“When we were contemplating how this topic could be better covered, we thought, what if we could have Wired’s design team or Slate’s meme-machine and great pulse on culture?” Jeffery said. “And you start to imagine the different skill sets and how they can partner up to make something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.”
Although the focus of the project is to improve the coverage of climate change, however, much of the partners’ interest comes from a common belief that collaborative projects like The Climate Desk will play an integral role in defining the future of journalism.
“We were looking at shops we thought would have something interesting to say to one another, but weren’t head-to-head competitors, as then it gets more difficult to tell [your partners] what your stories are going to be, or discuss what your Web traffic is,” Jeffery said.
According The Climate Desk Web site, “more hands on deck and more outlets mean we can do more coverage, bringing our various strengths and audiences to bear. For another, given the transformation of the media business, collaboration seems to be part of the future of journalism. We want to test out a new kind of distributed journalism—bringing together a group of reporting shops to brainstorm, assign, and share coverage. Already, this process has enriched our own understanding of the issue, and that can only be a benefit to our readers.”
With seven news organizations involved, one might expect the editorial process to be proportionately difficult. However, Bauerlein and Jeffery said that besides a marked increase in daily conference calls and shared Google Documents, collaboration has been surprisingly easy. There is no real accounting system for content contributions made by each organization, they added, but they stressed that the output of each partner is not the chief concern of the project.
“The biggest thing everybody’s been putting in is brain cells,” Bauerlein said. “It’s really an ideas collaboration. That’s the thing that we’ve all found enjoyable about the process, the coming together of minds. And from that has flowed a commitment of resources that is appropriate to each partner.”
The partner organizations cover their own costs for the pieces that they contribute to the project, but for the joint assignments and for maintaining the Climate Desk Web site, the project has received funding from the Surdna Foundation and the Park Foundation.
Bauerlein and Jeffery admit that it’s difficult to measure the concrete benefits this project will bring, but both were adamant that the most important product of the collaboration was the exchange of ideas it provided.
“Just in talking to each other about how our publications work mechanically, we’ve all learned some very valuable information. It’s better to come and learn from each other’s successes and failures. As journalists, we all rise and fall together,” said Jeffery.
Other benefits could come from the shared audiences between each organization. The partners command a combined online audience of more than 25 million monthly unique visitors, 1.5 million print readers, and an anticipated 1.5 million TV viewers, but there has been little talk of the effect The Climate Desk will have on each organization’s respective bottom line.
Moving forward, Bauerlein and Jeffery said that they’re looking to innovate even further within the collaborative structure they’ve helped build.
“What we did with this project was the thing that we all know really well how to do, which is report stories and publish stories,” Bauerlein said. “The kind of things that could be really exciting with a collaboration like this—if we get it right—are interactive things, things with user involvement, mapping, data visualization, any number of things that break out of the box.”
The project is still in the pilot phase, but some publications, like Ad Age, are already calling it “revolutionary.” That might be a bit much, but whether it marks the beginning of a new age of journalism, or just provides a shot in the arm for flagging climate-change coverage, The Climate Desk is worth keeping an eye on.