Since August 2018, 10 reporters at 10 public radio stations across the United States have participated in the Guns & America collaborative. They report stories from their local communities and share broadcast and digital content among each other’s stations and national platforms, with the goal of bringing context, nuance and a human face to one of the most divisive subjects of our day. Station-based reporters collaborate with a central lead team of editors, digital producers, and a project manager based at WAMU in Washington, D.C. They’ve produced more than 250 stories since inception.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold in the United States, gun issues quickly took a back seat, at least initially. The Guns & America collaborative was able to quickly pivot to bring its editorial resources to bolster local newsrooms. The flexibility of the project’s funder, the Kendeda Fund, allowed much of the team to focus 100 percent on coronavirus coverage for the urgent first month of the pandemic, while newsrooms were sprinting to establish policies and practices for working from home and ensuring that urgent public health information reached the American public. Since then, some reporters have remained completely redeployed to cover the impact of the coronavirus in their community, while Guns & America’s network has managed to produce and share content on stories at the intersection of the pandemic and gun issues.
The team’s prior experience of 18 months working together remotely created the conditions for rapid response and ramped-up productivity. How?
Relationships are in place. Guns & America had already invested significant time in the relationship-building that created a high-functioning local-national team. Reporters and editors working in different organizations, within diverse newsroom sizes and newsroom cultures, had already built communication tools and cadences that allowed a rapid, smooth shift to a new shared subject. Built on months of trust, these relationships also allowed local editors to effectively communicate what they needed from the collaborative in this urgent time.
Content sharing platforms have been established. Early in the collaboration, the distributed newsrooms had to work out the best systems and tools to use to rapidly share content across the stations’ various content management systems, software programs, on-air needs, and publishing protocols. They’d worked out standard operating procedures for sharing audio and digital content, and had put in place needed contractual agreements. The collaborative also offered these processes up to partner stations looking to collaborate with other public media colleagues on COVID-19 coverage.
The team has shared experience in tackling challenging subject matter. Pandemic coverage has been a challenge for reporters on the front lines. Guns & America reporters have already tackled difficult subject matter and taken part in training around self-care. This experience has served them well as they take on new challenges. The team has a built-in network of colleagues to turn to for mutual support and encouragement, as well as for editorial advice. Reporters in different cities are sharing information and reporting strategies.
Here’s what Jeff Cohen, news director at Guns & America partner station Connecticut Public, had to say about the benefit of redeploying Ryan Lindsay, Connecticut Public’s reporting fellow: “One thing we learned about Ryan Lindsay through her work with Guns & America is this: She has a talent for showcasing humanity,” Cohen said. “Her stories have always been rich with the voices and heart of the people she’s interviewed. When it came to covering coronavirus, we faced a unique challenge—finding the humanity beyond the daily drumbeat of press conferences, data, and isolation. That’s where we’ve pushed Ryan these last few weeks, and her work has been essential.”
Crisis reporting policies and protocols have taken shape. During the first 18 months of the Guns & America initiative, mass shootings took place in multiple locations in the U.S. including in communities where the collaborative’s reporters lived and worked. Reporters had to table their longer-term assignments and be quickly re-deployed in the aftermath of these horrifying events. The team used the protocols Guns & America developed for communicating and reporting on emergencies as it shifted to COVID coverage.
The editorial model is efficient. Guns & America’s collaborative structure means that a single reporter in a single newsroom is also the gateway team member to nine additional reporters’ stories. The multiplier effect of the 10 reporters is greater than any single reporter could bring. Not every reporter has to cover the same subjects, and the central editorial team can deploy reporters across the collaborative, increasing story range and creating richer, deeper content. Newsrooms that have fully redeployed their Guns & America reporter have gained new reporting resources in this vital time. All 10 partner newsrooms are receiving stories from reporters still working on guns issues, which they can use to supplement their coverage.
Learning and evaluation is part of the Guns & America project. From the start, the collaborative has worked with external learning and evaluation consultants who have helped build in habits of reflection and iteration. The team is used to continuous learning and course correcting to better deliver on its mission.
The relationship with the funder is an active one. Because of ongoing communication with the project’s funder, an open channel exists between WAMU’s development office and the Kendeda Fund. While the content is created behind an editorial firewall, the funder regularly monitors the project’s learning and evaluation. Kendeda’s willingness to hear from and interact with the project on an ongoing basis means that it was easy for WAMU to pick up the phone and discuss the team’s redeployment.
“Obviously, none of us saw the COVID crisis coming, and the challenges it has created for newsrooms everywhere cannot be overstated,” said David Brotherton, fund adviser with the Kendeda Fund. “We are now seeing just how vital the local perspective is, and what a critical role local reporters play during this kind of public health and economic crisis. Thankfully the Guns & America team was well-equipped both structurally and operationally to pivot when it was needed most. The Kendeda Fund was more than happy to provide WAMU the flexibility to do so.”
Collaboration among newsrooms makes sense for many reasons. The Guns & America team just had the opportunity to learn this anew. Collaboration takes time and effort on the front end. The benefits are durable.
Jeremy Bernfeld is editor and project director of Guns & America, based at WAMU; Sarah Lutman is founder of 8 Bridges Workshop, which is serving as the project’s learning and evaluation consultant.