For small, local, independent news publishers, teaming up with a larger news organization can be a big boost — but making it a true partnership that works for both parties can be a challenge.
In 2009 and 2010, the Knight Foundation funded the Networked Journalism Project, which helped regional newspapers and other news outlets partner with community publications. In the final report on the Networked Journalism project, J-Lab's Jan Schaffer wrote, "Content sharing overall can be a win-win for both legacy newsrooms and indie start-ups. Revenue sharing, however, is still a nut to be cracked."
A few years after the Networked Journalism project, these challenges remain. However, a handful of LION Publishers have found partnerships that are working for them. For some LION publishers, the benefits of partnering come from reputation and branding growth more than from traffic and revenue.
Here are some examples from LION Publishers members and lessons they learned along the way.
Yubanet On Air
An ongoing partnership between Yubanet in and two local radio stations in the Northern Sierra Nevada (Nevada County) area of California started when Yubanet became the go-to resource for wildfire information. Local radio stations would often pick up Yubanet's coverage, and call to ask founder and publisher Pascale Fusshoeller to go on air with details.
Fusshoeller formalized agreements with the AM station and later an FM station about 7 years ago that includes syndication fees for Yubanet, traffic to Yubanet's website and more audience reach.
"It works really well," Fusshoeller said. "We get exposure, and it's nice to be on various platforms at the same time."
What the radio stations get in exchange is access to expertise and 24/7 emergency news coverage and information.
"I think the collaborations can work as long as it's a different platform," Fusshoeller said. "Web and radio – that works really well."
The radio stations both pay a monthly syndication fee to Yubanet, and there are additional charges during "high fire season" in the region. Those fees total about 5 percent of Yubanet's annual revenue.
The radio stations both have websites, and the first paragraph of Yubanet's copy may appear on the radio station website with a link back to the full story on Yubanet's site. The radio station websites may use pictures with attribution and a link back to Yubanet.
In addition, Yubanet has a separate, additional syndication deal with the local AM station that puts in place a 48-hour waiting period on certain stories.
A printing partner in Charlottesville
When the Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress approached Charlottesville Tomorrow's Brian Wheeler, the newspaper was facing a shrinking newsroom and looking for content. Wheeler was looking for something very different – a partner who could print and help distribute Charlottesville Tomorrow's annual voter's guide, which costs thousands of dollars every other year. Charlottesville Tomorrow also gained additional credibility by having content appear in the newspaper.
The two-page agreement five years ago with no money trading hands has evolved into a "very collaborative partnership," Wheeler said. The newspaper has printed more than 1,300 stories from Charlottesville Tomorrow. In addition, headline links on the Daily Progress homepage go directly to Charlottesville Tomorrow's website.
Now, the two organizations jointly plan coverage on a weekly basis. Wheeler works with an editor at the newspaper to avoid overlap and clarify who's covering what. "We've really become an extension of their newsroom," Wheeler said – so much so that their CMSs are tied together.
In the first year, Charlottesville Tomorrow allowed all content to be published on both websites – but traffic to Charlottesville Tomorrow "tanked because people didn't know to go to our website," Wheeler said. About 18 months into the partnership, the newspaper agreed to link out to Charlottesville Tomorrow instead. In 2011, about 20 percent of Charlottesville Tomorrow's website traffic was coming from the Daily Progress. Due to a change in the newspaper's CMS and homepage layout, the percentage is down significantly. The newspaper is now asking for at least a "landing page" for Charlottesville Tomorrow's content – that's still being worked out.
"What we've gotten out of this partnership is the benefits of a true collaboration," Wheeler said. "Both of our organizations want the public to be well-informed. As a mission-driven non-profit, that's our stated goal. The newspaper helps us do that better."
"They help us reach a bigger audience, give us greater credibility and greater visibility. And, that helps me fundraise; it helps me get grants and individual gifts," Wheeler said.
Other partnerships Wheeler tried in Charlottesville were not quite as successful, he said. For a year around 2013, he partnered with the alternative newsweeklies in the area with providing schools and public education content to them. In exchange, the newsweekly printed Charlottesville Tomorrow's school board voters' guide and Charlottesville Tomorrow's content reached a new and different audience. The partnership ended after one of the alt weeklies folded and the remaining, combined alt-weekly publication took a different news tack.
DavidsonNews.net's second try
DavidsonNews.net was one of the first local publications to partner with the Charlotte Observer in the J-Lab-sponsored Networked Journalism project through the Knight Foundation. The grant allowed regional newspapers to experiment with community news publications in the area.
David Boraks, DavidsonNews.net editor and founder, felt like the partnership was too heavily weighted toward the newspaper, which had an internal policy of not linking out to any other publication.
When the partnership came up for renewal, with what Borak said were even tighter terms, he chose not to renew. Other Networked Journalism project partnerships across the United States had more success, according to a J-Lab report released in 2012.
For Boraks, a subsequent partnership with WFAE, a radio station in Charlotte, has worked out quite well. DavidsonNews.net and WFAE have been partners since 2011.
"The most important thing about a partnership is that it is a two-way street," Boraks said.
With a simple memorandum of understanding and a history of trust between the two news outlets, DavidsonNews.net and sister site CorneliusNews.net help the radio station with coverage in their area north of Charlotte, and the radio station helps DavidsonNews.net with region-wide coverage. The two publications have an agreement about attribution and linking back to each other, and the radio station attributes DavidsonNews.net on air regularly.
From the partnership, DavidsonNews.net benefits with traffic to its website. "We get additional content on our site that we probably couldn't get to," Boraks said. "The more different kinds of relevant content we can give our readers, the more they read us." That coverage is among factors that bring people back to the website as repeat visitors.
Boraks said he does sometimes get on air, as well. "When we do get on air, people throughout the area hear about us, and it's helped us build our reputation as a reliable news service in the area north of Charlotte," Boraks said.
Although occasionally Boraks will produce a feature story for the radio and be paid for it, there are no financial terms around the partnership.
Whether it's content, traffic or revenue changing hands, Borak said a partnership only will work if it's a two-way street and both partners see benefits.
Setting boundaries and mutual trust are key to making any deal work, Fusshoeller said.
Fusshoeller said at first she was really glad the radio station was asking for Yubanet's coverage, but the radio stations started using Yubanet's reporting excessively, Fusshoeller said.
"Never forget that it's still your content and you have to set very clear boundaries and very clear expectations for the syndication partners," Fusshoeller said. That includes working out details like definite, clear attribution with a website URL on air or anywhere information is used.
Putting those details in place are part of what has made the syndication deals worth it for Yubanet. "The one thing why it's worth it is because the repetition of the name," Fusshoeller said. The radio stations are also generous with praise, she said, saying things on air like, "If you don't subscribe to Yubanet, this is all the work they do."
Fusshoeller said she believes the deals have helped generate more subscription revenue.
Boraks said a prior basis of trust between himself and the radio station's leadership also helped forge the partnership. Borak worked at the radio station in the past and is still a weekend announcer there.
— Beth Lawton/LION Publishers
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