Journalism collaborations help produce community impact, policy solutions

When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, weekly and smaller newspapers scrambled to provide coverage of the huge global story affecting their readerships even though they had much smaller staff and fewer resources than the city’s larger media outlets.

But for publications like the South Side Weekly, Wednesday Journal and Loop North News in and around Chicago, it was not a story they could ignore.

So under the umbrella of a solutions-based journalism collaborative called Solving for Chicago, 20 print, digital and broadcast newsrooms came together to report on how Covid-19 impacted the city. The non-profit Local Media Association manages the collective.

The news outlets first focused on vaccine awareness, which resulted in a $10 million dollar commitment by the city to enlarge the Protect Chicago Plus program that increased Covid-19 vaccination rates in 15 underserved communities. It then moved on to looking at the ways essential workers were impacted. Reporting over eight months resulted in 87 stories that contributed $1.4 million directly to communities and helped to drive City of Chicago policy changes.

“I think any news organization that’s willing to be less competitive, share resources or knowledge with another news organization is doing a great service,” said Penny Riordan, Local Media’s director of business and strategy partnerships. “We see value in the industry through shared learning and people coming together to report or tackle another topic. Those are the things I like the most about it.” 

Solving for Chicago is just one example of the way the collaborative journalism model is bringing together individual newsrooms, from large urban outlets to smaller local papers, to work on big stories they may not have the ability or resources to report on their own.

“Really, in the case of Solving for Chicago it was about getting that idea off the ground,” said Riordan, noting that Solving Chicago was the first collaboration for Local Media. “The other piece on how we approach collaboratives in general is wanting to form collaboratives that serve a common good or solve a problem for a newsroom or several newsrooms. That might look differently in Chicago than it does in Oklahoma. We tend to go into that space if people approach us, we’re seeing a need in the industry or is funder-identified.”

Photo by Raed Mansour via Flickr

Cross-field collaboration

As Solving for Chicago did in working with Protect Chicago Plus to increase vaccine awareness, pairing media organizations with organizations that provide assistance to communities can influence policy change, said Sarah Stonbely, research director at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

“Information producers can no longer rely on common channels for their works received,” she said. “You don’t have a big mainstream media or a few well read industry outlets. Media spheres are fragmented and are partnering to have broader reach.”

More media outlet involvement means bigger audiences and different ways to express content, Stonbely added.

In a report co-authored with Hannah Siemazko, the two looked at the ways journalists and civil society organizations around the world are working together on issues like corruption, environmental or human rights issues.

The organizational workers liked working with the journalists because they turned technical white paper information into stories with visuals that audiences enjoyed more, the report found.

Other benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration are expanded resources and specialized skills that are brought to projects by journalists, civil society organizations or universities. One of the most important benefits of forming collaborations the report found is the impact that results in solutions.   

Cross-field collaboration involves at least one journalism and one non-journalism organization. The report analyzed 155 cross-field collaborations over two years, involving 1,010 organizations in 125 countries. Corruption in government, environmental issues or human rights were the main topics of the collaborations.

In their report, countries like the United States with collaboration projects based in other countries are called “exporters.” Countries like Afghanistan called “subjects” that had no homegrown organizations so investigations by experienced “exporter” collaborations occurred. Other countries like Mexico had cross-field collaboration projects using homegrown organizations; the report calls these places “self-directed collaborators.”

These distinctions are important because they identify the reasons for different kinds of collaborations happening around the world.

After analyzing census, gross national income and data from the Transparency International Corruption Perception index, Stonbely and Siemazko also discovered that cross-field collaboration exporter countries with higher national incomes had lower perceived corruption.

The opposite is the case in subject countries such as Afghanistan with lower national incomes. More perceived corruption meant that the poorer country experienced more investigative cross-field collaborations begun by exporter countries like the United States. Lower national incomes also mean the existence of human rights abuses or environmental issues.

There are different kinds of organizations that partner with journalist teams. Fifty-five percent of cross-field collaborative partners were journalism organizations, 21 percent were non-governmental organizations and some of the remaining partners were art-related organizations and universities.

University/news organization collaboration.

In fact, the partnerships with journalism educators, though smaller in numbers, gives journalism students the structural skills and inspiration to begin collaborations of their own/

“My interest in this topic is really personal and practical as a journalism educator,” said Mark Berkey-Gerard. “As someone who’s done partnerships in the past, this is something I wanted to look at and learn more about.”

Gerard, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism at Rowan University plans to submit his research for peer review this summer. He is currently an advisor for the South Jersey Climate News project.  

The topic he studied was collaboration between universities and news organizations, another kind of cross-field collaboration, is about student journalists working on news projects with professional journalists as mentors.

“Be prepared to fail and pivot sums up my experience with partnerships with working with my students and news organizations,” he said. “I’m all in on collaboration but I’m also someone who realizes the challenges and is realistic about what it entails.”

Gerard said the idea of collaborative journalism is not new. In 2005, an investigative project called News 21 partnered students and professional news media and focused on national issues. One of the origins of collaborative journalism is the The Missouri Method. The program, still being practiced by the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, combines classroom work with practical experience.

In April 2022 12 students in the program published award winning works at the school’s NPR station, KBIA-FM. Students in the program reported and published stories from their communities while being assisted by professional journalists demonstrating collaborative journalism at work.

In his research, Gerard identified over 100 partnerships. He utilized a survey and interviews to analyze how academic and news partnerships are conducted including the benefits, difficulties and recommendations for student/professional media collaborations. 

The benefits of these partnerships are students gaining actual experience by working together with media professionals, the inclusion of student journalists maximizing pro newsroom reach, students taking on local news reporting roles in underserved communities and bringing a youthful perspective to stories.

Challenges are newsroom timelines conflict with academic calendars and the disparity in skill between student productivity and professional media expectations. Newsroom goals and educational teaching methods do not always align. Also, less advisor and faculty contribution time combined with fewer professional news staff can also make it difficult to make collaboration work. 

Recommendations Gerard heard in interviews include designating a partnership manager to manage expectations, putting together a memorandum of understanding between collaborators, finding shared beliefs and outlooks that overlap, being clear about reasons for a project and goals that work for both partners to help a collaboration to be successful.

“Student and professional media collaborations range from a couple students to 200 plus students,” Gerard said. “In West Virginia there was a project, named StreamLab where three students, working with a professor, did audio stories for the local NPR affiliate on water quality issues around mining. That was a project that got national attention.”

The project partnered with West Virginia University investigative and environmental reporters including WVU scientists and used low cost affordable do-it-yourself RIFFLE water sensors to log data. RIFFLE sensors are open source devices developed to make gathering water quality information easier and less expensive.

The project focused on the Tygart Watershed in West Virginia. The Save the Tygart Watershed Association was concerned that chemical waste, called slurry, used to process coal from the Leer Mining Complex could pollute the Tygart River. The Leer Mining slurry pond is close to the Three Fork Creek, a tributary of the Tygart River.

Once the data was gathered and reported, the team hoped it would induce community involvement but damaged sensors rendered the data unusable.

While Stream Lab’s DIY open source sensors did not work, deployment of the solutions journalism method and the project’s level of collaborative scaffolding is an example of an attempt at real world community impact.

Solutions Journalism Collaborations

Collaborative “scaffolding” or a collaboration’s evolution as it grows is the foundation of successful solutions-oriented journalism and its end results that are based on moving away from traditional newsroom reporting methods.

The purpose of “scaffolding” is to imagine, make and share information between the multiple news organizations within the collaborative to increase a decided-upon project’s chance of real community impact.

Key to a successful collaborative’s growth is its ability to keep the values all collaborative members share in place.  Trust between all the partners, commitment to the idea of the collaboration as its own organization and joining the divide between reporting theory and real practice to produce shared content that results in an outcome and change in the real world are also important for success.

“We had an opportunity to research the outcomes for six different journalism collaboratives between Fall 2020 and 2021,” said Caroline Porter, media strategist and researcher at the Ralstin Agency.

The six journalism collaboratives studied were Broke in Philly, the Granite State New Collaborative, the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, the Wichita Journalism Collaborative and Solving for Chicago.

“While we studied a very specific set of collaboratives, we think the dynamics and insights we generated have applicability to all kinds of journalism collaboratives,” said Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, Porter’s research partner and senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and CEO of the National Trust for Local News. “The distinctiveness about these collaboratives that we studied is that they were really trying to bring collaboration and solutions journalism together.”

The collaboratives were also at different developmental stages such as those just beginning versus those in existence, resulting in different success rates. The results of their research suggested that different kinds of projects could apply to different types of collaboratives, said Hansen-Shapiro.

Their research paper detailing study results, “Developing journalism collaborations for local impact” was published this year.

One of the impacts of evolved scaffolding was increased funding and favorable policy outcomes based on solutions to issues reported on by the collaboratives. Successful journalism collaboratives tend to hire a collaboration manager or a business like the Local Media Association. 

LMA’s non-profit foundation section provides non-profit media organizations with another way to supply news coverage to local communities.

“Our company, Growing Community Media, was launched in 1980, beginning with the Oak Park-River Forest Wednesday Journal operating as a for-profit company for 39 years with a small number of owners,” said Dan Haley, editor and publisher. “Over the last 10 years the business model of for-profit newspaper publishers and a lot of media organizations has shifted dramatically.”

GCM’s business model grew to four papers and a magazine but over the last 10 years experienced a decrease in print advertising dollars which resulted in less funding for the company, he said.

Three years ago, the OPRF Wednesday Journal converted its ownership of the Forest Park Review, Austin Weekly News and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark into Growing Community Media, a non-profit organization. Recently, new coverage for Proviso Township called the Village Free Press was added to GCM’s roster.

One GCM news entity, the Austin Weekly News, is a member of the Solving for Chicago collaborative managed by LMA and contributed to its eight-month long Covid-19 project coverage.

GCM continues a strong ongoing collaborative relationship with Block Club Chicago, another Solving for Chicago member, said Haley. The two newsrooms share editorial content on the west side of the city. GCM is also collaborating with another member, Injustice Watch to publish their election guide in multiple GCM papers the week of June 12. 

Haley, like Riordan, said the change in journalism business models have brought down competitive walls in the industry. “There is more collaboration actively going on within media organizations by far than I have ever seen in our 40 years of business,” he said. “We are less likely to see another newsroom as a competitor and more likely to see them as an ally.”

Journalism collaborations’ ability to change the perception of anti-media groups is difficult according to Haley He said people who have no trust in reporters or media will change their minds.

While perceptions about the spread of disinformation and lies tends to be centered around national conservative news media outlets and social media, the reality is it is taking root at a very local level that needs to be challenged, he said. There is value in collaborative journalism, having closer journalistic relationships and understanding issues that newsrooms could be facing like these.

To access The Center for Cooperative Media’s database of ongoing collaborative journalism projects around the world, click here.

Robin Sluzas is a staff reporter for the Columbia Chronicle at Columbia College Chicago. She recently covered the Collaborative Journalism Summit in Chicago.

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