How we organized a nationwide pro-democracy reporting collaborative
#DemocracyDay involved nearly 400 newsrooms from across the United States
Back in January 2022, Rachel Glickhouse of the News Revenue Hub read a column in the Washington Post by noted media critic Margaret Sullivan titled, “If American democracy is going to survive, the media must make this crucial shift.”
“This is so important and necessary, and I hope newsroom leaders take note,” Glickhouse tweeted. In that thread, she called on newsrooms to band together and publish reporting and editorials on a single day to collectively call attention to the threats and challenges facing American democracy.
In the replies to that tweet, Bridget Thoreson of INN said she loved the idea and Glickhouse tagged Stefanie Murray of the Center for Cooperative Media. She also looped in Jenn Brandel of Hearken and the group started brainstorming what such a collaboration would look like and how it might work.
Modeled on the work by Covering Climate Now, Votebeat, and the Rebuild Local News Coalition, Murray said the idea for a Democracy Day collaborative was plausible but that work needed to begin immediately if the collaboration was to become a reality.
Eight months later, nearly 400 newsrooms from across the United States participated in Democracy Day 2022 on Sept. 15, publishing dozens of stories, editorials, and posts about democratic process, threats, challenges, and opportunities in the U.S.
This post is an attempt to explain what happened during that eight month window and how the collaborative came together, in the hopes that others will take the initiative to form similar collaboratives of their own going forward.
Democracy Day team, assemble!
After the initial Twitter exchange, Glickhouse, Thoreson, Brandel, and Murray began trading emails and discussing how such a collaborative should be structured, who might be interested in participating, and what the final product should look like.
They brought me on to help with the technical and design elements of the project, and we eventually created a private channel in the Gather Slack to hammer out the details as we moved forward.
One of the first things we did was to create and disseminate a Google form where journalists and news organizations could sign up to show their interest in participating. We asked people to tell us if they were interested in participating as a news organization, if they wanted to help organize the collaborative, or just wanted to be kept in the loop.
About 110 people responded to that call, which convinced us the idea had legs.
“The big response we got to our initial call was very exciting and a strong signal that newsrooms are eager to work together to amplify their reporting,” Thoreson said.
Soon after, the Democracy Day core organizing team began hosting regular Zoom meetings to discuss partner recruitment, project logistics, and branding decisions. Most of the work was based in Airtable and Google Docs, with communication over Slack. The core team also began meeting regularly with the larger organizing committee.
The first thing we needed to do was decide on a date. We asked for feedback from the group of people who had raised their hands with initial interest and considered tying it to July 4, a different day in August, or the International Day of Democracy on Sept. 15. We decided Sept. 15 would give us the best news peg to promote to potential partners.
Then we had to figure out what we were going to do about fundraising. All of us wanted the effort to succeed and were willing to put in time to make it happen, but we all also had other full-time jobs.
Initial fundraising didn’t go well. We submitted a handful of letters of intent and pitches to foundations that were met with crickets or turndowns. We decided to go ahead anyhow, especially as collaboration in journalism is a core part of the Center’s work.
At the time, the Center was also in the midst of planning the 2022 Collaborative Journalism Summit, so we tried to use that date as an initial public launch event where Glickhouse would present a panel on Democracy Day during the Summit. She also agreed to mention Democracy Day during a session on “22 lessons for 2022 elections” for the fall Online News Association gathering.
After the Collaborative Journalism Summit, we began having regular meetings with a small group of organizers in addition to the core group. By June we had opened up a formal application process for people to commit to being Democracy Day partners. Thank goodness, people started signing up!
In July, we created an email listserv using Google Groups to make sure all of the partners and organizers were up to date on the latest project developments, needs, and activities.
We created an Airtable base to help us organize the partners and the project as a whole, a shared Google Drive hierarchy with Democracy Day logos, branding, social cards, prefab social copy, and a Democracy Day participation guide to help with partner onboarding.
This is what democracy (coverage) looks like
As more news orgs and freelancers signed on to the collaboration, we created a Democracy Day “content menu” to give new partners a sense of the types of coverage they might publish and ranked the prompts from low effort to high effort.
Once the partner applications started rolling in, we began searching for potential “keynote speakers” and other public figures who might be able to lend more credence and garner attention for the project.
We decided to reach out to Jay Rosen of NYU and Michael Bolden of American Press Institute and asked them to speak at a one-hour virtual event to provide an overview of project and what’s at stake when it comes to the threats facing American democracy. Both agreed to give opening remarks for the event.
Attendees at the introductory webinar were so taken with Rosen and Bolden’s remarks that we asked both speakers if we could transcribe and publish their remarks on our Medium publication, to which both agreed.
In addition to the project overview and the rousing opening remarks by Rosen and Bolden, we used the virtual event as an opportunity to gauge what kind of training, resources, and other support our partners might need to help them more fully participate in the collaboration.
We used Zoom’s internal polling feature to get a snapshot of partner needs from the people on that call, then sent out a more formal partner needs survey after the event concluded.
Similar to the Zoom live poll results, the top three responses we received from our partners were funding, training, and content they could republish to supplement their own Democracy Day coverage. Luckily, we had already started the process of reaching out to potential funders and supporters, and some of those efforts were starting to bear fruit.
Simon Galperin of the Community Info Coop joined the project in July, and began organizing a fund to expand coverage of media and democracy in the United States. CIC worked with Borealis’ Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, Democracy Fund, Center for Cooperative Media, and Indiegraf to raise $13,000 for The Objective to do a series on democracy in journalism.
As the seed fund grew, the series turned into a correspondent role at The Objective — the first and (so far) only “Democracy Beat” covering media and democracy in the United States. Applications for that position are currently open.
Countdown to Democracy Day
As August came to a (surprisingly quick) close, we began putting the final touches on the project back-end, the editorial plan, and all the promo for the big day on Sept. 15. It was also in August that we got word that Democracy Fund was willing to support Democracy Day for 2023.
We created a Democracy Day Dashboard where partners could access all of the links, resources, tools, and other relevant information in one convenient location.
As we’ve done for the Collaborative Journalism Summit and other collaborative projects, we used Canva to create the partner dashboard.
We set up a series of content and social automation workflows using Zapier to track and publicize new partners and partner stories, along with a few other logistical aspects of the project in our Democracy Day Airtable base. This included a Twitter tracker that logged mentions of “Democracy Day,” “#DemocracyDay,” or “@USDemocracyDay” during the days leading up to and shortly after Sept. 15.
We created a Zap that automatically notified partners via email whenever a new Democracy Day story was submitted and marked as “available for republication,” along with a Google News alert that notified the organizing committee of any stories or posts that included certain key phrases related to the project.
Two weeks before the big day, we worked with Allen Arthur of the Solutions Journalism Network to schedule and host a Twitter Spaces conversation a few days before Democracy Day on “How grassroots journalism can strengthen democracy.” The talk featured guest speakers J. Brian Charles of Baltimore Beat and Ashton Lattimore of PRISM Reports and was hosted on the Solutions Journalism Network Twitter account on Sept. 13, 2022.
One of our Democracy Day partners, Nieman Reports, announced it would host a Twitter Spaces event on “How newsrooms can cover threats to democracy” at 1:00 pm ET on Sept. 15, so we made sure to share and promote that event as well.
Finally, we received confirmation in early September that Democracy Fund had graciously agreed to provide $125,000 in funding to support future iterations of Democracy Day in 2023.
U.S. Democracy Day gets a boost for 2023 thanks to Democracy Fund
New $125,000 grant will ensure the collaborative continues and grows throughout next year
Sept. 15: Posting like our democracy depends on it
With less than a week before the big day, the Democracy Day organizing team was hard at work putting the finishing touches on the partner dashboard, making sure all the partners had everything they needed before publishing, and double-checking our automations and workflows.
We produced a brief explainer video to remind news organizations that there was still time to join the project as a reporting partner. In the end, Democracy Day participants produced 241 stories, and two dozen Democracy Day stories were also republished by other publications.
What we could have done better
We knew from the beginning that five white people of similar ages and background was definitely not the best cohort of people to represent and organize a nationwide collaborative in the United States.
We set out to recruit at least five people for an advisory board and developed the following framework for recruitment of the board — and for the core organizer group going forward:
- Diversity of outlet types by platform, business model, and size
- Diversity of roles within those newsrooms
- At least one person from each U.S. Census region
- Demographic diversity of race, gender, and age
We didn’t succeed, mostly because no one responded to our initial request for advisory board volunteers. We hope that will change in the years to come, especially now that we have some funding available to pay people who agree to help us steward the project in 2023 and 2024.
Speaking of funding, we didn’t have any when the project first started, which hindered our initial outreach and coordinating efforts for obvious reasons. Now that we have some financial support behind the project, we’ve already started working with our partners and the rest of the organizing committee on a budget that will allow us to make an even bigger impact over the next two years.
Another area that we plan to improve going forward is our content-sharing efforts and infrastructure during the early stages of the project. We didn’t have a system for partners to share or republish content from other partners when we started out, and we only managed to pull something together toward the end of the summer.
We were also unsuccessful in our attempts to convince commercial and TV media organizations to join as partners, which was one of our stated goals and impact metrics from the start. We’re hoping that the momentum and awareness of the project that comes out of this first iteration will help us do a better job of bringing those types of organizations into the future.
On a related note, all of the marketing and advertising we did for Democracy Day 2022 was organic, earned, or otherwise driven entirely by the personal connections and networks of the organizing team and a handful of our more vocal partners and supporters. This was mostly due to our lack of project funding. Next time, we plan to use some of the funding we received from Democracy Fund and others to pay for more targeted and more widely distributed promotional campaigns.
‘Pro-democracy journalism’ isn’t a contradiction
Looking back, I think one of the most exciting and promising aspects of this first-of-its-kind national collaboration is the conversation around what it means to be pro-democracy as a journalist or news organization.
Even though many in this field are still unsure or uncomfortable with the notion that journalism can — and should — be explicitly pro-democracy, there seem to be many more people out there who understand and embrace journalism’s role as an unapologetically pro-democracy institution.
Our hope is that we’ll see that sentiment reflected even more in the coming years, especially within national and international media circles. Until then, we plan to keep bringing people together to sound the alarm and point the way forward.
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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, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 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.