It is important in collaborations to avoid taking for granted how the content will be created. Every organization has a different process, and when two organizations come together, a new process must be created. Understand what that editorial process will be, including who will be involved at every stage, who has veto power, and when and how you will handle disagreements. When the editorial process has space to change course and to entertain different perspectives, the collaboration can produce journalism with impact.
Wendi C. Thomas has found her partnerships essential to the growth and good work of MLK50 in Memphis, Tennessee. She was a 2019 ProPublica Local Reporting Network Fellow, and with that partnership, the organization she founded published investigative stories that relieved thousands of people from medical debt. The collaboration, she says, was “absolutely incredible” and brought resources to her small newsroom (at the time, just Thomas and one other full-time person, along with some part-time and freelance journalists).
“Professionally, this has probably been the best year of my life,” Thomas says.
Could she have achieved this kind of success and meaningful journalistic work without her collaboration with ProPublica? She thinks yes, but it would have taken much longer and might not have gotten the reach it did.
Thomas has a strong sense of mission for her organization, and the conviction that the people of Memphis deserve to be represented as whole people, to “not reduce them to a prop” for investigations. She finds this mission easier to accomplish when her editors are local; national-level editing does not have to consider what happens when you run into the people you write about at the grocery store.
That tension between national resources and context and local mission is a very important one to navigate well. It’s not bad that different organizations have different perspectives, but Thomas says it takes experience and confidence to navigate those differences, to speak up when it’s time to take a stand and to learn from each other when that is what most benefits the project.
“A lot of times, organizations use collaborations as a way to not look like they are doing parachute journalism,” Cooper of Scalawag says. She calls it a kind of “parachute editing.” People unfamiliar with the communities being reported on often edit out nuance, or place-making details that are core to Scalawag’s style and values.
But when a collaboration is good, when editorial conflicts are productive, having second and third editors helps to make stories better and can be great for an organization. “It gets you out of a rut,” she says.
Wallace, who created “The View from Somewhere” book and podcast to interrogate the history of what people understand as objectivity in journalism, says he is continually learning about how the systems and ways we produce journalism can be extractive, especially from marginalized people.
“The process of how we produce the news really matters,” Wallace says. “How does process itself lead to a more just world?” In his trainings, he shows editors and reporters “how to interrupt,” how to challenge rooted practices that exclude people or perspectives.
Here’s an example of that kind of interruption: MLK50 takes as a starting point, from its founding in 2017, the values of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. Significantly, he was there in support of sanitation workers and their labor conditions. Though he is deified today, at the time he advocated for a “radical redistribution of wealth” that was incredibly controversial, Thomas says.
“It was not just a racial equity dream,” she says, “but an economic equity dream.”
Openly pursuing economic equity with MLK50 still makes some people in media bristle; they see the work as having a point of view that constitutes advocacy. But for Thomas, everyone comes from some point of view. Just making decisions about how to allocate resources reflects organizations’ perspectives: “They trick themselves when they say they have not chosen a side.”
“In the writing and editing process, as the reporter with the byline, I sign off on everything,” Thomas says. Though most edits with collaborators are good, it’s important to assert yourself when something matters to you or the community you are serving.
Ultimately, feeling confident that you can have open conversations and a process to navigate editorial differences with collaborators is key.