“In Collaboration” is a special series on collaborative journalism that MediaShift will publish throughout the summer.
This piece is co-authored by KUT managing editor Matt Largey.
KUT, the NPR-affiliate at the University of Texas that serves the residents of Austin and its surrounding region, is a relatively small newsroom. Each day, it produces a few dozen stories with a staff of 13: five reporters, several producers, a digital staff of two and two on-air hosts who cover local and regional issues ranging from education to the health care to Austin City Hall, and two editors that put it all together.
The Austin Monitor is even smaller. It boasts a full-time staff of only two: Editor Liz Pagano and Publisher Mike Kanin (yours truly). Pagano oversees a unit of between three and five freelancers (depending on the week), a freelance copy editor, and a freelance proofreader. Together, we are responsible for at least 20 stories a week about all things local and/or political. There is also a radio show/podcast to produce and a handful of weekly media partnerships to look after.
One of those partnerships pairs our two organizations in an effort designed to combine the efforts of the two small teams and thereby extend the effective reach of both outlets. What started in 2014 as an informal arrangement that used a selection of Monitor content to bolster KUT’s coverage of Austin City Hall has bloomed into a full-on partnership that finds the newsrooms — both (c)3s — collaborating on events, coverage, and sharing City Hall reporter Audrey McGlinchy. In so doing, we believe we can leverage the best qualities of both organizations in a way that better serves our very-aligned missions.
Six months in, we’ve learned some lessons.
1. Slack helps
The particulars of the arrangement call for McGlinchy (or, in a pinch, another KUT reporter) to deliver at least three Monitor stories per week. For that to happen, the newsrooms have to find their way to rock-solid communication. And though the existing relationship — already friendly and free of the turf battles that can sink such an undertaking — helped build the foundation for a broader approach, we were not spared early hiccups. If you are reading this piece, you are probably well aware of the fact that news almost never cooperates with a schedule. This caused some friction as Pagano and McGlinchy tried to make the number of required stories fit with the reality that stuff doesn’t always happen on time or at all. The solution here was to open the partnership beyond just McGlinchy when stories run short. And to be sure that we’re all on the same page about each organization’s respective needs.
2. Collaboration equals openness
From the start, KUT welcomed Pagano into its weekly editorial meetings. This not only helped with communication, it also offered KUT the considerable experience Pagano has amassed covering Austin development and politics. It also gave the Monitor a window into KUT planning, one that continues to better inform our efforts. A lack of turf sensitivity (that again) here allows for a better interaction, one built on mutual trust and the true spirit of collaboration.
3. Patience is a virtue
Six months is not a long time, even for a media partnership. Still, as detailed above, getting the organizations on the same page takes (still does, in fact) some tolerance for friction and willingness to adjust as necessary. Thus far, this has not been a problem. The mutual respect we share for each other’s work helps.The promises of a mutual greater return don’t hurt either.
There is certainly more — and there will certainly be more. But as the partnership has allowed a new kind of City Hall depth for KUT, and a much-longer reach for the Monitor, it’s easy to get lost in the larger successes.
As the partnership gained steam, KUT and the Monitor worked together in other ways. We co-produced, with other partners, a series of in-district debates for the massive, 78-candidate 2014 City Council election. We established an online resource for Austin voters called the Hall Monitor designed to keep track of all those candidates.
We also began to collaborate on reporting series. To date, we’ve done two: The first looked at the impact of unfunded mandates from the Texas Legislature on local municipalities. The second (along with KLRU-TV) looked at how the gentrification of East Austin was affecting further-flung suburban (rural, not so long ago) parts of Travis County.
We’re currently working to produce a smaller set of candidate debates for the 2016 election. We’ve yet to cook up another co-reported series, but we’ll get there.
Pagano often needs to remind me just how small the Monitor really is. And she’s right. Mostly. Successes like those above give me pause here. I have to remember that, in working with KUT, we’ve been able to expand our resources in significant fashion—an effort that allows us to serve the community in an out-sized manner. I also have to remember that our listeners and readers probably don’t care about the size of our organizations—nor should they; that they demand (and we believe they do) solid coverage of local issues is a boon for us. That we’ve come to depend on each other to get it done is a larger statement about the state of the media, about our organizations, and—we’d argue—the future of local coverage. We don’t have to be behemoths to make all of that work for us. And we’re only just starting to prove it.
Matt Largey is the Managing Editor for KUT, Austin’s NPR affiliate. He’s been a reporter, producer and editor there since 2010. Before that, he was a producer at WBUR in Boston. His work has been heard on various public radio programs, including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and Marketplace. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @mattlargey.