The investigation was stalled.
Jennifer Palmer, a reporter for the nonprofit investigative reporting team Oklahoma Watch, started looking into COVID-19 relief programs for education in 2020. Then Palmer began digging into Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds in Fall 2021.
“And I had kind of gotten stuck,” Palmer said. “I had a source who was pretty reluctant to provide the information that they had, and one afternoon that source texted me and said, ‘Who the heck is Reese Gorman? Why is he texting me and trying to get me to give him information?’”
Gorman was a reporter for The Frontier, an investigative and enterprise journalism nonprofit also in Oklahoma. Palmer and Gorman worked for two different nonprofit news organizations in an industry where rival journalists are traditionally taught to beat and scoop one another.
“The source literally told me, ‘I gave everything to Jennifer. Why don’t you just get it from her?’” Gorman said.
“And I was like, ‘That’s not how it works. We don’t even work together.’”
Not realizing that competing news organizations typically don’t share investigative newsgathering information, the source responded that Palmer already had been given all the details.
“Just get it from her,” the source told Gorman. “I don’t know you very well. You all are both journalists.”
Gorman, who competed on the Oklahoma Christian golf team in college, said his first reaction was to push the story to publish as soon as possible. Then Gorman sent a text message to Adcock, telling him The Frontier needed to try a different tactic to get this information.
Adcock described an antiquated mindset of media being in a “standoff situation,” with traditionally trained journalists wondering which news outlet will pull the trigger first.
Then something happened.
“Instead of trying to beat them at the story — which was my first instinct — I decided to reach out to them and see if they wanted to work together,” Palmer said of The Frontier. “And, of course, I knew Cliff previously at Oklahoma Watch, and so the three of us kind of got together virtually and started sharing all the documents that we had gotten so far. We brought different sources that we had gotten to talk to us and just kind of went from there.”
That resulted in a pioneering, organic collaboration between two competing nonprofit news organizations. Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier partnered in May with the collaborative story “Stitt gave families $8 million for school supplies in the pandemic; They bought Christmas trees, gaming consoles and hundreds of TVs.”
‘It made the story a thousand times stronger’
The newfound collaborators focused on sharing resources and doing the story the right way to publish the best possible investigation.
“The team at The Frontier knows the team at Oklahoma Watch — obviously high-standard professional journalists — and I think we knew each other well enough to be able to say, ‘All right, this person is not going to try to burn us,’” Adcock said.
“It was super seamless to partner up like this. It made the story a thousand times stronger — that partnership, being able to have more than one person looking at what we’re writing about, the documents, some of the connections that we’re making, just to look at it from all different angles made it just that much stronger.”
Setting aside selfishness, the two news organizations stuck together.
“Each reporter and each editor brought something to the project,” said Brianna Bailey, managing editor for The Frontier. “It just literally couldn’t have been done without each person’s input. Everyone brought something essential to the project. And we each learned from each other, too.”
Palmer said the two news organizations worked collaboratively on interviews, ensuring synchronized publication times and cross-promotion to expand the investigation’s scope.
“And I think that really helped the story have more impact actually because we’re sharing it to both of our audiences,” said Palmer, who also noticed increased tweets and shares.
“I think it really did drive home the point that it was about the story. It was something that I’d been trying to get for months and couldn’t move it forward until we worked together. And so the focus really was on getting the story because we felt like the public needed to know this.”
Mike Sherman, executive editor of Oklahoma Watch, said he was humbled and inspired by how reporters worked collaboratively.
“Jennifer and Reese and Cliff decided the best way to work is together instead of competing,” Sherman said.
Gorman tweeted thanks to The Oklahoman and Tulsa World for publishing the collaboration on their respective front pages.
“I think coming together and then having both dailies run our story, that might be a first,” said Palmer, who also previously worked at The Oklahoman.
‘Oklahoma’s media landscape has changed’
Columnist Russ Florence recently noticed collaborating media outlets like Oklahoma Watch, The Frontier and NonDoc, an independent journalism nonprofit also based in the state, were finding their stride. He wrote about how they were learning to work together in his column “When Oklahoma journalists collaborate, the public wins,” published in The Oklahoman.
“Oklahoma’s media landscape has changed,” Florence wrote. “Whereas the daily newspaper and television stations remain a force, a handful of nonprofit media entities now break big stories regularly. Many of those stories are picked up by multiple outlets, amplifying the message to a broader audience.”
The spirit of Oklahoma collaboration is expanding. In downtown Oklahoma City, News 9 is planning to move into the Century Center this year after Griffin Communications announced plans to purchase last year.
The Oklahoman currently is located on the second floor of the building. Oklahoma Watch is located next door in space that houses a shared podcast studio. conference room for trainings and meetings and also an office for Oklahoma Media Center, a nonprofit statewide collaborative formed in 2020 that supports and strengthens the state’s news ecosystem.
OMC recently invited The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch reporters to tell fellow Oklahoma news organizations how they accomplished their historic partnership. Angel Ellis, director of Mvskoke Media, independent tribal news for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, virtually high-fived Adcock, Gorman and Palmer for rallying together in the spirit of collaboration.
“I think that what you’re showing is there’s a race to credibility instead of a race to be first,” said Ellis, who serves as treasurer on the OMC board. “If we do this together, we no longer have to worry about these networks of ‘who’s going to drop this story.’ The real deadly stuff to journalism right now is the attack on credibility and our resource management. That’s where the problems are, and you guys just kind of gelled that up, and I think you’re wonderful for doing it.”
Rob Collins is project manager of the Oklahoma Media Center.