Expert Commentary

How they did it: News collaboration exposes how special interests use ‘model’ legislation

Three investigative journalists offer tips on how reporters should approach newsroom collaborations and how these partnerships can be more effective.

(Courtesy of USA TODAY)

Annually, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy awards the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting to a stellar investigative report that has had a direct impact on government, politics and policy at the national, state or local levels. Six reporting teams were chosen as finalists for the 2020 prize, which carries a $10,000 award for finalists and $25,000 for the winner. This year, as we did last year, Journalist’s Resource is publishing a series of interviews with the finalists, in the interest of giving a behind-the-scenes explanation of the process, tools, and legwork it takes to create an important piece of investigative journalism. Journalist’s Resource is a project of the Shorenstein Center, but was not involved in the judging process for the Goldsmith Prize finalists or winner.  “Copy, Paste, Legislate” — a collaboration among The Arizona Republic, USA TODAY and the Center for Public Integrity — was named the winner on March 23.

Three news outlets teamed up to expose how corporations, industry groups and think tanks have influenced laws nationwide by crafting bills that advance their interests and persuading lawmakers to introduce them.

The “Copy, Paste, Legislate” series — a collaboration among The Arizona Republic, USA TODAY and the Center for Public Integrity — reveals how these so-called “model” bills have been copied by one legislator after another across states. Reporters discovered that at least 10,000 bills introduced during an eight-year period were copied almost entirely from model legislation. More than 2,100 of them ultimately became laws.

The two-year investigation also uncovered tens of thousands of additional bills sponsored by lawmakers that included phrases identical to those found in draft bills being circulated by special interest groups.

To identify bills containing language featured in model legislation — also referred to as “copycat” legislation — the team developed two online tools for detecting similarities in written documents. Journalists examined a total of almost 1 million bills in all 50 states and Congress. While they focused on those introduced between 2010 and 2018, they included some bills from 2008 and 2009.

“In all, these copycat bills amount to the nation’s largest, unreported special-interest campaign, driving agendas in every statehouse and touching nearly every area of public policy,” write Rob O’Dell of The Arizona Republic and Nick Penzenstadler of USA TODAY, two of the lead reporters, in one article of the series.

“The investigation reveals that fill-in-the-blank bills have in some states supplanted the traditional approach of writing legislation from scratch. They have become so intertwined with the lawmaking process that the nation’s top sponsor of copycat legislation, a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, claimed to have signed on to 72 such bills without knowing or questioning their origin.”

The news outlets did not plan to collaborate initially. But after the Republic partnered with USA TODAY and started working on the project, they learned that CPI was already investigating the problem.

Rui Kaneya, an editor and reporter on CPI’s money and democracy team, says the three newsrooms decided to team up around the time he was finishing his first story. “Instead of fighting to be the first one out of the gate, we [CPI] thought about collaborating and doing a better job than we might have done individually,” explains Kaneya, also a lead journalist on the project.

We asked O’Dell, Penzenstadler and Kaneya about their roles within the collaboration and what they had learned from it. Each offered suggestions for how journalists should approach such partnerships and how news collaborations can be more effective. We’ve boiled down their advice and insights into these five tips:

  1. When considering news collaborations, think about the skills and resources each outlet can bring to the project.

A collaboration between The Arizona Republic and USA Today was “a natural fit,” considering they’re owned by the same company and had teamed up on other projects before, Penzenstadler says. The Republic provided strong local reporting and technical work while USA Today staff “was able to add some national perspective and reporting time … and editing heft,” he explains.

USA Today, the largest of the three outlets, also helped with photographs, video and graphics. Meanwhile, CPI, known for its investigative focus, committed multiple people to the project.

USA Today has a great graphics team that made a video as an explainer of the concept of model legislation,” Kaneya says. “On our end, we could offer them basically our strength, which is to do a deep dive into whatever topic we are tackling.”

  1. Make key decisions early. Include everyone involved in the collaboration — including staff who specialize in social media, marketing and visual media — in the planning process.

Lots of planning goes into an investigative series, including deciding which story angles to pursue, how the editing process will work, what the series will look like online and what role each outlet will play in promoting the project to audiences.

“A good rule to keep in mind whenever you’re doing a collaboration is have a very clear understanding of who does what — at the very beginning,” Kaneya notes. Even details such as how journalists should approach individual stories warrant discussion. “Everybody has to be on the same page in terms of the concept of the writing and tone and structure,” he says.

Collaborating often means working with reporters and editors who do and view things differently. “You have to realize you have a whole other set of people besides your [newsroom] involved in the project,” O’Dell adds. “You have to get that through your head and that can be difficult.”

Because investigative projects can take a year or longer, Penzenstadler suggests that partnering outlets also decide early on how they’ll handle employee resignations and retirements so the project doesn’t suffer delays and other setbacks. Other questions for discussion: How will outlets be credited for their work? How will each distribute the others’ content?

“Hammer out how things will be cross promoted, how the branding will work,” Kaneya says. “Even down to the details, such as the wording we use in how we publicize this thing, in terms of describing the collaboration. Those things tend to come at the end and, sometimes, you have to haggle over those things. Do it at the beginning.”

  1. Develop and stick to an agenda during check-ins.

To have a successful collaboration, outlets need to communicate regularly. But discussions can easily move off topic when people from multiple organizations are asking questions and sharing information. That’s why it’s important to set an agenda for routine check-ins — and stick to it.

“Meeting and update calls and video chats can soak up almost all your time,” Penzenstadler says. “If you’re laser-focused in what you’re trying to accomplish and what you want to leave [discussions] with, they’re so much more fruitful. Trying to home in on who’s responsible for what and when it’s supposed to be delivered makes things smoother.”

  1. Newsroom collaborations can be uncomfortable — even frustrating — at times. Keep in mind that it often takes time and patience to learn new ways of doing something.

Journalists are often competitive, so it goes against their instincts to collaborate with another news organization. One of the first things a reporter will need to come to terms with when collaborating is giving up exclusivity on a news story, O’Dell says.

“That’s not an easy thing for a journalist to do,” he adds. “That’s not your natural thing — somebody else is working on this story so ‘Let’s collaborate.’ You have your own bosses and editors and when you team up, you end up having more. More bosses can be good, but it also can mean more bureaucracy and more cooks in the kitchen.”

Working with other newsrooms does get easier with practice, Penzenstadler notes.

“Collaborations are messy and can be frustrating, but they can be really rewarding if executed correctly,” he says. “Any project where we can add reporting expertise is — no matter how you do it — a win in my book.”

  1. Focus on the positives.

By collaborating, news outlets “certainly have more bandwidth to explore more tentacles of a story — you’re not limited as much by staff time and what we can do with a certain number of people,” Penzenstadler says.

USA Today reporters from across the country pitched in for this series, conducting interviews and collecting copies of model legislation in various states. “We have a huge stable of reporters you can issue out on a story like this,” he says. “We had local statehouse reporters from the USA Today network. They knew the people and the players and the influence.”

That additional help allowed the Republic and CPI to concentrate on other tasks, including developing two online tools they allow the public to use to examine lawmakers’ use of model legislation in their communities. Local journalists can use CPI’s news application to compare bills introduced nationally or in a specific state.

For Kaneya, the perks of working together outweighed the challenges. “It’s a painful process to go through but, oftentimes, that leads to a very good story,” he says. “We came out with a stronger piece in the end.”

The collaboration also helped the three newsrooms extend their reach. Adds Kaneya: “Obviously, your story would be read by a much broader audience than it otherwise would.”

Other collaborative journalism resources: 

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