Five common ways that collaborative journalism projects get started

The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University has been doing a lot of consulting this year with journalists around the U.S. who are interested in launching collaborative projects.

Often during those calls, we give an overview of the landscape of collaborative projects based off our internal research and our public database. (Sidenote: if you want a quick primer on collaborative journalism in general, watch this video).

During some of those conversations in the last several months, I’ve been asked frequently: How DO most collaborations get started?

We’ve found that the most effective collaborative projects we’ve studied are often:

  1. Inspired by an upcoming event that everyone is going to cover anyway. Elections are the easiest example, but also planned protests, some big speaker coming to town, etc.
  2. Inspired by an impending or looming crisis that everyone needs to cover. Detroit’s bankruptcy is a good example, which is how the Detroit Journalism Cooperative got its start, as are stories around the opioid crisis.
  3. Inspired by a lead partner who initiates conversations among other partners about teaming up on a particular enterprise topic. Good examples are stories about sea-level rise, Philly’s Re-entry Project, the SF Homeless project). This usually involves some level of trust that already exists between reporters or editors.
  4. Inspired by a partner who is having trouble cracking a story on their own and needs help to do it effectively. (The Panama Papers is the best example here, but also consider Rattled: Oregon’s Concussion Discussion as another great example — InvestigateWest is leading a large coalition through which they were able to drop and analyze hundreds of records requests and spread out to cover dozens of stories.)
  5. Inspired by a partner who brings resources to the table in terms of funding (i.e., they won a grant) or other support and part of the catch is that they collaborate.

If none of those conditions exist, but you have a group of people who are building relationships and trust and want to work on something together, there are a few other ways to approach selecting a topic.

  • First, of course, consider the overarching goals of your group, if there are any. Did the partnership form for any particular reason? Is solutions-oriented coverage a goal? Is improving trust a goal? Is serving underserved communities a goal? Sometimes collaboratives form around a mission, and if so, that’s the best place to start and tease an editorial strategy out from.
  • Avoid as a first step putting a bunch of editors in a room with a whiteboard and brainstorming. I can’t think of anything that could end up being more frustrating. Instead, perhaps consider some active listening exercises with the communities that the collaborators cover. This may be one of the best places to start — can we work together to convene a series of community listening sessions, and then come together to analyze and discuss what we found, and use it to create a pathway for our work together? Starting with a shared experience and shared data can create a solid baseline from which to build a collaboration.
  • Consider whether any of the above conditions actually do exist and we’re overlooking them. Is there a big upcoming event that we can tackle together, even as a first start? Is there a particular enterprise topic or story that one of the partners is chipping away at, and if we work on it together, we can do it bigger and better? Sometimes picking something small to start with is the best way to start.

Want to know more?

We’re starting to stockpile resources at collaborativejournalism.org and send a newsletter on this topic twice a month — subscribe here.


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. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab Fund of the Community Foundation of New Jersey and the Abrams Foundation. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.