From competition to collaboration: How an evolving media landscape influences teamwork in the newsroom, classroom

Five local reporters crowd into a large tent to listen to the Rockford mayor announce the city’s newest low-income housing development; three work for TV stations, one for the local daily newspaper and one for the alt-weekly across town. We each return to our respective newsrooms and file daily stories, including this one I wrote for the Register Star. But what about the more impactful, long-term news regarding this housing complex? What if we could answer questions like, what happens to surrounding property values? Does the crime rate increase? Do these residents have access to public transit, or a grocery store? Do they have to find new jobs?

It would be hard to cover those topics in depth, with few resources, especially on a deadline. But what if we could? What if our newsrooms teamed up to provide community members with the information that came after the press conference, or city council meeting, or protest in the downtown street. What if instead of competing, we collaborated?

This is just one example of a moment I recall as a local news reporter when there were several different news outlets covering a story; the same went for city council meetings, holiday celebrations, municipal elections or major crimes. In the end, we all produced the same news content, and sent our community members down an internet search hole in order to find it. 

Journalism has no doubt adopted its share of catchy phrases over the years in order to explain various ways of practicing the craft, many of which have turned into full blown departments or even college majors, be it watchdog, engaged, participatory, social, solutions, community, Within each of those can live another umbrella term: collaborative. 

To get a better understanding of how collaborative journalism works, and furthermore, how we can teach it to current journalism students, GJR spoke to three former journalists whose roles are now all journalism-adjacent. They are: Stefanie Murray, director for the Center for Cooperative Media, housed at Montclair State University; Amy Maestas, region collaborative manager and local media project director for the Solutions Journalism Network; and Patrick Ferrucci, associate professor and interim chair of the Journalism Department at University of Colorado Boulder. Their insights are below. 

Q: How do we define collaborative journalism, or how should we?

Murray: So at its core, collaborative journalism can be defined as two journalism entities working together to produce a piece of journalistic content. It is organizations that are not related to each other i.e. not owned by the same companies that are working together in pursuit of something of journalistic value. But more and more we are running across those that have more partners than just news organizations and those often are the ones that can be the most impactful, when you have a few news orgs, a library, a university, etc. That can go a lot further. 

What are the benefits of collaboration and why is it important in today’s media landscape?

Ferrucci: It’s a matter of resources. Newsrooms, even in just 20 years have shrunk considerably. So the amount of time that people can work on real investigative, not necessarily watchdog, but real resource-heavy journalism is not as easy and so therefore, when places can collaborate, it not only helps fray the cost of not just money, but time, and people. It also helps, I would argue, with a diversity of viewpoint. A lot of non-legacy newsrooms collaborate a ton. What that collaboration means is different in different places. Digitally-native news entities are more likely to collaborate because their model isn’t as entrenched in an old model like a legacy newsroom, whose whole model is for profit, and advertising driven. We can say “Oh, well why don’t you change things up a bit?” but it’s not that easy because everything they do is essentially built around those structures from the 1930s.

Maestas: As communities and funders look for ways to rebuild and strengthen local news, helping [journalists] understand that collaboration helps with diversity and equitable coverage, it helps them be more inclusive in their coverage of a specific topic. They’re able to deepen their relationships with people in the local media, but they’re also deepening their relationships with their audiences in the community and helping with change in their communities. That’s not to say that collaborations need to be advocative. It’s not advocacy journalism. But when it comes to solutions journalism, working on collaborative solutions journalism is telling the whole story. So when you have those shared values of wanting to strengthen your journalism by being collaborative, that increases trust with the communities in the media organizations. And it helps do journalism that might not be done because of lack of resources. So if you pull your resources you can do more honestly.

Q: In the college journalism classroom where we also teach breaking news and scoops and being first, is collaboration more important than competition?

Murray: I don’t think competition is something I would ever teach. I just think it’s not the way that the information ecosystem works today. It’s just not how people consume information. What we see is that many journalists in the United States still have this mindset that their competition is other professional journalists. And that’s just patently false. It’s just not the way the world works. And so that’s an outdated mindset. On a national level, is competition important to motivate journalists to want to get something first or get something better, sure. I would give you that. Competition can be a healthy motivating factor for some journalists, but the vast majority of journalists in this country are not national reporters. They’re local reporters. I’d be hard pressed to be convinced that journalists must be motivated by fear of missing out, to want to serve their communities’ information needs. There are many other motivators for it to produce good work. 

The way the information ecosystem works today, is that consumers have so many choices, and so many platforms to get information. Your motivation should be, who is your audience? What are you trying to provide to them? What are the information needs in the community you’re trying to serve? And serving those needs as best as you can, should be the ultimate motivating factor for every journalist in this country. Often what you’re competing against is for attention and also against misinformation. And so I envision courses where you’re taught breaking news, and how to cover something that’s breaking from the perspective of community information needs, and best serving and best getting information out on whatever platforms that you need to but also, there’s elements of collaboration that can be pulled through all sorts of different courses. 

Maestas: I think competition is good and needs to exist where there are multiple news outlets, to an extent. Our theory is not that the whole industry needs to collaborate on everything all the time, but that where there are opportunities about an issue that’s really affecting the community. Our belief is that there’s strength in numbers, which is cliche, but it’s true because you are able to have collective work, that’s not duplicated. In a time when almost every newsroom is struggling with resources, from finances to person power, to the staffing issues. Is it in the best interest of the practices of these newsrooms to have five people doing the same story? When resources are shrinking, and by working together, you’re able to do deeper work, you’re able to reach audiences that no single entity can reach across all audiences. 

It’s really as basic as we believe that it strengthens the local media ecosystem when you do deeper work that’s not about the horse race every day. And that’s not to say that competition can’t exist in some form or fashion. But when it comes to collaborations which generally work best when there is a more narrow scope, we’re saying it helps for challenges, and for solutions journalism, responses to social problems. There’s the strength in numbers to do deeper, more meaningful, more engaging work when you’re able to put all of your resources together, maximize your time and resources and move beyond status quo journalism. 

Q: It sounds like it’s not so much a matter of how to teach collaborative journalism, as much as it is, how do we teach students to be collaborative regardless of the style of journalism they practice. So what can journalism schools do to incorporate collaboration into their classrooms or even their curriculum?

Murray: A lot of the academic literature has focused on case studies and looking at different models and dissecting how projects are done. And that’s probably what I would teach, is showing some examples to students about how news organizations can pair up and work together to produce impact and talking about some of the skills that are needed to work collaboratively with other professionals. Things like trust, shared decision making, talking about working on stories together, how you might divide up work, editing procedures, ethical concerns, thinking about ownership of work, project management. We need to get them to think through that because that’s usually where that’s where the rubber meets the road. 

I’ve seen many examples of journalists who have an idea of a project they want to tackle together, and it could produce some really amazing journalism, but then they don’t know how to work together and don’t trust each other. They have always been taught to do things like, not share sources. And, and that’s where collaborations often fall apart. And so if you have people who are trained from the beginning, that “No, this is a normal part of your work, and here are some things that you should keep in mind and consider as you go out to the professional world you’re going to run into these issues” that can make a big difference.

Ferrucci: Every university makes departments go through, like an accreditation sort of every six or seven years, so you’re intentionally thinking about your curriculum, or forced to reevaluate it. Almost every department of journalism that I’ve ever heard of including our own college, has their own advisory boards that are mixed with alums and people in the industry and things of that sort. So you’re always in constant conversation with them to try to make the classroom better reflect what a newsroom looks like. 

I think when we romanticize journalism, we think of the dogged reporter going out there and you know, going through obstacles to get a big story, which is obviously what happens a lot, but when it comes to what we do in terms of classrooms, often we would just, here’s the story assignment, go get us a story then come back. But journalism doesn’t work that way. Classrooms could teach [collaboration] just in general, because the classroom itself can be a kind of collaborative laboratory. If you’re making them just do stuff, pass it in and giving them feedback, well that’s great, but you could actually take those things and take stories that people do and actually critique them together and make it something where everybody is kind of involved in pitches together. You can make it so it’s an actual, collaborative environment, even if they’re working on their own work.

Collaborative journalism is less about competing and more about serving your audience. Yes, breaking news still happens and being first can be beneficial, but in a world of shrinking resources, where news consumers are inundated with information at all hours of the day, multiple different news outlets delivering the same surface level information does not effectively serve their community in the long run. And serving our communities with factual, well sourced information, is what we need to teach our students, the journalists of tomorrow, how to do. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how to help students collaborate, or see what sorts of collaboratives are currently in progress, check out https://collaborativejournalism.org/ which features best practices as well as tools to help facilitate collaboration in the classroom and newsroom. You can also visit the https://www.solutionsjournalism.org/storytracker and filter for “Cultivating Collaborations” as a critical success factor.  

Kayli Plotner is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder where her research focuses on newsroom culture, diversity, innovation and visual journalism. She has previously worked at The Denver Post, Chicago Tribune and Rockford Register Star as well as taught classes at Columbia College Chicago and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. You can follow her on Twitter @kayplot.

What it’s really like to fly during the COVID-19 pandemic

After several weeks of emotional calls home, I made the difficult decision to board an airplane in late May in the midst of a global pandemic to visit my grandfather who is gracefully but steadily nearing the end of his life. 

I spent hours researching the various ways to travel more than 1,000 miles from Denver to my hometown in central Illinois.

Should I make the 15-hour drive? How often would I have to stop for gas or food? How many touch points would that entail? If I do fly, what will the airport terminals be like? Will I get my own row on the plane?

Many journalists — and other essential workers — have still been getting on airplanes. People all over the country are still flying if they have to. A viral social media post from a cardiologist in early May showed a packed United Airlines plane. But this wasn’t a work trip. This was a trip that came about trying to determine if my grandpa would die before I could make it home. Airlines are getting better at adapting to coronavirus precautions, but the CDC is still recommending not flying unless necessary. 

The number of travelers passing through TSA checkpoints has been steadily rising from its unprecedented low of 87,534 on April 14, compared with 2.2 million the year before, to 441,255 on June 7. Airlines are preparing for summer travel, although they don’t expect to get back to 2019 levels anytime soon.

In the end, flying turned out to be the option for me and seemed to offer the fewest chances of exposure. After all, the gas pumps, door handles or bathroom faucets I would encounter somewhere in rural Missouri weren’t federally regulated like an international airport would be.

Frontier Airlines was the most affordable option at roughly $150 each way, which felt steep compared to the $26 ticket I booked but never used three weeks prior when my grandpa had given us a scare. But having the ability to choose my seat gave me some sense of control of my surroundings as I prepared to interact with strangers for the first time in three months. 

All of the reading I had done prior suggested sitting near the front of the plane and in a window seat if possible. Both allow for less interaction as people go up and down the aisle during boarding and while you’re in the air. I selected a seat behind the emergency exit row – since those cost more I hoped they would be less appealing – and next to the window.

Frontier’s current policy requires everyone to wear a mask throughout the entire flight, and you must agree that neither you nor anyone in your household has had a fever in the last week. I also watched the video of them disinfecting their aircraft numerous times to see what surfaces were included. (Sometime in the near future they plan to take temperatures as passengers board the plane, but that wasn’t the case just yet.) This, along with my hand sanitizer, masks and obsessive hand washing, gave me the confidence that I would be able to remain safe on the two and a half hour flight.

Here’s what I saw from Denver to Chicago on May 18 and from Indianapolis to Denver on May 22.

Passengers fill the aisle anxious to exit the airplane after arriving at O’Hare International Airport on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Kayli Plotner)

Depart for airport, 6:30 am.

I always wondered why people wore masks in their car and thought it was silly. But was happy to see my Lyft driver sporting a yellow bandana around his nose and mouth. There were a surprising number of cars on the road. We passed a woman in navy blue scrubs, a man with a fire dept sticker on his red pickup truck, construction workers with their highlighter yellow vests in the back window; essential workers indeed. 

People wait in line for coffee at Denver International Airport on the morning of May 18, 2020. (Photo by Kayli Plotner)

Arrive at DEN, 6:58 a.m.

There are signs at every entrance that masks are required through the airport. Only one security check point is open and all travelers are funneled through that check point. Three TSA agents are crowded around one computer all wearing PPE. One comments on how the back of her ears hurt from the mask. Most people maintain social distancing without being told. The line for the only coffee shop in the terminal seems to be the one exception. All the other shops and restaurants are closed. 

Seated by 7:35 a.m.

The plane feels more full than I would like but seems adequately spaced. My seating strategy seems to have worked. Those seated with three in a row are allowed to disperse to the back of the plane which is mostly empty. Suddenly no one cares if my backpack is completely under the seat in front of me. Flight attendants keep touching/adjusting their masks. The young white man in front of me is checking the value of his stock.

A flight attendant chats with a fellow flight attendant seated in the emergency exit row.

“We’re only doing turns, no layovers,” she said. “It’s a whole different world these days, but sleeping in your own bed every night is a nice change.”


Arrive at ORD 10:48 a.m.

O’Hare is a bit of a ghost town upon landing. It is as if our flight was the only source of human activity. Our flight is funneled through terminal 5, which is primarily used just for international airlines. Since I didn’t check a bag, I immediately look for the signage pointing to ground transport. An older man wearing a mask and his Ohare windbreaker is directing people outside. I ask him where we go for ground transport and he says “right out here, tell them Terminal 5 arrivals.” As someone who previously took the CTA back into the city after arriving in Chicago, this feels strange to me but could be standard procedure for Terminal 5, where I don’t think I have ever been before. 

After my trip, I spent several days with my family, wearing my mask and staying outside as much as possible. Grandpa was in good spirits, all things considered. My return flight was out of Indianapolis, since that airport is closer to my hometown and had times that worked for family members to drop me off. 

Passengers pass through the terminal at Indianapolis International Airport on May 22, 2020. (Photo by Kayli Plotner)


Arrive at IND 6:45 p.m.

It’s hard not to notice the increase in cars on the road once we cross over into Indiana. In the departures terminal there are only three cars. It isn’t until I walk through the doors I realize masks are not required at public places in Indiana, including the airport. There are regular lines at Frontier check-in with 15-20 people congregating in the lobby.

Security takes maybe five minutes. The man at TSA who shouts about putting electronics in their own bin keeps touching his face and is not wearing a mask. Eventually he puts on one that had no straps and is just a sheet he held across the bridge of his nose with his hand. 

Sitting in the terminal by 7:15 p.m.

Strangers not wearing masks are talking about where in Colorado they’re going. Five 20 something’s chat in the closed seating area of Harry & Izzy’s. 

“This is horseshit. Nothing’s open” says the guy in a black T-shirt and jeans. He and his friend sit and talk with two women at an adjacent table. They all scratch off lotto tickets. The plane we are about to use deboards. At least 50 percent of people take their masks off as soon as they are out of the tunnel. Massive groups of people are walking by together. A teenage girl wears her local GOP apparel. 

A Frontier employee comes on the intercom and explains we will be boarding the plane from back to front and that masks are required. 

Indianapolis International Airport on May 22, 2020. (Photo by Kayli Plotner)

“You do have to wear a mask to board the flight and you do have to wear a mask in the Denver airport.” she sighs. “It is mandatory, I think anywhere in Denver. So just be sure to check that.”

You can hear the muttering of disapproval as she speaks.

“It’s not like it does anything anyway?” a young woman says. “What are they going to do, kick me off the plane?” 

The Frontier employee continues her announcement. 

“If you do not have a mask I need you to come see me, because you may not be able to board the flight today. Again, we are boarding by rows, back to front, and stay in your seats until I call your row. When you come up try to stand six feet apart.” 

As I sit there wondering if Frontier is providing masks for passengers, her voice comes across the speaker again as four people stand in front of her desk. 

“Would anyone happen to have an extra mask that someone could use today? If you do could you please bring it up here we’d so so appreciate it.” 

A woman gives away a few extra masks and we board our flight a few minutes later. I wait until the last possible second, hoping there wouldn’t be a bottleneck of people in the tunnel. My seating strategy has worked again. There are two people in the emergency exit row in front of me and my middle seat is empty. Back to Denver. 


Above Indianapolis International Airport en route to Denver International Airport on May 22, 2020. (Photo by Kayli Plotner)

Back in Denver, I spoke with Alyssa Morlacci, a digital editor for a magazine in Los Angeles who flew to Dallas for personal reasons during the pandemic. She described her flight experience on American Airlines as less than ideal once she got through the terminal. 

“It wasn’t until I started boarding the flight that I felt a little unsafe because no one was social distancing in the tunnel. I figured that because I didn’t pay for my seat that I mostly likely got a middle seat but I thought I would be able to get on and move seats and that was not the case at all.” 

Morlacci said she was in the middle seat for both her flights, with passengers on each side of her. Despite wiping down the seat and wearing her mask, Morlacci said she was hyper aware of the smallest thing because it increases the risk of contracting the virus. 

“Every cough, every brush if someone’s arm or leg, I just felt hyper alert. We even had one of those big planes with like nine seats in each row and it was still packed.” 

During the same time frame, Morlacci’s boyfriend flew from Los Angeles to Miami for family reasons and had a much different experience on Southwest Airlines

“He didn’t have any complaints really. They were able to have no people sitting in the middle seat so he had a pretty good experience. Being able to have that few feet of extra space makes all the difference.” 

In hindsight, she doesn’t regret her trip to Dallas, but says it certainly could have been different had she done a bit more research beforehand. 

“I don’t think right now you can operate on the mindset that I normally do about cheap flights and best times, but rather look into which seating policies and airlines you are comfortable with.”

Kayli Plotner is a digital strategist at The Denver Post and has worked for the Chicago Tribune and Rockford Register Star. She is an adjunct professor at Columbia College and previously taught at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. You can follow her on Twitter @kayplot