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Our picks for the top 10 collaborative journalism projects of 2020

We’re looking back at the most interesting, impactful projects of the last year

Betsy Abraham
Dec 21, 2020 · 9 min read

By Betsy Abraham and Stefanie Murray

For the last few years, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University has rounded up some of the most impactful and interesting collaborative journalism projects of the year. As part of our collaborative journalism program, we study and track collaborations in the U.S. and increasingly around the world.

This year it was hard to select a top 10. (Yes, we say that every year, we know!) We tried to showcase projects producing work that showed a demonstrable impact, broke an institutional barrier, or simply produced excellent journalism.

One thing to note about 2020 — and really, the last few years — is that we’ve seen a substantial number of new, ongoing collaboratives launch and produce exceptional work. Although their 2020 projects aren’t noted in the list below, they should be mentioned; that growing list includes such organizations as Resolve Philadelphia, the Granite State News Collaborative, the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, the Colorado Media Project, Wichita Journalism Collaborative, Oklahoma Media Center, Great Lakes Now, Northeast Ohio Journalism Solutions Collaborative and Solving for Chicago.

The following projects are all excellent examples of what’s possible when news organizations reach across company lines and work together in the public interest. You can read more about these projects and many others at collaborativejournalism.org.

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Word in Black

Word in Black is an important new collaborative of 10 Black publishers across the U.S. intended to frame “the narrative and foster solutions for racial inequities in America.” The group is unique because of how it’s structured and because it’s the only nationwide collaborative focused on the Black press. (It should be noted that Black media have long been leaders in collaborative journalism, well before most mainstream or white-owned media started to join in.)

The solutions journalism-oriented collaborative functions like this: First, a group of topics are identified. For each topic, the local publishers produce and publish a local story. Their stories are rolled into a single national story, written by Nick Charles, the project manager for Word in Black. The national story is then distributed to a wide array of media outlets that aren’t part of the collaborative.

The group’s first project this fall zeroed in on the impact of COVID-19 on K-12 education in Black communities. As of December, more than two dozen stories ranging from the mental health of students in the pandemic to parents grappling with school reopening plans and how special needs students are dealing with remote learning have been published. That reporting was supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Walton Family Foundation.

Word in Black got another boost earlier this month: A new $300,000 grant from the Google News Initiative that will allow it to launch as a national news brand in 2021.

FactChat

Led by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at the Poynter Institute, FactChat united U.S. fact-checking organizations with two major Spanish-language news broadcasters to fight mis- and disinformation during the 2020 presidential campaign. FactChat brought together U.S.-based journalists and fact-checkers in a bilingual alliance to give voters the information they needed to make their decisions based on facts.

Fact-checking and fighting misinformation has driven a lot of global collaboration over the last several years, led most notably by First Draft and IFCN. FactChat is significant in the U.S. because of its alliance with Spanish-language news broadcasters, as well as the fact that it united (otherwise competitive) fact-checkers across the nation for the first time. Partnerships between English and Spanish-language media entities have been growing and more are sorely needed.

The Circuit

There’s been several notable collaborative efforts to come out of Chicago recently, which has become one of the most interesting cities in the U.S. for journalistic innovation. (Hello, City Bureau!) This year, Chicago-based news organizations The Better Government Association, Injustice Watch, and The Chicago Reporter teamed up with tech consultant DataMade and researchers from the Harris School for Public Policy at the University of Chicago to form The Circuit — an investigative journalism collaboration that shined a spotlight on the Cook County Circuit Court, the second-largest unified court system in the world.

And what a spotlight it was. Over the course of two years, the team analyzed and organized criminal cases that came through the court system from 2000 to 2018, seeking to expose systemic inequity and bias. That included 3 million charges over 19 years. That kind of data gathering and analysis is always ripe for a collaborative effort like this. The investigation is ongoing, but the group has already produced several stories as well as a user-friendly interactive that breaks down its data.

First Draft

When you are First Draft — known globally for its work fighting misinformation — it’s hard to outdo yourself, but that is exactly what the organization did in 2020. First Draft’s collaborative work around the 2020 U.S. Elections was spectacular and critically important. From its active Slack group to its weekly office hours, U.S. 2020 dashboard, fantastic newsletters, SMS election updates, community alerts, and Local News Fellowship, First Draft provided a needed service to both its community and journalists around the country.

The Local News Fellowship was an interesting new addition this year, in which five paid local news fellows were placed in communities predicted to experience high levels of mis- and disinformation. The fellows collaborated with several local news outlets in their region, training other journalists on how to fight mis- and disinformation and creating non-branded local reporting.

FinCEN Files

Whenever the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists drops a new investigation in partnership with its worldwide network, you know it’s going to be good. The FinCEN Files followed in ICIJ’s previous footsteps of leveraging its global reach to dig deep into money laundering and financial malfeasance across continents.

The FinCEN Files revealed how banks’ profit motivations overwhelm their legal obligations to stop dirty money. Among some of the key collaboration highlights:

The Cartel Project

Since 2000, 119 journalists have been killed in Mexico, making the country one of the most dangerous places in the world for members of the press. That didn’t stop 60 journalists from 25 media organizations around the world from coming together to finish the work of one of their murdered colleagues: Regina Martínez. The Mexican journalist was murdered in 2012 and the consortium of writers for the Cartel Project, run out of Forbidden Stories, put out five investigations exploring the global networks of Mexican drug cartels and their political connections around the world. Their findings were explosive: journalists linked the former governor to an embezzlement scandal, uncovered that the official narrative around Martinez’ death was spread through a disinformation campaign, and exposed how cyber-surveillance technology was being repeatedly misused in Mexico, including against journalists, among other bombshells.

This collaboration was intended to send a message: “Killing the journalist won’t kill the story.” And with its worldwide scope, enormity, and fearlessness in taking on criminals and authorities, it did just that.

Nowhere to Go

There are more than a half-million unhoused people in America, living in cars, shelters, and on the street. To find out more about the plight and drivers of homelessness, as well as how communities are responding, a national consortium of student reporters fanned out across the country for “Nowhere to go.”

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Boston University graduate student Ryoma Komiyama reporting from his desk during COVID-19 for Nowhere to Go. Photo by Kamome Komiyama.

The stories are gut-wrenching and they shine a light on an often ignored segment of the U.S. population. The collaboration itself is noteworthy because we’re fairly confident it’s the largest collaboration of collegiate journalists ever, with more than 270 students from seven universities working in concert. Led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists as their instructors, the cohort produced nearly 40 stories on how people are experiencing homelessness, exploring everything from evictions, to criminalization, to the treatment of those living in encampments. Their work not only humanizes the problem of homelessness, but it also serves as an example of what can be accomplished when teaching collaborative journalism at the collegiate level.

Slammed: Rural health care and COVID-19

Rural America is often overlooked in national and regional reporting, which makes Slammed so particularly important. The project highlights the unique challenges faced by rural communities as they clash head-to-head with the coronavirus pandemic — challenges that included barriers to healthcare, natural disasters, economic hardships, and a large elderly population with more chronic health conditions. Media partners examined the various ways the pandemic was affecting rural health care, putting together maps on the counties with the highest infections, conducting Facebook Lives to address how meat packing plants were spreading the virus, and examining the increased adoption and use of telemedicine.

Hidden epidemics: The mounting mental health toll of disasters

Since 2010, the U.S. has had 37 wildfires, hurricanes and floods causing at least a billion dollars in damage each. But beyond the impact to property, the toll of natural disasters on mental health has also been staggering, with survivors suffering depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

The Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations, along with its partner news organizations, were able to do a deep dive into the mental health needs of disaster survivors. They covered the impact of repetitive fires in the West, rebuilding from floods in the south, and the healing process in the wake of hurricanes in Puerto Rico.

The stories not only captured the lingering psychological impacts of these disasters, but also how people were healing from them. Reporting partners highlighted the stories of community support groups and those of other survivors. By using a networked approach, the project was able to get insights at the community level, including from mental health professionals and social workers, by utilizing the resources of local partners across the country.

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Courtesy Pixabay

The COVID Tracking Project

There have been countless COVID trackers to come out over the last several months but this one takes the cake for most impressive simply because it is so extremely thorough. Tests, cases, hospitalizations, racial data: the site includes data about all of it and is incredibly accessible and user-friendly. And for those of us without a health degree, the data definition index and various interactives breaking down the information are also super helpful.

Spearheaded by The Atlantic, the project draws upon the expertise of journalists as well as developers, universities, scientists, and medical professionals — not to mention an army of volunteers compiling the latest daily numbers on tests, cases, hospitalizations, and patient outcomes from every U.S. state and territory. More than just a one-stop shop for coronavirus information, the project has been an incredible public service, powering research and reporting not only for media outlets but for institutions such as John Hopkins and even the White House.

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

Betsy Abraham is the project manager of Loved and Lost, a statewide media collaborative run by the Center for Cooperative Media that aims to identify and share the stories of New Jersey’s coronavirus victims. She can be reached at abrahamb@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…

Betsy Abraham

Written by

Project manager at Loved and Lost, an effort to pay tribute to the 15,000 lives lost to the coronavirus in New Jersey. Find out more at lovedandlostnj.com.

Center for Cooperative Media

An initiative of the School of Communication at Montclair State University

Betsy Abraham

Written by

Project manager at Loved and Lost, an effort to pay tribute to the 15,000 lives lost to the coronavirus in New Jersey. Find out more at lovedandlostnj.com.

Center for Cooperative Media

An initiative of the School of Communication at Montclair State University

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