The struggle to give stories away

In October, I joined the Mississippi River Ag & Water Desk, a collaborative reporting project based at the University of Missouri and focused on the Mississippi River Basin. The desk, which formally launches this summer, brings together ten partner newsrooms in an effort to produce environmental coverage for communities throughout the river basin—a vital service at a time of accelerating climate impacts and an increasingly polarized political environment. By design, the desk should bolster local reporting capacity, employ more journalists, beef up coverage of agriculture and the environment, create training opportunities for students, and produce a range of stories that are geographically linked. We plan to give all of that coverage away for free publication—to help small-town newspapers to examine important but undercovered issues, and outlets in larger markets to fill gaps in coverage. 

As a journalist with roots in the rural Midwest and a decade of experience reporting in Louisiana, I know there’s a thirst for ambitious, contextualized coverage across the basin. Other journalists have told me the same. “I have to go to the softball game, the village board meeting, the Apple Festival,” Charley Preusser, who, with his partner, runs the Crawford County Independent—a weekly newspaper in rural southwestern Wisconsin with sixteen hundred subscribers—told me. “There is no way that I’m going to have the time to do these kinds of stories.” Preusser says he’s eager to pick up the stories we’ll offer; as the person in charge of distributing our stories, I’m eager to give them to him.

But there’s a problem. Over the past decade, I’ve worked on collaborations with local and national outlets—among them ProPublica, The Center for Investigative Reporting, the Investigative Reporting Workshop, American Public Media, Country Roads magazine, The Lens, and the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate. I helped create a collaborative reporting position between Wisconsin Public Radio and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ), and was part of the launch of NPR’s Gulf States News Hub. Many of those collaborations held similar story-sharing ambitions to the Ag & Water Desk. And yet, in all that time, perhaps the hardest part of each collaboration has been giving stories away.

Participating outlets use different platforms, so each story’s elements—the copy, photos, audio, and video—have to be in formats that are widely usable. Distributing those materials to outlets is another huge headache for many editors, who often wind up using a messy assortment of Google folders and file transfer programs—like Dropbox, Box, File Transfer Protocol, or WeTransfer—to make each story’s parts available and easily identifiable, and finally sending out notifications when the material is ready. The process can—and frequently does—take an outsize amount of staff time to organize and orchestrate. 

WCIJ, based at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, uses a familiar combination of Google Drive and an email blast to reach subscribers across the state. “Right now our checklist for releasing a single story has over forty steps,” Dee Hall, WCIJ’s editor, says. By Hall’s estimate, each story takes between two and three hours to package and distribute—a wonky system, but one that checks all the boxes Hall says are necessary. “It had to host all of the elements. It had to be easy to use. And we have to be able to track who takes it.” Tracking story pickup is a critical part of WCIJ’s funding model; like many nonprofit news outlets’, its budget is heavily dependent on grants, and funders want to know how many times its stories are published. The greater the number of stories, however, the more time news outlets must spend shuffling elements back and forth. As WCIJ plans to ramp up statehouse coverage and produce more content in the coming year, Hall told me, the outlet is eagerly looking for a more elegant system. 

The Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), which distributes coverage to about 160 outlets, used a similarly involved system until 2020, when it adopted a new tool called StoryShare. The AP tool is a password-protected file-sharing website that hosts text, audio, video, and graphics—similar to the familiar AP Exchange but designed specifically for collaborations. “We had been hearing from a lot of organizations that there was a willingness to collaborate…but collaborations are enormously difficult to maintain,” Noreen Gillespie, the AP’s deputy managing editor for US news, says.

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The StoryShare system hosts channels where teams can upload and download story elements. AP staff provide technical and a certain level of legal support, including basic copyright protection. The uniform format makes it easier for news outlets to download the content and publish it on their own websites. Editors can also send email alerts directly from StoryShare to all of the subscribers to let them know when stories are available. Laura Frank, COLab’s executive director, says the outlet shared more than a thousand stories in 2021, and StoryShare has been a huge improvement from the email-and–Google Drive system used previously. 

Even so, there are stumbling blocks. StoryShare lacks a collaborative editing interface; COLab still does that in Google Docs. Individual outlets must still download the material and build their own Web stories. And it costs money.

A few years ago, Dave Gehring, a former Google employee who cofounded the Distributed Media Lab, created a tool that solved for the story-building problem, allowing news outlets to directly embed content on their websites. The tool essentially enables an editor to curate a story collection that then auto-populates on sites where it has been embedded; it also tracks story-pickup rates, a helpful feature for news outlets looking to bolster grant applications. CalMatters, which has offered its content for free republication for years, began using the DML tool after previously using an arrangement closer to that of WCIJ.

Still, not every news outlet is prepared to use such a tool. Outlets that have had success with it have digital staff who are able to set it up and curate it. But Preusser, our small-town newspaper editor in Wisconsin, doesn’t even post most of his stories online; they are primarily printed. He needs raw elements, not a fancy widget. So what’s a collaborative news editor to do? 

I’m left wondering how, in an age of collaborative journalism in the US, the process itself remains so frustrating. How much staff time will we continue to squander emailing each other Google folders and reformatting Word docs or uploading audio files to different FTP servers? Does that time honor our broader mission to serve the public and get stories that matter in front of audiences quickly? Where are the Silicon Valley developers when we need them? Has Big Tech not attempted to solve this problem because collaborative journalism doesn’t seem profitable?

The perfect tool would allow for editing, sharing, and publishing all on one platform. “We would want to be able to collaborate in real time,” Frank told me. “We would want it to handle all platforms—text, audio, video, interactive graphics, photos; we’d want it to be able to track who is uploading and downloading content.” But that tool doesn’t exist yet. 

So, for now, the Ag & Water Desk is fundraising for $10,000 to pay for a StoryShare account to use for two years. My assistant director, yet to be hired, will have to spend hours a week uploading and curating stories there, but at least they’ll be easy to share and download—so long as we can afford the account, of course. We’ll offer the DML embed tool for outlets whose websites are able to use it.

“Simplicity is the key to collaboration,” Frank told me. She’s right—and yet “simple” looks different to everyone depending on their capacity, needs, and budget. With no perfect platform to meet all the needs of our collaboration partners and still keep things simple—at a cost that won’t hobble the very newsrooms that stand to benefit—we have to pick up the slack on our end. If that means using three different distribution tools just to give our reporting away for free, so be it.

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Tegan Wendland is editorial director for the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, a new collaborative journalism project dedicated to covering environmental issues in the Mississippi River basin. Wendland has worked at public radio stations in Wisconsin, Illinois and Louisiana for more than 15 years. Find her on Twitter @TeganWendland.

TOP IMAGE: A cargo ship plies up the Mississippi River towards New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish, La. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)