Inside The Hechinger Report’s partnership strategy: “It’s all about producing impact”

Earlier this week, Marie Claire published a story on refugee education in Kenya. Reporter Sarah Butrymowicz traveled to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya last fall to report on the challenges girls face due to a lack of resources and opportunities.

While Marie Claire published the story, Butrymowicz doesn’t work for the magazine. She is the senior editor for investigations at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news site covering education.

The Hechinger Report publishes much of its journalism under a Creative Commons license, and it actively seeks out partnerships, like the one with Marie Claire, to amplify its reporting.

This week in Solution Set, we’re digging into the Hechinger Report’s approach to partnerships to learn why the site chose this approach to its reporting and the logistical requirements for pursuing these types of collaborations.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one productive thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.


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Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

• The Challenge: The Hechinger Report shares its stories with other outlets, but it wanted to think of a more strategic and mutually beneficial way to facilitate partnerships.

• The Strategy: The site has four core requests it makes of co-publishing partners, and it has become more assertive in making sure its requirements are met.

• The Numbers: About half of The Hechinger Report’s stories are shared with partners. It published more than 550 stories in 2018.  

• The Lessons: Newsrooms have to think like freelancers when they’re pitching collaborations, and once you begin working together, clear communication is key.

• The Future: The Hechinger Report plans to continue sharing its coverage and it is hoping to work more with local news organizations.

• Want to know more?: Scroll down to read more about partnership strategy for The Hechinger Report and seven other nonprofit news organizations in a report out today by the Shorenstein Center, compliments of their Single Subject News Project.  


The Challenge

Since its founding in 2010, partnerships have been a major focus for the non-profit Hechinger Report. The site, which focuses on covering “innovation and inequality in education,” will often report stories in conjunction with other organizations and also shares its coverage with other publishers at no cost to them.

Depending on the partner, a story will appear on The Hechinger Report’s website as well as on the partner’s website, newspaper, or broadcast.

“Partnership was a big focus knowing that our own website and audience would be very small,” Hechinger Report executive editor Sarah Garland told me.

“Because we’re mission-driven and non-profit, our goal is not making money,” she said. “It’s all about producing impact from the journalism and raising awareness about the topic we’re covering, education. The best way to do that was finding outlets with larger audiences than our own.”

As it has grown through the years its goals around building an audience for its own site and reaching readers through other publishers have evolved.

“We’ve thought more clearly and strategically about that in recent years. It’s not just about the biggest audience, but the right audience for each story,” Garland said.

As a result, the site — through its own experiences and learning from other similarly situated outlets — has developed a playbook for developing partnerships and coverage sharing agreements.


The Strategy

Of course, The Hechinger Report’s approach to partnerships can vary from story to story, but here’s how it typically works:

Garland is the usual point of contact between the Hechinger Report and other publications. She maintains a list of organizations and individuals that the site has previously worked with. Other editors and reporters will often lead outreach to various outlets depending on their relationships and prior experiences as well.

No matter who is making the outreach to the partner outlet, the Hechinger representative will ideally begin the conversation about partnering before a story is reported and written. That way, Garland said, the Hechinger Report can adapt its angle and approach to the story to suit the partner’s audience as well.

For instance, it co-published a story with Slate recently on Montessori education. Garland said Hechinger would have written the story anyway, but by coordinating with Slate ahead of time it was able to incorporate previous coverage Slate had done on the topic.

“Ideally, if we can find places where we’re bringing more attention to work they’ve already done, that’s good for them and good for us,” Garland said.

Similarly, by establishing partnerships early in the reporting process, it enables Hechinger to see if partners would potentially want to contribute reporting resources as well. That gets them more invested in the partnership in a way that’s more intensive than just republishing a story.

“Whenever we have an outlet investing their own time and resources then it becomes theirs,” Garland said. “They have ownership over  the project. They’re going to promote it and place it in a more prominent position on their site or in their paper.”

The Hechinger Report will sign memoranda of understanding with its partners when they request them, but typically it handles the relationships informally. (Scroll down to Want to Know More? for examples of MOUs.)

When it comes time to publish the story, The Hechinger Report makes four specific asks from the partners:

1. The Hechinger Report asks to read the story before publication to make sure that everything is accurate.

2. It requests that the partner link back to the specific story URL on The Hechinger Report’s website and include specific language crediting the site:

This story [LINK to HECHINGER STORY URL] was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.”

Previously, it asked partners to link back only to its homepage, but this was ultimately hurting The Hechinger Report’s search engine optimization. Because the partner publications typically had larger audiences than Hechinger, when both sites were scraped by Google, its algorithms thought that Henchinger was copying content from the larger site and it would down rank the site. But by linking to the actual story, it’s able to counteract that.

3. Hechinger asks that the partners mention Hechinger on social media and link to its site.

4.  Finally, The Hechinger  Report asks to coordinate ahead of time on publication of the stories. It typically likes to know at least a day ahead of time when a story is going to run.

“For a long time we would scramble to publish after a partner had suddenly published a story,  which is really frustrating,” Garland said. “It’s nuts and bolts bad for our SEO when that happens.

And as Hechinger has gained more experience, it has become more assertive about making  sure that partners meet the requirements, Garland told Caroline Porter, who wrote the Shorenstein Center Single Subject News Project report on partnerships.

“We’ve become much more aggressive, in a friendly way, about asserting our requirements and have found most partners to be very amenable,” she said. “They will go back and change things if they’ve left something out that we’ve asked for, for example.”


The Numbers

The Hechinger Report has relationships with more than 100 newsrooms of all scopes and sizes —  from large national outlets to tiny local publications.

About 50 to 60 percent of The Hechinger Report’s coverage is published by partner organizations, Garland said.

“These are stories where we’re very focused on some kind of impact — whether it’s just raising awareness of an issue, doing a solution story that gets information out there to a wider audience of  people who may be able to learn something, or accountability where we get a story in front of the right audience of policymakers and influencers,” Garland said.

The site published more than 550 stories in 2018, its most ever.

The Hechinger Report has 27 staffers and contributors.


The Lessons

• Think like a freelancer: When Garland approaches a potential partner newsroom about sharing coverage, she approaches them as if she was a freelancer pitching an editor.

“I worked as a freelancer for several years and it’s the same process,” Garland said. “You’re pitching stories to outlets and that experience as a freelancer to draw on in this position where it’s not ever cold pitching someone without reading their coverage, knowing what kind of stories they like, and that kind of thing.”

Whenever you’re trying to coordinate a partnership, you should be acutely aware of why the story would be a right fit for them. You shouldn’t necessarily  think about reaching as large an audience as possible, but rather think about reaching the right audiences that will be most impacted by the reporting.

• Think about your own audience: By partnering with other news organizations, The Hechinger Report has been able to reach a wider readership and raise its own profile while ensuring that it’s reporting can have more impact.

And while it’s committed to sharing coverage, it’s also made an effort to build up its own platforms to better serve its audience of readers who are passionate and deeply interested about education.

“We do care about our website and we do care about our own audiences,” Garland saaid. “Partnerships are  our way of getting our stuff out into the world to people who don’t think about education or care deeply about it every day…but we think it’s really  important to build an audience of folks who we’re talking to more frequently and more intimately.”

Because its partners link back to specific story pages, Hechinger Report has begun using its story pages to educate readers about the site’s mission, highlight related coverage,  and enable readers to sign up for email newsletters.

Still, Hechinger has some coverage — namely its opinion writing —  that is only available on its own platforms.

• Think about coordination and communication: Many larger sites have staff members who head up partnerships. While Hechinger doesn’t have  a dedicated partnerships staffer, it tries to ensure that there’s only one person coordinating coverage on each story.

“It’s important to have one person coordinating it so we’re not pitching one outlet multiple stories in a week…we don’t want to overwhelm our partners, and we also want to make sure we’re distributing our stories to different outlets.”

Hechinger maintains a single database of its partners and the individuals at each organization who are the point people for coordinating coverage. But because of the high level of turnover in the news business, the site is constantly updating the list to make sure it’s accurate.

And once it begins a partnership with an outlet, Hechinger Report is sure to set up clear lines of communication and responsibilities between each newsroom.

For example,  Hechinger teams up with HuffPost at least once a year to work on a joint reporting project. The  teams will have weekly or bi-weekly phone calls to discuss progress and they’ll assign stories to reporters on both teams.

“It’s  a very intensive collaboration, and we’ll even co-byline stories and that kind of thing,” Garland said.


The Future

While there are national education trends and policies, much of the coverage is specific to  individual states or cities. As a result, The Hechinger Report has made a point to focus on collaborating with local outlets.

Over the years, it has worked closely with news organizations in Mississippi and New Orleans. But the site is continuing to look for areas where it can make a difference on the local level.

Hechinger is in the process of building a database of partners in each state and is looking for additional ways it can work with outlets to localize its coverage across the United States.

“We really try to think about the right outlet for the story,” Garland said. “That means we’re not constantly trying  to get into The New York Times or The Washington Post. We’re also thinking a lot about state outlets, local outlets that have clout or influence  where they are, or that are like minded in doing this work.”


Want to know more?

• Learn more about The Hechinger Report’s approach to partnerships in Shorenstein’s new report on how eight nonprofit news orgs approach collaboration.

•. Here’s how Hechinger lays out its partnership policies on its website.

• The Center for Cooperative Media has assembled a terrific resource that shares examples of partnership agreements and MOUs. It’s a great place to start if your newsroom is looking for more detail on how to formalize these kinds of relationships.

• Last year, I wrote an issue of Solution Set about how a local nonprofit news site and newspaper in Charlottesville, Va. share their news coverage.


Anything to add?

How’s your newsroom thinking about collaboration and partnerships? Have you tried anything unique? Let  me know! I’d love to feature it in Solution Set.

See you next Thursday!

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