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Sept. 29, 2017, 7 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Among the cool collaborative journalism projects of the last couple years: the Panama Papers, Electionland. The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University’s School of Communication and Media has spent a bunch of time studying the rise of cooperation among news entities, and on Friday published a report outlining what it’s found as collaborative journalism has “evolved from experiment to common practice.”

The report, written by research director Sarah Stonbely, identifies six models for collaborative journalism, and catalogs 44 ongoing collaborations across 500-plus newsrooms, mostly in the U.S. but increasingly in Europe as well. One definition of the practice: It “always seeks to produce content that is greater than what any individual journalist, newsroom, or organization could produce on its own.”

1. Temporary and separate: “One-time/finite projects in which partners create content separately and share it.” A benefit is that “smaller news organizations or contributors gain much greater visibility than they would have otherwise” when they partner with larger organizations. It’s important to focus on quality control, and “projects where decisions are not made in advance about who will produce which content tend to run into trouble. Example: The homelessness project in San Francisco, led by the San Francisco Chronicle, which my colleague Shan Wang covered last year.

It can be tough to tell how these projects are actually doing. The Reentry Project, which brings Philadelphia news outlets together to cover issues around prisoners’ reentry into society, is supposed to generate traffic for all the partnering organizations since their work is featured on The Reentry Project’s website. “We need to communicate about keeping metrics on whether the linking out is driving more traffic; I’m not sure anyone’s been keeping track,” project editor Jean Friedman-Rudovsky said. “But people have anecdotally mentioned that they’ve checked and seen that they’re getting some of that traffic.”

2. Temporary and co-creating: “One-time/finite project in which partners work together to create content.”
An example is Electionland, a collaboration between seven flagship organizations, 250 newsrooms, and 600 volunteer contributors around the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This type of collaboration is particularly good for investigative/accountability stories, but “there is potential for conflicting priorities at different newsrooms to affect the collaboration.”

3. Temporary and integrated: “One-time/finite projects in which partners share content/data/resources at the organizational level.” Examples include the Panama Papers, one of the largest journalistic collaborations to date; the Magnetar Trade project about the 2008 financial crisis, between ProPublica, This American Life, and Planet Money; and First Draft News’ CrossCheck.

4. Ongoing and separate: “Ongoing/open-ended collaborations in which partners create content separately and share it.” This model includes “some of the oldest known journalistic collaborations,” like Gannett’s USA Today Network and CNN, as well as partnerships between local news outlets, and it’s also the most common collaborative journalism model.

5. Ongoing and co-creating: Ongoing/open-ended collaborations in which partners work together to create content. An example is the “collaborative coverage project” between NPR and its affiliate stations.

The Detroit Journalism Cooperative was meant to be a temporary and separate project when it launched in 2014, involving five Detroit media organizations to report on Detroit post-bankruptcy. It received funding from the Knight and Ford foundations, but each organization got a different amount of money, “which created tension…and differences in how each organization prioritized the DJC.” The project moved to the next level when the news outlets teamed up for the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report.

During that time they also hired a new collaboration editor in Scott McCartney. One of McCartney’s modifications to the workflow was to stagger the release of content (to that point they had been releasing stories in bulk); McCartney noticed that most people were not spending enough time on the site to finish even one story, much less ten stories. The staggered release of content also meant that people directed to the site via social media always found something new.

6. Ongoing and integrated: “Ongoing/open-ended collaborations in which partners share content/data/resources at the organizational level.” The model isn’t common yet, but “we do see it as an innovative way to address the challenges of the local media landscape.” CoastAlaska is a partnership of seven public radio stations in Alaska; “while each local station operates independently on the editorial side, they are completely integrated on the business side,” sharing back-office services. Another such partnership is the New Jersey local news site network TAPinto.

Ohio Valley ReSource is a collaboration between seven radio stations in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio, begun with a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2015. “It’s useful to look at regional trends; the opioid crisis is a classic example of this. So you’ll see trends move like a wave across the region,” said Jeff Young, Ohio Valley ReSource managing editor (and a 2012 Nieman Fellow). “Local stories are often larger regional stories, and we can connect the dots to see what’s happening.”

The full report is here.

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