needed attention. For one thing, we needed to actually promote the partners’ work, both to the general public and to public media stations. After all, it’s hard to provide a public service when the public doesn’t know what you’re doing.
Also, in order to maximize editorial collaboration between partners, we needed someone with a bird’s eye view of the project, as well as a journalist’s sensibility, who could look for specific opportunities for partners to team up. We added these roles to the mix, bringing on freelancer and public media vet Katie Kemple to head up marketing; Public Radio International managed station outreach; and Lee Banville from NewsHour served as “editorial facilitator.”
The combination of Basecamp and additional project staff has spurred more informal collaboration on EconomyStory compared to what we saw during the election project. The Frontline/Marketplace example above is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s critical to have a central team that works to keep partners focused and engaged. In addition, those of us at the center of the project are then able to identify strategic successes and areas for improvement.
Learning to collaborate is a lot like learning to manage. A junior manager often thinks it’s easier to do things herself, rather than take time to train someone on her team. While this approach may allow her to deliver results more quickly in the short term, it’s not sustainable over time. Similarly, collaboration between news organizations is often time consuming at first — but it’s essential to their long-term success.
As more and more news organizations shut their doors, or reduce operations, lean organizations and newly freelance journalists need to learn to work together in new ways if they’re going to survive. They need to be scrappy — and public media organizations are nothing if not scrappy. There may be hope for us yet.
- UPDATE: The Marketplace/Frontline example cited above actually grew out of an ongoing, direct collaboration between those two organizations, though it was through participation in the EconomyStory project that a Marketplace producer learned additional details about the episodes of Frontline entitled “The Warning” and “Close to Home.” In addition, through participation in EconomyStory, Marketplace learned of a primetime PBS special from Sesame Street called “Helping Families Cope,” which led to Elmo and Grover’s first Marketplace interview.
Amanda Hirsch is a consultant to independent media companies and non-profits, and the former editorial director of PBS Interactive (as well as MediaShift’s former editor). She is also a writer and performer. You can follow Amanda online on her website and on Twitter at @publicmediagirl.