• Collaboration Type: Shared Services/Joint Programs
  • Region: BTF
  • Social Issue: Arts & culture
  • Size of Organizations: > $10 mil
  • BIPOC Leaders: Yes
  • Successful: Yes

Early Childhood and Out of School Time Staffing demonstrates how a shared service model can positively impact an entire community of providers. By identifying and adapting to their partners’ needs, they provide solutions for one of the most challenging problems for early childhood and out-of-school providers: staff retention. Last year, they increased staff retention in providers from 50 to 76%.

Best Practices for Social Impact Organizations:

  1. Buy-in from senior leaders of the organizations.
  2. Build on existing working relationships between partners.
  3. Start small and low risk with the project.

Outcomes:

  1. Views of the coverage
  2. Raised additional philanthropic support

Best Practices for Funders:

  1. Pay attention to the goals of the partnership above all (including the presence of a for-profit company in the mix)
  2. Project-based collaborations require funding commitment across several cycles to succeed – not just in the planning but in the fundraising

The face of journalism is changing. According to Northwestern University research, the country has lost over a quarter of its newspapers since 2005 and is on track to lose a third by 2025. In the face of this changing landscape, innovative solutions are needed. Sustained collaboration is one such innovation being tried in Dallas, Texas.

Around 2020, Jennifer Altabef, a board member at KERA, introduced KERA President and CEO Nico Leone, to the CEO of DallasNews Corporation, and President and Publisher of The Dallas Morning News, Grant Moise. Altabef is a big supporter of the arts. She thought they would hit it off and knew something more was possible, especially around the arts. In 2019, The Dallas Morning News (owned by DallasNews Corporation) had laid off most of its arts reporters to cut costs. Altabef summed up the situation, “Resources had just been slashed and slashed and slashed, and there was just nobody covering arts consistently anymore.”

Leone and Moise hit it off. Both were already thinking about innovating models in their respective organizations. Leone was expanding KERA’s portfolio of collaborations with many different types of organizations to create better coverage. Moise had led The Dallas Morning News into community-supported journalism, founding the Education Lab. He was looking to expand that model.

Moreover, both leaders recognized that the world had changed. As Leone summarized, “We’re not in an era where a single organization can meet the needs of the community for fact-based news. So, part of the motivation for us was to think about how we cover the Metroplex together with partners.” The arts were a great place to start, partly because it was low risk. Altabef explains: “Not as many people read arts coverage as I would like. It wasn’t going to be a colossal, visible failure if it didn’t work. It seemed extremely low risk.”

KERA took the lead in a planning grant application to the Better Together Fund, a multi-funder collaborative dedicated to driving large-scale social change by supporting nonprofit collaboration to maximize impact. The Better Together Fund is a member of the Sustained Collaboration Network. Margaret Black, Managing Director at LH Capital and a Better Together Fund’s steering committee member, was assigned to lead the discussion. She recalls:

“The opening line of their proposal says, ‘The arts in North Texas are in an existential crisis.’ The timing of when they came together is really important. It was about 9 months into the pandemic. Journalism was already having its own separate crisis. Arts patronage was imploding. No one was back in theaters, so I don’t think it is an exaggeration that a motivating factor was this existential crisis. Both of these stewards of local news realized that arts coverage was at risk of being cut. We were confident that funding the exploration of a collaboration was especially catalytic during that time.”

Although the Better Together Fund focuses primarily on nonprofit collaboration, the potential social impact of a for-profit newspaper and a nonprofit coming together was too compelling to ignore. In addition, KERA had previously received funding from Better Together Fund for another collaboration, creating a statewide newsroom where all the Texas NPR affiliates work together on national coverage. They had a successful track record which bolstered the application.

Although the Better Together Fund focuses primarily on nonprofit collaboration, the potential social impact of a for-profit newspaper and a nonprofit coming together was too compelling to ignore. In addition, KERA had previously received funding for another collaboration, creating a statewide newsroom where all the Texas NPR affiliates work together on national coverage. They had a successful track record which bolstered the application.

Kicking the Tires

KERA and The Dallas Morning News used the planning grant to bring in Boston Consulting Group. They helped both organizations identify each organization’s risks and determine how to approach the collaboration. This technical assistance was vital in helping both organizations develop the collaboration. Leone summarizes, “Part of what helped us do that is making sure we understood what a do-no-harm approach to each of our businesses would look like. So, we were comfortable pursuing it. It gave us confidence that we could do it without damaging our business models. That was what we needed to move it forward.”

Leone and Moise assigned key staff to work out the details. Christopher Wynn, former Art Director, now Assistant Managing Editor Specialty Reporting and Innovation and Thomas Huang, Assistant Managing Editor, were appointed from The Dallas Morning News. Anne Bothwell, VP, Arts joined the team for KERA. The three met and made two critical decisions. They would partner in a way that would allow them to raise money for arts coverage, and they would jointly produce that coverage.

Bothwell and Wynn spent a lot of time brainstorming in those early days. They finally decided to figure it out by doing it. Bothwell explains, “We decided to kick things off and figure out some of the mechanics of working together. We would collaborate on a series about the impact of the pandemic on the arts and culture scene. This was before we had hired an Arts Access team. That was even before we really had the Arts Access name. It helped us think through what some of the issues would be in the course of collaborating.”

And there was a lot to figure out: different content management systems, sets of style, and newsroom cultures. Some of the differences were expected, and some were surprising. Huang of The Dallas Morning News explained: “The differences in newsroom cultures surprised me. I think public media, or at least at KERA, are very deliberative. They talk through things a lot, and then it feels like a slower pace than at The Dallas Morning News.”

The choice to kick the tires by working on a coverage piece together before they had built out the operations turned out to be significant. Huang goes on to explain, “There needs to be a period where you’re learning about each other and actually doing real work together. And that work will surface these differences. You know everything from hiring to deciding coverage areas to when to meet.”

They began their pandemic coverage mainly using existing staff. They hired a freelance editor, Kathy Lu. She worked with the two news organizations’ existing staff to start building the content. Together, KERA and The Dallas Morning News told “the biggest story in the arts,” Bothwell said. “And together, we created more impactful content than we would have separately.”

Scaling it up

In late 2021, KERA applied for an implementation grant for the newly formed Arts Access from the Better Together Fund. This time, the grant was to extend Arts Access coverage to “help North Texans engage more deeply with local arts and culture through the lens of access and equity.” They received the grant and continued to expand.

It wasn’t until January 2023 that they had raised enough money through their joint fundraising to hire, Samantha Guzman, as Coordinating Editor. The coordinating editor is a Dallas Morning News employee. Guzman manages two Arts Access reporters, both of which are KERA hires. The Arts Access team has worked out a lot in the intervening time. The team uses the copy desk of The Dallas Morning News. Both marketing teams have their independent relationships with Arts Access. According to Bothwell, this collaborative spirit only works if you “let go of your sense of the way things always are and think about what makes sense in this situation. You can only do that without ego.”

The team developed a shared database that is “serving the massive event calendars on both The Dallas Morning News, KERA, and KERA’s partner websites.” According to Bothwell, “developing that shared database was an entirely separate project that brought the calendar teams of both organizations together.”

Collaboration Outcomes

One of the benefits of collaborating around Arts Access is that each partner had different platforms where they were experts. Thomas Huang of The Dallas Morning News explains,

“KERA has more expertise in audio, radio, and TV than we do. So, we benefit from those stories being told on those different platforms and just experimenting and seeing what works better in each platform. And at The Dallas Morning News, we’ve built out our audience team. It’s a team of journalists who think about how to build a digital audience for stories. And so, they work on the home page, on the website. They work on newsletters. They work on social media:  Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and all of the Reddits.”

Although Arts Access has audiences across all these platforms, the digital audiences are most easily measurable. The Arts Access section on the KERA website had grown to just under 14,000 users in the summer of 2023, and Arts Access coverage was performing better than their other digital arts coverage. On The Dallas Morning News side, there were 45,000 visitors to their Arts Access coverage in the same summer. These numbers demonstrate that Arts Access is reaching a growing community of readers, telling stories that look at the health of the arts economy and examine the arts through the lens of access and equity.

Beyond the reach of their audience, Arts Access has succeeded in growing the philanthropic pie, supporting the collaboration beyond the support of the Better Together Fund. Margaret Black of the Better Together Fund noted this was the collaboration’s most surprising and delightful outcome. She said,

“When it was first proposed, we anticipated the collaborative would augment existing resources among their two teams. We were thrilled and delighted that because of the new business plan and outreach, they collectively grew the resource pie altogether. The effort is now a fully embedded community-funded journalism initiative supported in part by new funders who had not previously invested in local arts journalism.”

This additional philanthropic support from funders such as Communities Foundation of Texas is essential for both organizations and may serve as a national model of how to cover important issue areas that traditional subscription models wouldn’t support.