The best partnerships between nonprofit and commercial newsrooms do more than outsource reporting or increase distribution. Over time, they change how news organizations do their work — and that makes these partnerships critical to how journalism is produced today.

John Schrag, executive editor of Pamplin Media Group, which publishes two dozen community newspapers in Oregon, said he’s stunned more news outlets don’t collaborate.

Over the last year, Pamplin partnered with the nonprofit newsroom InvestigateWest and independent journalist Kate Willson on “Unequal Justice,” a series of investigations into racial disparities in Oregon’s criminal justice system. It was a major undertaking: Reporters analyzed 5.5 million charges over a decade to understand how policing affects communities of color.

Willson and InvestigateWest brought the data and analysis to the newspaper chain, which contributed a project editor and significant reporting. Pamplin continues to publish stories in its largest paper, the Portland Tribune.

If we want to do good journalism, we can’t do it by ourselves anymore.

“If we want to do good journalism, we can’t do it by ourselves anymore,” Schrag said. “For the first time in a long time, I’m really hopeful about the future of journalism.”

Partnerships like this can be an opportunity for newsrooms to learn because they encourage editors and reporters to step outside their news production processes. InvestigateWest and Pamplin each came to the project with their own way of doing journalism. The nonprofit serves the entire Pacific Northwest with a small digital staff, while Pamplin publishes newspapers in western Oregon as well as the twice-weekly Tribune. “Unequal Justice” is a blend of the two approaches: deeply analytical, with the cadence of community news.

The combination had a surprising result. Two of the Portland Tribune’s most popular stories this spring were part of the “Unequal Justice” series. They were about Latinos being disproportionately charged with motor vehicle violations. Both focused on cities outside Pamplin’s typical footprint.

“For us, it was a lesson that there’s an audience for good journalism in our publication outside of Portland,” Schrag said.

Pamplin and InvestigateWest are now talking about their next project.

A Michigan partnership between Crain’s Detroit Business and Bridge Magazine is a case in which collaboration even more fundamentally changed two newsrooms. The reporter they hired last year (and whose salary is split between the two news organizations) produces more than the average Bridge reporter. That’s partly because she writes a lot of daily stories about the state legislature, said Bridge publisher John Bebow.

“But she also does really deep reporting inspired by Bridge’s deep reporting ethic,” he said. That has proved so valuable to Crain’s that it purchased the right to republish all of Bridge’s stories before anyone else, starting this January.

“No medium has enough revenue to support a newsroom the way it would like to, so we have to get smarter about collaborations,” said Crain’s group publisher Mary Kramer.

An initial partnership can lead to further collaboration

Once two newsrooms are comfortable with each other, they often find ways to collaborate outside the initial arrangement.

Last year, for instance, Bridge Magazine received a tip that Dow Chemical Co., one of Michigan’s largest employers, was being courted by other states. Two reporters were put on the story, the one who works for both newsrooms and another who works just for Bridge. By working their publications’ respective sources — one in government, the other in business — they had an exclusive story two days later.

In most newsrooms, reporters try to look into tips while they’re juggling other work. But they don’t have time to dig into everything, especially as newsrooms get smaller. Some tips get buried on their desks or in their inboxes.

Newsrooms that work together, however, have a collaborative mindset. Editors know whom to contact, they know the quality of their partner’s work, and they trust them. Their reporters are not only more comfortable sharing tips with their counterparts in the other newsroom, they have an incentive to do so.

Newsrooms that work together, however, have a collaborative mindset. … Their reporters are not only more comfortable sharing tips with their counterparts in the other newsroom, they have an incentive to do so.

Let’s say one newsroom doesn’t have time to look into a tip. If it passes it over to a partner and the tip pans out, the first newsroom can decide if it wants to contribute reporting and co-publish. Even if it doesn’t help out, it could still share credit on the story.

All this is more likely when newsrooms have a system in place for working together.

The shift from a single partnership to ongoing collaboration is so natural, there are many examples around the country.

The Marshall Project took a tip from one of its partners, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and developed it into a story with The New York Times, another partner. “Inside the Deadly World of Private Prisoner Transport” started with a prisoner found dead inside a van in Georgia. That death wasn’t a major story, but it led to an investigation into 26 states where corrections departments outsource transportation to for-profit companies.

The success of “Unequal Justice” led to immediate talks about further collaboration between Pamplin and InvestigateWest. The stories had such an effect, “people at the top of the company really noticed. Even the top-tier management,” said InvestigateWest managing editor Lee van der Voo.

This is when the investment in a partnership really starts to pay off. “It’s not an anchor around your neck; it’s an opportunity,” Bebow said.

How partnerships can flourish

The first time a commercial and a nonprofit newsroom work together, the stakes are usually low. They’re typically looking to fill a particular need: distribution for their stories, a hand in reporting or specialized knowledge.

The stakes were certainly low in Buffalo when nonprofit Investigative Post signed its first contract with WGRZ-TV. Under the first contract, Investigative Post would supply a dozen on-air stories. It was the single largest revenue stream for the startup nonprofit, but if it didn’t work, the contract had an expiration date, and Investigative Post had other potential partners. The risk was small.

Five years later, Investigative Post’s staff has grown along with its contract with WGRZ. The four-person newsroom now includes a veteran environmental reporter and two talented young investigative journalists.

“I don’t know where I’d be without Channel 2,” said Investigative Post founder Jim Heaney. “I wouldn’t be nearly as successful.”

From the TV station’s perspective, former news director Jeff Woodard said, “For the cost of one halfway decent reporter, we get an entire team of reporters on Jim’s staff. … As he built his staff and asked for more, the proportion was still outstanding for us.”

Starting with that first deal, Heaney and management at the TV station developed a relationship deeper than the one on paper. When issues arise with a story, they can work it out. Occasionally a city official will call station management to try to influence a story or complain about Investigative Post’s reporting. The station defends the reporting every time, just as it would with one of its own reporters, according to Woodard and Heaney.

The first partnership between The Marshall Project and Vice News resulted in a single story on the prison system in Germany. Then The Marshall Project proposed a weekly column, which became “Life Inside,” co-published by both outlets. Once it was successful, Vice started paying for it.

The Houston Chronicle sees its partnership with The Marshall Project on “The Next to Die” as something to build on over time. “We’re thinking down the road we can find other opportunities to work together,” said Lise Olsen, the Houston Chronicle’s deputy investigations editor who oversees the partnership.

As partnerships grow, new problems can arise

Deeper collaboration and increased reliance on each other can spur fresh conflicts.

When these disagreements are about the journalism, they won’t threaten the relationship — as long as the two sides have built up some trust. Pay attention, though, when the disagreement is about the nature of the partnership itself and the value exchange.

News organizations aren’t static; the things they need and offer change all the time. A new editor, even if she’s not the boss, can decide to take things in a different direction. What felt like a fair deal at first could feel unbalanced later, particularly if one side isn’t seeing the benefits it expected. Sometimes the balance of responsibilities isn’t as equally distributed as envisioned.

The Food & Environment Reporting Network, for instance, is shifting its approach to partnerships since the organization has matured.

“It’s really hard to sell stories story-by-story,” said Sam Fromartz, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. That’s how it’s always been done at FERN, and it made sense when it was new and unfamiliar to commercial news outlets.

Deeper collaboration and increased reliance on each other can spur fresh conflicts.

But as the organization has grown, both in the number of stories it publishes and the number of partners that want to work with its writers, that type of partnership doesn’t scale particularly well.

“What we’re trying to conceive now,” Fromartz said, “is partnering on series, or several stories on a related topic that work for them and for us.”

Other complications can arise from bringing in too many partners. You can get wider distribution and more resources with more outlets, but you also have to figure out how to best serve everyone. And it’s harder to maintain an equal value exchange.

For instance, for the 2017 legislative session in Washington, InvestigateWest partnered with just one news organization for its statehouse reporting project rather than several as it had in previous years. (There were several reasons, including the fact that its executive director was on a fellowship.) The nonprofit found that having multiple partners made it harder to coordinate coverage and demonstrate value.

InvestigateWest’s partnership with Pamplin Media Group was originally a three-newsroom arrangement, but the broadcast partner dropped out. Pamplin’s John Schrag thinks that was a good thing for the collaboration, especially because it was his first time editing a project with another news organization.

“I support everything InvestigateWest did. Adding a third editor to the mix, it would complicate things. I don’t know how far this collaborative process could go,” he said.

Veterans of partnerships shared these tips to nip problems in the bud as you cultivate a relationship:

  • Follow through on commitments
    Partnerships are often hard on reporters, producers and editors because they require them to do their work differently. They need to know that the people they’re working with are diligent, responsible journalists who are equally invested in the success of the project.So be the kind of partner you want to have. Demonstrate that you deserve your partner’s trust by following through on commitments. In business, the axiom is that the customer is always right. Treat your partner as your customer and strive to do right by them.
  • Focus on the opportunity
    Partnerships are a way to say “yes” to ambitious projects you would normally have to turn away. That means they are going to be challenging and not at all routine. When you’re working through rough patches, remind yourself why you’re working together in the first place. Think about how your readers, your newsroom and your community will respond when the project is published.
  • Talk about your wins
    When a partnership goes well, talk about it. Hold a brown bag, stream a conversation on Facebook Live, or even organize a public event that brings together the audiences of both organizations to hear from the reporting team.Partnerships are a bright spot in media right now, often accomplishing important journalism that has an impact and makes communities proud. Tell that story loudly.

Today, partnerships between commercial and nonprofit newsrooms provide an opportunity to innovate and dive deep; to deliver meaningful, relevant, and well-reported coverage to their communities; and to make the most of limited resources. That’s why more and more news organizations of all kinds and sizes are looking at partnerships.

When Bridge Magazine’s John Bebow worked at newspapers, the core value was competition. “It was all about the exclusive,” he said. “It can’t be about the exclusive any more. That model is broken. We’re trying to change it.”

The nonprofit Charlottesville Tomorrow and its newspaper partner The Daily Progress recently won top awards from the Virginia Press Association in their respective divisions. “What that means is our newsrooms produce the best journalism,” said Charlottesville Tomorrow Executive Director Brian Wheeler. “What that means for residents is getting the best news coverage possible today.”

Once upon a time, news outlets around the country had business models that allowed them to regularly produce award-winning journalism. More and more, this level of work first requires commercial and nonprofit media to find creative ways to work together. Successful news partnerships solve a business problem, allowing news organizations to do their best work.

In Charlottesville, that partnership has “allowed us to make sure the amount of civic media about local government is growing, not shrinking,” Wheeler said. “That should be equally mind-blowing.”

Special thanks to everyone who contributed their insights to this report: John Bebow, Kim Bradford, Sue Cross, Kirsten Danis, Ken Doctor, Sam Fromartz, Jim Heaney, Lorie Hearn, Mike Kanin, Mary Kramer, Steve Myers, Lise Olsen, Brad Racino, Jon Sawyer, John Schrag, Matt Taylor, Lee van der Voo, Brian Wheeler, and Jeff Woodard.

Share with your network

You also might be interested in:

  • Successfully and efficiently marketing your work can be hard, especially for local news teams with limited resources, but marketing yourself to your audience is an essential skill for news organizations to drive revenue and promote sustainability.

  • As news teams begin thinking about their election coverage plans, it may feel like adding more tasks to an already full plate, with a fraction of the staff and resources they once had. But that doesn’t have to mean figuring out how to do more with less — maybe it’s doing less with less.

  • We reached out to Danielle Coffey, the CEO of American Press Institute’s parent corporation, the News/Media Alliance, to learn more about the legal fight for news organizations’ rights with AI.