Secrets of a Happy Nonprofit/For-Profit Investigative Collaboration

The Houston Chronicle’s Terri Langford shares the tips she presented on the Nonprofit/For-Profit Collaborations: Navigating the Terrain panel at the 2012 IRE conference.
 
Two years ago I collaborated on a story with Emily Ramshaw of the Texas Tribune about abuse in residential treatment centers in Texas. These centers (RTCs) are where the most traumatized foster care kids are sent once they are removed from an abusive home.
 
This collaboration worked well for several reasons (and yes, I’ll do it again).
 
First, we were lucky enough to know each other beforehand. We had both been on the metro desk of the Dallas Morning News. While you don’t have to know the other person well to collaborate, you should know the strengths they bring to the table and divide the work accordingly.
 
Also, don’t collaborate for a fishing expedition. No open-ended story ideas. No editor is going to let you join forces to figure out what to write about. You should have a clear, targeted subject. And Emily did. She had plugged in the online inspection reports from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services into a database and had discovered the “fight club” incident. The location of that incident was in a Houston area facility that had a long problematic care history. Since we have have both covered social services in Texas and this agency in particular, it was a great fit. I provided subsequent Houston area interview and was anchor writer for the story.
 
By joining forces, my publication was able to tap into their great online graphic presentation of the database and by linking with us, the Tribune was able to harness a larger readership through our website. I think both publications reached new readers through this.
 
I won’t lie. There were some at my publication who were not entirely convinced collaboration would work. But the process was seamless. Here’s some things that helped us:
 
    •    You need one editor – not 5-10 – who is in charge of the project. That way, that person is vested and checks in with the reporters involved and moves them along.

    •    Communicate daily. Emily and I would check in by email and let the other know what tasks were getting done, what needed to be done. We’d talk every few days when we needed to. It helps that both of us are list-makers.

    •    Keep to a schedule. This project was not my only job. So I would go down the list, make calls, headway, on the project first, then work on other stories.  
 
The result? Collaboration lets your other colleagues in the news community know you’re willing to join forces, or as I called it, date other publications. I have since been contacted by another news organization that wants to collaborate. We haven’t come up with the perfect type of project yet, but we’re looking.

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