Photo by Leslie Barbaro.

2021 State of Collaboration: The pandemic effect, global work and community collaborations

Collaborative journalism grows, gains sophistication amid worldwide coronavirus pandemic

Stefanie Murray
May 19 · 7 min read

The coronavirus pandemic has taken an incredible toll on journalists everywhere and continues to teach us a lot about our profession. One of those lessons is the power of collaboration when the world shuts down.

As we reflect on the current state of collaborative journalism at the 2021 Collaborative Journalism Summit, it’s hard not to slip “pandemic” into nearly every sentence. The health crisis we all faced had profound and long-lasting effects on our lives and how we view, and conduct, our work.

Amid the tragedy of the last year, collaboration and partnership helped many journalists do work for their communities that otherwise may not have been possible. And there are bright spots we can point to that had nothing to do with the pandemic.

Here’s a reflection on the current state of collaboration. Note that most of this reflection is based on United States-focused work.

Coronavirus pandemic increases collaboration, highlights its importance

I’m calling it the pandemic effect: The COVID-19 crisis showed how important working together is for news organizations. Especially as we sheltered in place and were distanced from our families, friends and colleagues, we were all on a more level playing field trying to piece together information that we needed to survive.

We saw collaborative translation efforts. Mutual aid. Memorializing COVID-19 victims. Data tracking. Investigations. Innovation.

And it’s true that the pandemic made collaboration easier for some, with the rapid shift to remote communication forcing adoption of new tools.

Permanent collaboratives continue to grow

I’ve said this repeatedly over the last five years, but that’s because it continues to be true: Especially in the United States, we are seeing a rise in the number of networks and organizations being stood up solely to support collaborative efforts.

Recent entrants include efforts that are climate-focused, Black press-focused, within NPR stations, and in Ohio, Chicago, Oklahoma, Utah, Michigan and New York and Dallas. Several more are slated to come online in the second half of 2021. Many of these projects bring new collaboration manager hires, as well.

This wave is in part in due to the Solutions Journalism Network’s Local Media Project, led by Liza Gross and funded by Knight Foundation.

Funding is expanding

This is another recurring theme on my annual reflection on collaboration, but it’s also true: funding for journalism collaboratives is growing.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has long been the lead (and often times, the sole) funder in the field, joined occasionally by Knight Foundation. But over the last two years, investments are coming from big names in philanthropy and tech: Walton Family Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google News Initiative and the Facebook Journalism Project have all supported efforts related to collaborative journalism. Expect to see more national and regional funders step up, too.

Global partnerships grow

Cross-border collaboration has become a standard practice in many places around the world, thanks in no small part to organizations including the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the International Center for Journalists, the Global Investigative Journalism Network, First Draft, the International Fact-Checking Network, Forbidden Stories and others.

Europe and Latin America have both been hotbeds of cross-border collaboration. More collaborative work is happening across Africa, and
there are budding and newer efforts in Asia, thanks to fact-checking networks, misinformation coordination, and investment from the Judith Neilson Institute.

What’s next

Here are some things to look out for over the next year:

  • Continued sophistication, more hires, more partnership opportunities: This aspect of journalism will only continue to grow, so there will be jobs and more opportunities to work across company lines. We’re beginning to see the maturation of collaboration, too. As it becomes standard practice, we’ll see more formal collaboration policies put into place and the process should become easier as it is built into routines and jobs of news organizations.
  • Collaborative grant-seeking and fundraising: There are many new permanent collaboratives and they all need to figure out how to fund themselves, so expect to see pooled fundraising and grant-seeking ramp up.
  • More focus on business-side partnerships, organizational change, DEI work: Cooperation has already moved beyond reporting stories for many, and that will continue. A focus on organizational change could be a profound way to seed deep collaboration, too.
  • Collaboration goes more “upstream” in the reporting process: By now, it seems most of us understand the basics of a temporary, separate reporting project: We all report on one topic and share our stories. But news orgs will continue to shift toward ongoing and integrated work, moving the collaboration to the beginning of a story’s lifecycle.
  • Co-branding and marketing improves: Expect to see more than just a tagline at the beginning or end of a story that says “Cat News 9 and The Dog Press collaborated on this story.” (Had to sneak a cat reference in somewhere.) Joint marketing and branding will increase, especially as early research has shown cooperative media is more trustworthy to audiences.

Here’s what the experts had to say

To help me put together this post, I asked some of the leaders in collaboration in the U.S. to give me their insights. Here is what some of them said, in their words:

Vanessa de la Torre, executive editor, New England News Collaborative:

Eric Marsh, Sr., community outreach organizer at WHYY’s N.I.C.E. (News & Information Community Exchange):

Heather Bryant, NewsCatalyst and Project Facet:

Dana Coester, associate professor, WVU Reed College of Media and executive editor, 100 Days in Appalachia:

Gene Sonn, senior collaborations editor at Resolve Philly:

Keri Mitchell, Dallas Free Press:

Bridget Thoreson, member collaborations editor, Institute for Nonprofit News:

👋 Want to learn more about collaborative journalism?

You can subscribe to our collaborative journalism newsletter for more updates and information. And of course, we invite you to visit collaborativejournalism.org to learn more about the topic of collaborative journalism — including our growing database of collaborative journalism projects, which is currently being updated.

Stefanie Murray is director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Contact her at murrayst@montclair.edu.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

Center for Cooperative Media

An initiative of the School of Communication at Montclair…

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