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Partnership & collaboration: Why these gaps exist

In order to overcome them, first understand the barriers to succeeding at partnership and collaboration.

This is an excerpt from “Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News,” published Nov. 14, 2017. Read more excerpts here.

The legacy of high margin, autonomous businesses

When newspapers were extraordinarily profitable cash machines, owners and senior executives did not need to consider partnering as a standard strategic option. “Do X ourselves” was the assumed best option. Going it alone maximized financial returns and conferred control over the entire newspaper value chain – the step by step, function by function effort linking everything together (acquiring paper and ink, operating printing plants, distributing the paper, subscriptions, the newsroom, selling ads and so forth). When executives did have to make financial tradeoffs, the risks related more to just how much money would get made versus more existential realities such as the possibility of financial and economic collapse. Autonomy and control eliminated any reason to have an automatic, habitual orientation to explore partnering.

Limited experience and skills in partnering

Metro news organizations do have histories of working with others – just in narrow ways that have not extended across the edit/business divide or involved confronting unfamiliar risks together. Working with the AP to access non-local content, for example, goes back to the mid-19th century. Negotiating the best possible deal with the AP mattered. But, those deals did not rise or fall on how effectively metros and AP partnered to solve existential problems like those faced today. And the same can be said of working with local TV and radio outlets to cover weather or breaking news. Joint operating agreements focused on maximizing profit margins through operating efficiencies as opposed to adding new and different capabilities required to stay in business.

The church/state divide was mirrored in such arrangements. The newsroom worked with AP, local TV and radio; operations worked with others on operations. News enterprises that did not even partner internally across church/state had no experience partnering with others across the entire enterprise either. Nor did metro, local and regional news enterprises engage in the give and take of open-ended collaboration and partnering where (1) neither of the parties knows what will or won’t work but (2) the future of both depends on figuring that out. When Miami’s “Food Inc” team decided to partner with Yelp, for example, they and Yelp together had to agree on what each wanted from the arrangement and how best they could collaborate to achieve those goals.

No established management responsibility, process or criteria for partnering

In 2015, Philadelphia designated an executive to oversee partnering. That’s rare. Most metro, local and regional news enterprises don’t have the role. Nor do they have a cross-functional, whole enterprise management process for surfacing possible partnering opportunities; qualifying and testing them out against agreed upon criteria; and, for those that make sense, moving forward and monitoring results. In the absence of specific executive oversight plus a whole enterprise, criteria-based process, partnering cannot become a strategic competency.