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    Lessons on Collaboration from EconomyStory, Election Projects

    by Amanda Hirsch
    December 17, 2009
    Public media's EconomyStory website is the fruit of a unique collaboration

    “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.

    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."

    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).

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    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.

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    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.

    i-d0c242aac7adea194dbfde314bcbce6d-nprnewshourmap.jpg
    The NPR/NewsHour election 2008 map

    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.

    i-e5f213ae89a4d37069765a81deb6067a-frontlinemktplc.jpg
    A Marketplace story by a Frontline reporter

    > 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.

    Conclusion

    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.

    Tagged: collaboration cpb frontline marketplace npr pbs pbs newshour
    • Kate Vitasek

      This is a fabulous post. The lessons learned are spot on. The University of Tennessee has been studying collaborative approaches to outsourcing (Vested Outsourcing) and we found the same lessons. The one thing I think this post misses is link to incentives. Stevin Levitt (economist and best-selling author of Freakonomics) states “morality is what you should do, economics is what you do”. It is important when trying to pursue wide scale collaboration you need to tie in economics – or incentives to help bridge the gap.

    • Kate – I love the Freakonomics quote; by “incentives,” do you mean the concrete value of collaboration for each participant? If so, I’d be interested to hear examples – ie how you’ve defined value for participants in your projects… to help me think this through for the projects I manage. Thanks for your comment!

    • Awesome post. Not just for the quote at the top (w00t) but for the reality check. Collaboration is queen – but it’s scary to take the queen out and use it.

      Another thing I say about collaboration is that “it is wet” by which I mean – it is sloppy. I think you describe this as well. It is not cookie cutter and therefore it takes a lot of work. But I still believe it is a part of the future of journalism.

    • Irrefutable Proof ICTY Is Corrupt Court/Irrefutable Proof the Hague Court Cannot Legitimately Prosecute Karadzic Case

      http://picasaweb.google.com/lpcyusa/
      (The Documentary Secret United Nations ICC Meeting Papers Scanned Images)

      This legal technicality indicates the Hague must dismiss charges against Dr Karadzic and others awaiting trials in the Hague jail; like it or not.

      Unfortunately for the Signatures Of the Rome Statute United Nations member states instituting the ICC & ICTY housed at the Hague, insofar as the, Radovan Karadzic, as with the other Hague cases awaiting trial there, I personally witnessed these United Nations member states openly speaking about trading judicial appointments and verdicts for financial funding when I attended the 2001 ICC Preparatory Meetings at the UN in Manhattan making the iCTY and ICC morally incapable trying Radovan Karazdic and others.

      I witnessed with my own eyes and ears when attending the 2001 Preparatory Meetings to establish an newly emergent International Criminal Court, the exact caliber of criminal corruption running so very deeply at the Hague, that it was a perfectly viable topic of legitimate conversation in those meetings I attended to debate trading verdicts AND judicial appointments, for monetary funding.

      Jilly wrote:*The rep from Spain became distraught and when her country’s proposal was not taken to well by the chair of the meeting , then Spain argued in a particularly loud and noticably strongly vocal manner, “Spain (my country) strongly believes if we contribute most financial support to the Hague’s highest court, that ought to give us and other countries feeding it financially MORE direct power over its decisions.”

      ((((((((((((((((((((((((( ((((((((((((((((((((((((( Instead of censoring the country representative from Spain for even bringing up this unjust, illegal and unfair judicial idea of bribery for international judicial verdicts and judicial appointments, all country representatives present in the meeting that day all treated the Spain proposition as a ”totally legitimate topic” discussed and debated it between each other for some time. I was quite shocked!
      The idea was “let’s discuss it.” “It’s a great topic to discuss.”

      Some countries agreed with Spain’s propositions while others did not. The point here is, bribery for judicial verdicts and judicial appointments was treated as a totally legitimate topic instead of an illegitimate toic which it is in the meeting that I attended in 2001 that day to establish the ground work for a newly emergent international criminal court.))))))))))))))))))))))))))))

      In particular., since “Spain” was so overtly unafraid in bringing up this topic of trading financial funding the ICC for influence over its future judicial appointments and verdicts in front of every other UN member state present that day at the UN, “Spain” must have already known by previous experience the topic of bribery was “socially acceptable” for conversation that day. They must have previously spoke about bribing the ICTY and
      ICC before in meetings; this is my take an international sociological honor student. SPAIN’s diplomatic gesture of international justice insofar as, Serbia, in all of this is, disgusting morally!

      SPAIN HAS TAUGHT THE WORLD THE TRUE DEFINITION OF AN
      “INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT.”

      I remind everyone, when I attended those ICC Preparatory Meetings in 2001, witnessing first hand the country plenipotentiary representatives present with me discussing so openly, trading judicial funding of a new international criminal court, for its direct judicial appointments and judicial verdicts, those same state powers were

      concurrently,

      those same countries and people were already simultaneously, funding the already established ICTY which was issuing at that time, arrest warrants for Bosnian Serbs under false primary diplomatic pretenses.

      The ICTY and ICC is just where it should be for once. Cornered and backed into and an international wall, scared like a corned animal (and I bet it reacts in the same way a rabid cornered animal does too in such circumstances). (ICTY associates)

      http://picasaweb.google.com/lpcyusa
      (Documents: Hague war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has destroyed all material evidence about the monsterous KLA Albanian/KLA organ trade in Kosovo).

      I believe strongly that ICYU assocaites murdered former Serb President, Slobodan Milosevic, tried to murder me, as well and other Serbs prisoners and presently places , Doctor Radovan Karadzic’s life in direct danger as well as Ratko Mladic’s life
      in danger should he be brought there.

      The ICTY has no other choice than to halt all further court proceedings against, Doctor Radovan Karadzic, and others there both serving sentences and awaiting trials. Miss JIll Louise Starr (The UN Security Council has no choice but to act on this now).

      I accuse the Hague ICTY war crimes tribunal of attempted assassination on my life and others, contempt of court and obstruction of international justice and “international witness tampering” in complicity with Richard Holbrook and Bill Clinton (Former US President of the USA) as well as political playersin Spain and the Netherlands .

      I represented the state interests’ of the Former Yugoslavia, in Darko Trifunovic’s absence in those meetings and I am proud to undertake this effort on Serbia’s behalf.

    • Great post. In a context where collaboration will increasingly be virtual and not in person, an extra effort will need to be made to keep everyone involved and motivated.

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