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How Climate Desk found the perfect storm for collaboration.

Collaboration in journalism is no longer a new concept, and it’s cropping up everywhere. There are many examples of reporters working with an audience to tell a story, and some examples where they merge their craft with other forms of storytelling altogether. In one case, an entire ad hoc army was built to tackle a large story when the Center for Public Integrity assembled 86 journalists in 46 countries to pore through the inner workings of offshore tax havens. Then there’s Climate Desk, a “journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact — human, environmental, economic, political of a changing climate.”


Climate Desk is a coalition of eight publications, The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, The Guardian, Grist, The Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired; all putting aside competitive interests in order to address the increasingly drastic ecological changes throughout our planet.

Instead of the usual coverage of activists vs. denialists, they bring new angles to climate reporting; reporting which has typically lagged behind the paradigm shift as attitudes toward climate change shift. Stories include topics like changes in infrastructurefood supply, and animal behaviors (did someone say cannibal lobsters?). It’s an important resource in a time of uncertainty for environmental reporting, as shown when the New York Times dropped its environmental desk last year.

All of the partners contribute stories to the pool, and in turn, publish each others work to reach a combined readership of 200 million people, Senior Project Manager Jeremy Schulman told JTM.

So then, how do eight competing publications join together without stepping on each others’ toes?

Find a host who’s willing to drive

Climate Desk operates out of the Mother Jones offices, which is where the idea formed in December 2009, right as the excitement was peaking before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhangen. Mother Jones is published by the non-profit motherjones-logoFoundation For National Progress, which brought in the additional philanthropic support for Climate Desk listed on their about page. The funding allows them to have four people on full-time staff who all take part in producing content, as well as aggregating all the climate related content for partners to share.

Climate Desk also produces their own original content for partners to publish while they’re out covering other stories. Along with originally researched articles, they also release the weekly “Inquiring Minds” podcast, hosted by Chris Mooney and Indre Viskontas, and the “Climate Desk Live” video events, which partners sometimes stream live on their own sites.

Find a common calling

The breakthrough moment of Climate Desk was made possible because all of the original seven partners got into a room and had what Mother Jones co-editors Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein described as the result of brainstorming “the perfect editorial meeting.”

Everyone found consensus on four points:

1) Climate change is slow-moving and vast, making it overwhelming for news organizations to grapple with.

2) What coverage there is tends to be fractured and compartmentalized—science, technology, politics, and business aspects are covered by different teams, despite the intrinsic connections.

3) Coverage is too often fixated on imperiled wildlife, political gamesmanship, or the “debate” over the existence of climate change, all at the expense of advancing the bigger story—how we’re going to address, mitigate, or adapt to it.

4) Cuts to news organizations are making matters worse.

Once the common bond was established, the group could then move forward and start sharing the fruits of their combined labor.

While the entire group gets access to each other’s content, partners can request an embargo on a major story so they can break it first before others post it. This was the case when The Huffington Post revealed the NSA spying that took place during the Copenhagen summit.

Diversify skills and angles

“One of the unique things about collaboration is all the different partners offer unique beats and subject expertise” says Schulman. Case in point, Chris Mooney worked together with Dana Liebelson, who writes about national security for Mother Jones to report on the CIA funding geo-engineering research. This allowed someone from a science background to explain the technical side, in addition to someone with a political reporting background to explain the policy angle. “If we were operating on just a staff, it wouldn’t be possible” he noted.

Another good example is Phil Plait, a popular explainer of science who runs Slate’s “Bad Astronomy” blog. He put together a short video with the Climate Desk producers to set the record straight on the echoing misinformation around Arctic sea ice. Or take Suzanne Goldenberg, the environmental correspondent for The Guardian, who got the video crew to follow her to West Texas to document droughts caused by fracking, the aftermath of the West Virginia chemical spill, and a strange legal battle in Pennsylvania where Cabot Oil and Gas pushed a court injunction against an anti-fracking activist barring her from entering the supermarket.

One of the key factors that makes this collaboration work is the production assistance that Climate Desk offers when a story heats up. A partner can pitch a story to the team and get James West (Senior Producer) or Tim McDonnell (Associate Producer) to venture out in the field with them to produce a polished video. In a way it’s like having a jetpack to wear so a reporter can take their story to a level that wouldn’t be possible with limited staff resources.

For now, the multimedia production is handled by the small team at Climate Desk headquarters, with some help from other Mother Jones staff who have contributed their graphic talent. With The Huffington Post added as a new partner this year, thanks to their environment and energy editor Kate Sheppard, there is hope that the group will be able capitalize on their dedicated infographics shop and video studio where HuffPost Live is produced.

Don’t bog it down with process

When they first started out, Climate Desk had a structured protocol that involved daily conference calls, shared Google Documents, and a customized Publish2 feed. Now it operates under a more asynchronous workflow, without fancy tech or scheduled calls.

climatedesk-sxswecoInstead, it’s centered around Schulman (Senior Project Manager), who wrangles together a daily email with all the upcoming climate stories for partners to nose through and print as they choose. When a partner wants multimedia support, they write to Schulman and he handles it on a case by case basis. “One of the advantages to Climate Desk building up its own dedicated staff over the last few years is that it makes communication and collaboration with the partners much simpler,” he says. “Rather than having to schedule an official ‘Climate Desk Conference Call’ with eight busy partners, the Climate Desk team communicates with individual partners throughout the day.”

Because partners aren’t communicating directly with each other, they don’t tend to team up on a given story. However, with Schulman as a dedicated liaison, they end up working together indirectly when it comes to planning coverage of big events.

“In the run up to the release of last year’s IPCC report, for instance, several of the partners shared story budgets in advance. We were able to alert partners in advance that both the Guardian and Climate Desk’s Tim McDonnell would be reporting live from Stockholm and that Climate Desk’s Chris Mooney would be breaking down the science.” Climate Desk also ran a live blog highlighting coverage from across the partnership, and because they knew about it advance, it was republished by Atlantic Cities to gain further reach.

Where will the experiment lead?

It’s safe to assume a noticeable increase in content and distribution that is made possible by the collaboration. Climate Desk partners disseminated 430 different stories last year, 150 of those were written or produced by Climate Desk staff themselves. Along with the 200 million combined monthly readers around the world, there’s the added bonus of cross sharing on social media, with an extra boost of ~50,000 followers that are growing on @ClimateDesk’s Facebook and Twitter. Another side advantage to the collaboration is that it’s easier for partners coordinate face-to-face events together, like this SXSW eco panel discussing problems with mainstream climate coverage.

While there have been setbacks in the field, like the New York Times dismantling its environmental desk, there are figures that show demonstrated growth of climate based reporting. Besides Climate Desk, there are dedicated outlets out there like The Daily Climate, Inside Climate News, and Climate Central.

While there are clear benefits to collaborations like Climate Desk, it’s important to note that its success has relied on donations from private philanthropists. There are questions as to whether alternative financial models can develop to produce strong teams that report on a single issue. One brave new attempt is “Climate Confidential” which just reached their crowdfunding goal on Beacon, and plan to be entirely reader supported.

What other collaboration possibilities do you see out there? Can a coalition form around other major issues like health care or education?

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Students nationwide take “TAO of Journalism” Pledge

Journalism students at Whitney High School (CA) take the TAO of Journalism Pledge.

“We want to show our readers and the larger journalism community that we stand by the ideals of being Transparent, Accountable and Open in our reporting and all of our practices as student journalists.” — The Roar, Whitney High School, CA

“Journalistic ethics are becoming even more critical to the practice of journalism as the field evolves….[We] like the simplicity of the pledge and the fact that it can apply equally and easily to citizen journalists, students, bloggers, professional journalists in all media.” — The Kerronicle, Kerr High School, Houston, TX

“Why are we doing it? Well, because we should.” — The Purple Tide, Chantilly High School, VA

Almost 1,000 student journalists from coast to coast have now taken the “TAO of Journalism” Pledge, promising to be Transparent, Accountable and Open in their practice of journalism. More than 850 of them nationwide took the Pledge during the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Journalism Week (Feb. 19-26). The quotes above are among comments emailed to the Washington News Council, which originated the TAO of Journalism concept and trademarked the TAO Seal.

The TAO Pledge and Seal allow journalists to make a public statement of ethical principles to help instill trust among their readers, viewers and listeners. The JEA endorsed the concept at the organization’s annual national convention in Kansas City last November. Kathy Schrier, executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association and executive assistant at the WNC, attended the convention and led the endorsement effort. The TAO Pledge also may discourage school administrators from imposing prior review on student publications, JEA leaders believe.

The TAO Pledge — which is open to mainstream journalists, independent bloggers, freelancers, newsletter writers, or anyone else committing “acts of journalism,” asks journalists to publicly promise that they will be “Transparent” about who they are, “Accountable” and willing to correct any errors, and “Open” to other points of view. The idea, originally introduced at a Journalism That Matters gathering, is steadily gaining traction with media organizations and individual journalists worldwide as a way to help maintain public trust. (See Directory page on TAO website for a list of pledgers so far.)

After all, journalists want everyone they cover to be transparent, accountable and open. So why not them? It’s a two-way street. Those qualities always increase credibility and public trust in any institution or organization that adopts them. The same will be true for journalists and media organizations.

Any media group or individual journalist who takes the TAO Pledge gets listed on the TAO of Journalism website with a link to their publication and/or website. They can then post the TAO Seal in their masthead or on their website.

For some examples of how some sites are using the TAO Seal, see:


2. Common Language Project

3. De Standaard, Belgium

4. B-Town Blog

5. Fremocentrist

Student journalism organizations may take the TAO Pledge and display the Seal for free. Independent individual journalists are asked to donate $25 per year and media organizations (three or more staff) are asked to donate $50 per year to help support the TAO project’s website, maintenance and outreach. The Washington News Council is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, so donations are tax-deductible.

JEA is encouraging schools and student media to sign the Pledge and to invite their school administrators to sign on, as well. Students receive a color poster of the TAO Pledge that can be displayed as a reminder of their commitment. In addition, student publications that took the TAO Pledge during Scholastic Journalism Week receive temporary stick-on “TAOttoos” of the TAO seal for all members of their staff. The Washington News Council ordered 3,000 of these to be mailed to TAO pledgers nationwide.

The TAO Pledge and Seal are open to anyone who is interested. Just TAO it!

This article was originally published by John Hamer on the Washington News Council‘s site.

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Seattle’s BOLD plan for a Journalism Commons

From left to right: Karen Johnson (Seattle Magazine/Hacks & Hackers) Mike Fancher (Journalism Commons PNW) David Boardman (Seattle Times) Lisa Skube (Reynolds Journalism Institute)

I once heard retired Seattle Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher describe himself as a “one-man crusade” to save Journalism. That was several months ago, and he’s not alone anymore.

Last year Journalism that Matters held it’s monumental Pacific Northwest Unconference where several projects have since emerged. It was then that Fancher formally launched his mission to “cultivate abundant journalism” and last night marked a significant milestone in that effort.

Twenty-one of the region’s most influential news experts and enthusiasts gathered at the swanky offices of Seattle Magazine to discuss the state of news and information in our region, with the overall goal of finding ways to increase the level of quality journalism across the Pacific Northwest. As a bonus, Banyan Project founder and Harvard Berkman fellow Tom Stites came along for the ride. The “Dream Team” roster included:

Sanjay Bhatt, Seattle AAJA, Seattle Times, and Global Health Journalism Collaboratory
Anna Bloom, Seattle Code for America Fellow
David Boardman, Executive Editor The Seattle Times
Mark Briggs, Director of Digital Media KING-TV
Jacob Caggiano, Washington News Lab (part of the Washington News Council)
Carole Carmichael, Seattle Times
Joe Copeland, Crosscut
Mike Fancher, Former Seattle Times Executive Editor & 2008-2009 RJI Fellow
Brian Glanz, Open Science Federation
Jan Gray, Puget Sound Civic Communication Commons
Monica Guzman, Intersect
John Hamer, Washington News Council
Rita Hibbard, Investigate West
Peggy Holman, Journalism That Matters
Clay Holtzman, SPJ Western Washington
Hanson Hosein, UW Master of Communication in Digital Media Program, Media Space Host
Marsha Iverson, King County Library Services, KCLS Newsroom
Karen Johnson, Seattle magazine and co-organizer of new Seattle Hacks and Hackers chapter
Julie Pham, NW Vietnamese News and Sea Beez (New America Media)
Lisa Skube, Reynolds Journalism Institute
Tom Stites, The Banyan Project and Berkman Center for Internt and Society at Harvard
Luke Timmerman, National Bio-Tech editor – Xconomy

The evening was off to a good start with a few well received announcements. The first came from Investigate West founder Rita Hibbard who was just awarded their second grant from the The Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Another item of interest was Seattle Times writer and Global Health Initiative co-founder Sanjay Bhatt’s mention of a new collaborative report on Global Health Journalism. The crowd also warmly welcomed journalist Anna Bloom‘s arrival to our fair city to weave together a new open government system as part of her 2011 Code for America fellowship.

Now that the pump was primed, JTM founder and conversation steward Peggy Holman broke the room up into pairs, followed by small groups, and ending with a full circle report.

Several themes emerged, as we aimed to discuss not just what needed to be done but what was already working. Many were in agreement that Seattle’s strong network of hyperlocal neighborhood sites serve a very unique and valuable role, and Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman shared his belief that his publication’s recent “networked journalism” partnership with several hyperlocal sites not only made sense on a civic level, but from a business perspective as well. Everyone nodded their heads at the idea of collaboration, and it was refreshing to hear KING-5 Digital Media Director Mark Briggs talk about how his station and several competitors all got together with the WSDOT before the November snow storm and strategized the best way to get out breaking information over their respective networks and on social media. KING-5 and The Times are also kicking off a “be local” partnership to use their ad reps to help bring in revenue to hyperlocal blogs.  Luke Timmerman of Xconomy reminded us that it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game, and his syndication partnership with the Seattle Times has driven traffic to both sites.

Of course, talk is one thing, but doing is always the challenge. How can we get more work done and bring more voices into the mix? A good part of the discussion talked about some of the events sponsored by journalism organizations and their potential for generating revenue as well as strengthening the role of journalists themselves. The Puget Sound Business Journal and the Northwest Asian Weekly were recognized for putting on successful events that engage their niche audiences face to face and bring in a little extra dough on the side. The role of journalists can also shine through, as we pondered the difference between a hypothetical event about police conduct hosted by the mayor versus the hot sparks that flew from the recent forum on police accountability put on by The Stranger. Luke Timmerman of Xconomy also had good things to report about their events, and was quick to stress the importance of being upfront with your sponsors about the separation between business relationships and editorial decisions in the newsroom. Finding a comfort zone for all parties is important, as questionable events from the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist have all received various levels of scrutiny.

Now comes the important part, the follow-through. Business cards were exchanged and the group agreed on quarterly face to face meetings, but how to we grow from there? JTM has always been successful at bringing people in the flesh, and now the time is ripe to flesh out that energy online in a way that increases involvement and productivity. I encourage journalists, students, and knowledgeable citizens of all stripes to join us in this space, start a session, or dive into an existing one like Mike Fancher’s Journalism Commons PNW. Tell us what you need to make this happen.

Some good stuff to expect are a shared calendar that streamlines journalism events across the board, as well as a “behind the curtain” collaboration that shows how journalism gets done and reveals the networks that make good stories happen.

Brian Glanz put together some awesome tools, and the fire’s just warming up.

This post is a part of the Carnival of Journalism project initiated by David Cohn at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. This month David assigned the Carnival to answer the question: “Considering your unique circumstances what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources?”