Measure the impact of collaborative journalism: Emerging trends from the field and how you can get started

New report from Impact Architects and Center for Cooperative Media examines collaborative journalism impact tracking

Collaborative journalism, once unfathomable in an industry ruled by competition and the threat of being scooped, has now become commonplace. Collaboration is seen as an effective way to share resources and stretch the thinnest of budgets, to share expertise and data, and to include diverse sources in reporting. And, perhaps most important, collaborative efforts reach larger, more diverse audiences than stories published by a single organization. Right?

Impact Architects, together with the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, conducted a research project (which you can read and download in full here) over the last three years to understand what type of impact collaborative journalism initiatives aimed for, and how they knew if they succeeded. This research was funded in part by Rita Allen Foundation.

In general, we found that journalists and organizations participating in collaborations assume that there will be both external impacts out in the world on audiences, networks, and institutions, as well as internal impacts on the journalism, participants, and organizations.

But how did the four collaboratives that participated in our research know if they were having impact? While there is no one way to measure the impact of collaborative journalism, we did find common practices emerging across diverse collaboratives, including surveys, the use of advanced digital analytics, documenting cross-publication and media mentions, and using qualitative impact tracking systems.

Here’s what else we learned about measuring the impact of collaborative journalism from North Carolina News Collaborative (NCNC), Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) Amplify project, the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), and the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists.

  • Early-stage collaboratives, especially among publishers without experience with collaboration, benefit from being simple and straightforward to provide “proof of concept,” with as few points of friction as possible; after the partnership is proven, stickier topics, such as sharing impact metrics, can (and should!) be discussed.
  • Collaboratives need to clearly communicate expectations and responsibilities about impact measurement with partners, ideally through an MOU or other written agreement.
  • Having explicit and shared goals can help reluctant partners see the value in tracking impact.
  • A clear framework for impact measurement helps move from anecdotal to rigorous impact, and using consistent impact measurement tools and approaches over time spurs organizational learning.
  • Impact measurement methodology must be flexible and responsive to the type of change that an organization observes — some of which can be surprising.
  • Impact can be communicated with audiences to demonstrate the value of the collaborative work, but it should be clearly tagged as “Impact.”

So, how can a collaborative effort get started with measuring its impact?

  1. Define impact collectively at the outset of a project. We found that projects that proactively define shared goals and metrics for success at the outset successfully reduced friction at the end of projects and increased the chances for meaningful strategy design around impact and measurement.
  2. Measuring impact takes work: make it someone’s job. Data from each partner organization must be gathered, analyzed, and turned into a cohesive narrative that can be communicated back with partners and external stakeholders. Organizations like ICIJ, INN, and SJN employ staff to manage this strategic learning process, as well as to design and administer their own pre- and/or post-project collaboration surveys to understand the internal impact of the collaboration.
  3. Be flexible and think long term for your impact timeline. Social change is complicated. But one thing is certain about the impact of media: it happens in the short, medium, and long term. While there is often a flutter of activity after a project is published, especially when multiple organizations focus on the same story, the longer-term change can still take weeks, months, or even years to become evident. But collaborations are often time-bound, focusing on a specific news event or investigation. The disconnect between the time frame for impact and the structure of collaborations means that much longer-term impact might not be understood, or even known.

Common practices and approaches in impact measurement are emerging among collaborative journalism efforts. And, there is opportunity for collaboration among collaboratives to share vetted survey questions, impact tracking strategies, case study methodologies, and more.

👋 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 database of collaborative journalism projects, which is currently being updated.

Lindsay Green-Barber is a the founder of Impact Architects and a leader in media and communications impact strategy and measurement and an expert in international human rights regimes. Contact her at info@theimpactarchitects.com.

About Impact Architects: IA works with media, advocacy organizations, and funders to design and measure high impact strategies to achieve maximum social change. For more information, visit www.theimpactarchitects.com.

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.

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