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This week we published a story, “‘We are not thought of’: The true impact of Western North Carolina’s maternal desert on rural women,’” in collaboration with The Daily Yonder. It was a story idea that was shared months earlier by reporter Sarah Melotte from The Daily Yonder with Shelby Harris from Carolina Public Press, who had been reporting on the important changes the state’s mountain region had faced after the regional hospital system had been sold.

Melotte’s reporting on disparities in maternal health in Montana made her interested in exploring these disparities in North Carolina, where she lives. Carolina Public Press reported on limited options for mothers giving birth in Western North Carolina in 2021, and Harris was interested in furthering this topic. 

In October of last year they presented the story idea to our newsroom as a collaborative reporting project. It had a lot of possibilities and, more importantly, it fit our news criteria. Melotte was mainly interested in the data journalism side, and Harris in the women’s stories.

During their initial research, they developed a working hypothesis, disproved it and then developed another one based on the data they collected, interviews they completed with different sources, reports and other data sets. They continued to develop the story until they found a source who was willing to share her story on the record. The reporters created an outline for the story, fact checking continued, many editorial meetings ensued, drafts of the story followed and then much editing shaped the story until it was published this week.

In the last few years, there has been a renewed interest in and support of collaborative journalism – defined generally as doing journalistic endeavors using a cross-entity approach. As the media industry continues to evolve and develop new models, the rise of nonprofit journalism means many nonprofit news organizations continue to be small, with minimal staff and modest budgets in comparison to corporate-owned media. This means resources for doing more investigative and in-depth reporting are limited. Collaborative journalism helps to distribute those costs across different newsrooms’ resources and reach. Collaboration makes possible reporting projects such as Panama Papers and Electionland, and becomes an essential part of doing reporting that has impact, wider reach and significance.

There are many ways to get there. In 2017, the Center for Cooperative Media identified six distinct models of collaborative journalism. The report explained each model and explores the history of collaborative journalism.

The Center for Cooperative Media identified six distinct models of collaborative journalism. Image: The Center for Cooperative Media

The publication of  “We are not thought of” was a culmination of many months of tenacious reporting work done jointly between two reporters that brought two media organizations together. In this and in previous and ongoing collaborations at Carolina Public Press, the word “collaboration” in our newsroom is a verb. We understand it best in the doing, working, producing or creating of something that often has an outcome that is greater than what would have been done by one member of the group alone.

It takes a leap of faith, an openness to working in a completely different way, and, above all, it takes time. If you don’t include time into the process, the collaboration will face many challenges that could impact the outcome of the reporting.

From this, my first collaboration experience during my brief time as editor in chief at Carolina Public Press, I’ve learned that when working on collaborations it’s important to:

  • Be clear about roles and responsibilities. 
  • Communicate early and often about the status of the reporting.
  • Be flexible and adaptable.
  • Give the reporters space to do their work and have touch points on the key parts of the reporting.
  • Anticipate that the reporting and production process will take longer than expected. Start out with adding more time instead of having to add more at the end.
  • Give the collaborating partners enough time to review and provide feedback.
  • Reflect on what worked well, what could be improved and ideas for further reporting.
  • Find ways to engage the community.

If there’s a collaboration that you’d be interested in Carolina Public Press doing or if you have additional tips, please feel free to write to us or comment below.

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