Chicago has long been known as a media battleground. While many cities are down to one daily newspaper — if that — Chicago has two, plus a wealth of niche news outlets. But as investigative resources dwindle in local journalism, Chicago has become a hotbed for collaboration rather than competition, reflecting a national trend.
The goal: Serve the public and have greater impact by teaming up with other newsrooms to produce more fleshed-out, well-rounded reports.
“The benefit, of course, of collaborating with multiple newsrooms is always the fact that you are utilizing two different audiences,” said Arionne Nettles, a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “With a company like WBEZ, for example, that focuses primarily on radio, if they collaborate with a company like the Chicago Tribune, which is known for being print-focused, then collectively you have two different audiences. And you also bring two different newsroom strengths to a collaboration.”
The Chicago public radio station WBEZ also has collaborated with ProPublica Illinois, NPR, Better Government Association, Chicago Reporter and the Reader.
“We’re a radio station, so we can do audio better than TV, better than newspapers,” said WBEZ’s Managing Editor, Tracy Brown. “Each person has strengths that they bring to it, relationships that they bring to it, that ultimately end up benefiting each other and the public.”
One project WBEZ produced with ProPublica Illinois brought change to hundreds of thousands of lives in the metro Chicago community — thanks to the collaboration between two data reporters: Melissa Sanchez from ProPublica Illinois and Elliott Ramos from WBEZ. Through a series of stories, the two organizations shed light on Chicago’s troubled vehicle ticketing and towing program, leading the city to give a clean slate to those trying to pay back increasing fines and to those with suspended licenses.
“It really did cause a lot of legislative change, and that may not have happened without that collaboration, right?” said Nettles, a former digital producer at WBEZ. “I mean, maybe it would have, but having two organizations working together, that doubles the audience, that doubles the pressure, and especially when you’re talking about watchdog reporting and investigating, then you want as many eyes on something as possible, because that is how you hold people accountable.”
Tracking Mayor Lightfoot From Many Angles
Another project hoping to cause change is “Lens on Lightfoot.” Seven outlets — Better Government Association, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, La Raza and The TRiiBE — contribute to shed light on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Each outlet has its own expertise, and will compile their reporting into a series of articles.
“It’s kind of classic journalism,” said Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat’s Managing Editor for Local News. Chalkbeat’s role is homing in on the mayor’s education agenda.
“We’re going to hold a politician or a public official accountable to promises or to the things said on a campaign trail or things that they’ve said post-election,” Gorski said. “This is a chance where each organization that’s in this group is picking off pieces and showing our expertise. We don’t need to be experts on all these other things because we’ve got folks in that pool who are.”
In journalism, we used to be all about competition, right, beating the other guy, and now there are simply fewer other guys.Eric Gorski, Managing Editor for Local News, Chalkbeat
The seven organizations are cross-promoting the articles and reaching a broader audience as a result. Gorski said that helps show the local community how many different players are contributing journalism.
“In journalism, we used to be all about competition, right, beating the other guy, and now there are simply fewer other guys,” Gorski said. “It goes without saying, the media landscape is smaller than it was several years ago.”
That’s not to say that the competitive landscape doesn’t still exist. Chicago’s two biggest newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, remain fierce competitors with each other. But both collaborate with other local newsrooms. The Tribune teamed with WBEZ on “16 Shots,” a podcast about the police killing of Laquan McDonald, and has also worked with ProPublica Illinois on several stories, including a recent high-impact investigation of school isolation rooms. The Sun-Times has conducted investigations with ProPublica and the BGA, and has served as a print and online home for stories by various news outlets. For example, the Sun-Times published a story last year on video gambling by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ.
It is inevitable that during a collaboration, breaking news will hit—and breaking news can’t wait. During these times, Chalkbeat’s Gorski said, “communication is key.”
“You can’t over-communicate when you’re collaborating with other media organizations or your own media organization,” Gorski said. “I just think sending out a clear signal as soon as possible that, ‘Hey, this thing has happened. This is really important to us. And this is why we’re gonna have to hit pause on this. We’re still committed to it.’ But, unless there’s a real compelling reason to stick to a publication schedule, we can be flexible.”
Coordination Can ‘Take More Time and Energy’
While there are numerous benefits that come from news organizations shifting toward collaboration, it’s not all smooth sailing. For starters, different newsrooms work at different paces and under different managers.
“[Some] work at a much slower pace than we do. And so sometimes, when you sign on to a project, the project takes a lot longer,” WBEZ’s Brown said. “That can kind of be an honest unexpected consequence when you are in it for longer than what you thought you were going to be in it.”
John Chase, Director of Investigations at the Better Government Association, echoed Brown’s statement.
“What would take 100 percent of effort just within the BGA to accomplish whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish, will probably take 150 percent — another 50 percent of time — just by the sheer fact that it’s collaboration,” Chase said. “Now, you get some of that back when you get the manpower later on. But when you make that initial decision, it’s going to take more time and energy than it would if I was just running our own investigative team here on a project.”
Newsrooms — and not to mention the individual people in them — have different mindsets and perspectives that make compromise another challenge. “You eventually have to settle on something,” Chase said. “Whatever it is, whatever project it is you’re working on, you can’t always include everybody’s perspective.”
Miscommunication may also play a factor as each organization uses different methods within their own walls.
Just trying to communicate through whatever channels we can — email, phone, Slack — trying to get everybody on the same page is probably the most difficult challenge.John Chase, Director of Investigations, Better Government Association
“Just trying to communicate through whatever channels we can — email, phone, Slack — trying to get everybody on the same page is probably the most difficult challenge,” Chase said.
Once a piece is researched, reported and written, WBEZ’s Managing Editor Brown said there’s not always a shared understanding in terms of how the content will be distributed. “You get the sense that one news organization is getting more out of it than you did, even if either you did equal the work or that you put more into it,” Brown said.
There’s also a fear that an outlet may undercut their partner and publish the piece first to pull all the traffic. While that hasn’t happened at WBEZ, Brown said she’s seen that happen at other organizations.
“I think that the reporters do a really good job, and the editors do a really good job, of setting boundaries in terms of resources and time that they’re able to commit to,” Brown said. “Ultimately, you want the work that you do to have impact.”
Competition as a ‘Luxury’
The collaboration trend has been growing for the past decade, according to Rick Edmonds, Poynter Institute’s Media Business Analyst and Leader of News Transformation. It was one of the ways news organizations tried to cope with growing financial pressures after the recession in 2008.
“People were able to put aside the whole competitive thing,” Edmonds said. “That’s a luxury that you don’t have when when times get tougher.”
In 2014, he co-wrote a piece titled “Journalism Partnerships: A New Era of Interest” with Amy Mitchell for Pew Research Center that dissected several news partnerships across the country.
You still certainly want to have enough of your originated content that you’re setting the tone and doing some strong pieces on your own.Rick Edmonds, Media Business Analyst, Poynter Institute
“You still certainly want to have enough of your originated content that you’re setting the tone and doing some strong pieces on your own,” Edmonds said. “It’s an element for most places, but not necessarily the center of what they do yet.”
Edmonds cited a partnership in Florida started by the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times that is “a consortium on climate change,” with a total of 18 participating organizations.
“That kind of collaboration around that specific topic is moving across the country,” Edmonds said. “It’s not always going to be state, sometimes it’ll be regions.”