At a time when trust in media is plummeting and the industry continues to downsize, a bright spot has emerged in the growing use of collaborative journalism.
Over the past year, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University has been collecting, cataloguing and analyzing collaborative efforts between newsrooms of all sizes. What we found is revolutionary: Millions of dollars are being poured into dozens of collaborative efforts between organizations who sometimes are competitors, and those efforts are producing strong, impactful and meaningful stories that otherwise couldn’t have been done. Cross-publication between entities is then amplifying the reach of these stories, especially thanks to the multiplatform-approach inherent in nearly every modern journalistic effort.
Our report, “Comparing Models of Collaborative Journalism,” reviewed 44 collaborations involving more than 500 newsrooms, the sum total of which represented $200 million in funding. In our examination of those collaborations, we identified six distinct models of how the collaborations are structured and looked at strengths, weakness and best practices for each.
Of course, collaborative journalism is not new. One of the earliest collaborative efforts dates to the nineteenth century and the advent of the wires, with the arrangement that became the Associated Press.
But what is new is the breadth and depth of journalistic collaboration, the popularity the practice has gained, and the critical mass that’s being achieved. Collaborative journalism has evolved from experiment to common practice.
As I looked at dozens of different journalistic collaborations, I synthesized them based on two key variables: duration, and level of integration among the organizations involved. This yielded the following six models of collaborative journalism:
1) The Temporary and Separate model features collaborations where partners work together on a one-time or finite project and create content separately. The content may be aggregated for presentation in one place, like the project’s website, or may be presented on partners’ different platforms or across media.
Some projects that fall under this model use a decentralized, laissez-faire approach to coordination and content creation, while others have specific guidelines for what should be produced by participating organizations. Those projects where decisions are not made in advance about who will produce which content can run into trouble.
2) The Temporary and Co-creating model features finite collaborations where partners create content together. These are necessarily closer and more coordinated projects than those in which participants produce content separately, and therefore require more resources, at least during some stages.
When partners work together to create content, there is potential for conflicting priorities at different newsrooms to affect the collaboration. This tension can be mitigated in different ways: by general excitement about the topic, by good project management, or by a high level of rapport between the partners.
3) The Temporary and Integrated model features projects that are finite but during which partners share resources at the level of the organization. When partners share resources at the level of the organization, they coordinate closely and have regular contact for the duration of the project.
Perhaps the best example of this type of collaboration to-date is the Panama Papers, where participating organizations all had access to the same data and proprietary software, working together to sort through it, but writing different stories that were unique to the outlet that produced them, and published on many different sites.
4) In the Ongoing and Separate model, the collaboration is open-ended and organizations create content separately. This model includes some of the oldest known journalistic collaborations – the early arrangements used by the wire services fall into this category, for example.
It’s also the model that best characterizes contemporary sharing arrangements by big news corporations, such as Gannett’s USA Today Network and CNN, though smaller news organizations are using this model too.
5) Ongoing and Co-creating collaborations are ongoing projects where partners create content together. Projects in this model usually have regular editorial meetings or calls, and the most successful have a project manager who oversees the collaboration, facilitating sharing and managing competing priorities.
Collaborations in this model see benefits such as efficiencies created by letting one reporter cover a press conference and sharing the notes with all of the partners, or centralizing editing tasks that newsrooms may have been doing individually.
6) The final model is Ongoing and Integrated, which highlights ongoing collaborations where organizations share resources at the level of the organization. This model is not very common, but it is an innovative way to address the challenges of the local media landscape.
The few existing examples are similar in structure: they are made up of local outlets that operate independently, but are completely integrated for some aspect of their back-office services. This means that editorial, hiring, and promotion decisions are made by each outlet’s publisher and editors, but they share an ad network, a proprietary platform, and/or accounting services.
While these six models did well for categorizing all of the collaborative projects we analyzed, there were some projects that blurred the lines. For example, the Harvest collaboration, between several public media outlets across the Midwest, is categorized as Ongoing and Co-creating, but shades into Ongoing and Integrated because several resources are shared at the organizational level.
Our hope is that this report and our six-model matrix will be of use to journalists, editors, scholars and funders who want to know what they might be getting into when they’re considering a collaboration or when considering funding a collaboration.
Sarah Stonbely is the research director at the Center for Cooperative Media. She can be reached at [email protected].
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.