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Peer Learning + Collaboration Fund relaunches award program to support virtual collaboration by journalists

Program will support in-place peer-learning, mentoring and collaboration efforts, and keep its focus on people of color

Stefanie Murray
Sep 17 · 11 min read

The Peer Learning + Collaboration Fund was launched in early 2019 primarily to support peer-to-peer learning in the U.S. by funding travel for journalists and prioritizing people of color, women and those who identify as having a high financial need.

Throughout 2019 and into early 2020, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University awarded about $60,000 in travel stipends through the Peer Fund.

By late March 2020, it became clear this part of the program was no longer safe. We halted it in the spring as we all watched the pandemic and America’s long overdue reckoning with systemic racism unfold.

This fall is shaping up to be a difficult one for journalists across the U.S. We feel strongly that peer learning and mentorship will be needed and want to hold space — and money—to make it happen in a virtual environment.

So we redesigned this part of the Peer Fund (and expanded it) for an in-place rather than an in-person world.

Starting today, U.S.-based journalists and media-makers can apply for Peer Fund money to support virtual peer-to-peer mentorships OR collaborations. That last part, support for collaborations, is new. We have $40,000 to distribute.

Since its inception, the Peer Fund has aimed to support journalists of color, those who identify as part of a marginalized group, women and those who identify as having a high financial need; our scoring rubric for awarding Peer Fund travel grants was weighted to favor these groups. This scoring system will continue.

A virtual peer-to-peer mentorship could be as simple as arranging a Zoom session with someone you’ve wanted to learn from. Let’s say you really admire Tauhid Chappell’s work at Free Press. (He is awesome, btw, and has judged the Peer Fund for us in the past.) You would contact Tauhid, tell him about the Peer Fund and ask if he’d be willing to spend some time with you. If he agrees, you would apply for funding and name him as your collaborator. If your application is approved, you’d both be paid for your time spent together.

Our parameters for awards to support collaborations are more specific: The Peer Fund will now support small awards, up to $1,000 per collaborator, for reporting efforts that directly serve communities of color. Projects could include co-reporting stories, translation, data collection, audience engagement efforts and more. We heard from some prospective and previous Peer Fund grantees that they wanted to not just learn from each other in a peer setting but wanted to work together. Indeed, some Peer Fund visits we previously funded resulted in collaborative work.

Judging for Peer Fund applications is done using an objective scoring system paired with subjective scoring by a panel of three external, independent judges. The objective scoring system for peer-to-peer learning is weighted to favor applicants of color, those who identify as part of a marginalized group, women and those who identify as having a high-financial need, as stated above. The objective scoring system for collaborative projects will be weighted to eliminate projects that don’t directly serve communities of color and to favor lead applicants who are people of color.

If you have questions, let us know: peerfund@collaborativejournalism.org.

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We’ve tried to answer as many FAQs as we could anticipate. If you have a question that isn’t answered here, let us know! Email us at peerfund@collaborativejournalism.org. All of this information is also available at collaborativejournalism.org/peerfund.

Who is eligible to apply?
As travel restrictions have been put in place, we have made the decision to expand the scope of the grant awards to include virtual mentoring and collaborative projects. These grants are meant to support working journalists, media makers, freelance journalists, students, and people working for journalism support organizations in the U.S.

Credentials may be required if you are selected for a grant and we cannot independently verify your identity as a working journalist, freelancer or mediamaker. An example of a journalism support organization could be a trade group, like SPJ, INN, LION or ONA, or a university-based organization like the Center for Cooperative Media. If you have questions about eligibility, contact us at peerfund@collaborativejournalism.org.

I’m a freelancer. Can I apply?
Yes. You can apply for a peer-to-peer mentorship. And you can apply as part of a collaboration if your collaboration directly serves a community of color and involves more than one news or community organization. This part of the Peer Fund is not meant to support freelancers doing work for one news organization, as the spirit of the Fund is to support collaboration across traditional lines. There are funds that support that kind of work, though, and we’re happy to help you find one!

What can I use the money for?
The awards are intended to cover the cost of the applicant’s and co-collaborator’s time, project materials, equipment and associated production/editing costs to complete any virtual peer learning and/or collaborative projects initiated between the parties.

We don’t need to know the exact details of how you end up spending the money, but we will want to know your plans and will ask for an estimated budget if you are proposing a collaborative project.

How much money can I apply for?
We’re trying to maintain a similar cost structure as the previous iteration of the Peer Fund. That means that the maximum amount we intend to award to any single collaborator is $1,000. Virtual mentoring may only need payouts of $250 per collaborator to cover time spent preparing for and having a virtual meeting; if you’re intending to spend more time together, perhaps $500 each would be more sufficient. We will allow the applicants to propose a budget of how the award should be distributed.

I was approached to be a mentor or a co-collaborator. Do I have to apply for Peer Fund support?
We’re asking that only one person — the lead collaborator or relationship initiator — formally apply for Peer Fund funding. If you are identified as a mentor or co-collaborator, we’ll reach out to you to confirm your involvement. If the application is approved we’ll ask you for more details so you can get paid.

What does it mean to directly serve communities of color?
It means your stories are by and for Black and brown communities, that they fill information need gaps, and are disseminated in a way that reaches the people they are intended to serve. If you’re not a person of color and you work for a geographically-based news organization, it’s not enough to cite demographics in your coverage area.

When will I be notified of my application status?
As soon as you apply, you’ll get a confirmation email that includes a copy of your application. If there is information missing, you may receive another email detailing what information is incomplete. Once the application has been received, the Center will email a set of questions to the proposed collaborator/host to confirm their involvement. The information received from both the primary applicant and collaborator will be compiled for review.

At the end of the month, all of the applications that have been received are forwarded to a panel of external judges. We will notify you of the status of application by the 15th of the month following the one in which you applied. For example, if you apply in September, we’ll notify you by Oct. 15. If you are awarded a grant, you’ll get an emailed letter and details on what additional information we need from you.

What paperwork will you need from me to disburse my money?
We may ask for information to verify your identity and that you work in the industry. We will also need a W-9.

Will you pay the grant to me or to my employer?
We can pay it to you or your employer, whichever is preferable. If you’re paying for expenses out of your own pocket, or doing the work independent of your company, the grant should be paid to you. If your company is covering the costs, we can pay the grant to them. We’ll need to make sure you provide us with the correct W-9 either way. And note that if you get paid directly, the award may have tax implications you should be aware of.

Can I apply to learn from or collaborate with someone in my city, or do they have to live further away?
There are no geographic limitations. Previously when we were awarding travel stipends, it mostly supported out-of-state trips. That’s all different now, of course. And since we are opening the Peer Fund up to support collaborative efforts, we fully expect some applicants to live near one another.

My potential co-collaborator and I work at the same news organization. Can we apply together?
The spirit of the Peer Fund is to promote cross-organizational support and learning, although we definitely know there are many newsrooms where working across internal boundaries is very similar! But to stay true and remain equitable, the Peer Fund will seek to first support cross-organizational work.

I want to join a larger, more established collaborative effort but they don’t offer monetary support. Can I apply to join a collaboration that already exists to help pay for the investment of my time?
While we would love to support your work for a larger collaborative if its work directly serves a community of color, we will have to look at such applications on a case-by-case basis. The feedback we were working from when we added collaborations to the Peer Fund is that folks wanted support for small collaborations between organizations and people who otherwise would likely not have a chance to work together, so we will prioritize those requests first.

Why can’t you just pay directly for my expenses?
Unfortunately, the Fund is not set up to work directly with vendors. You will need to arrange and pay for all your own expenses. All of our support will be paid out in the form of individual awards.

How will I receive the funds and how long will it take?
You will receive a check in the mail. It should arrive within 30 days from the day we confirm receipt of all the required documents, including your W-9. Note that University systems move more slowly than you may think! It often does take the full 30 days from the day we confirm receipt of your required documents for a check to arrive.

How far in advance of the start of my collaborative project should I apply for funding?
Ideally, you would apply three months in advance of your start date, to give us time to process your paperwork and get your money out the door. That doesn’t mean you can’t apply for consideration for a project that you may want to start sooner than three months out, just know you won’t have a decision on your grant until the 15th of the month following the month in which you applied. Note that you can’t apply for a grant to cover a collaborative project that already occurred.

Can I apply for more than one grant?
To be as equitable as possible, we intend to award only one grant per person or per project.

Can I apply for both a peer-to-peer mentoring AND a collaborative reporting project?
We may have to judge this on a case-by-case basis. To be as equitable as possible, as stated above we intend to award only one grant per person or per project. But if you apply for a peer learning award AND you are the lead applicant for a separate collaborative reporting project, we’ll put you through both judging processes and then prioritize according to the number of applicants we have.

If I received Peer Fund travel support previously, can I apply now to support a collaborative project?
We want to support you but we also want to be equitable and fair, so we’ll prioritize new applicants first. But it means that yes, you can apply for project funding and you will be considered!

What if I am denied funding and want to re-apply?
Go right ahead! We’ll try to be as transparent as possible if we deny your application about why it wasn’t accepted. Note that we are using a weighted system that gives preference to applicants of color, those who identify as part of a marginalized group, women and those who identify as having a high financial need.

What if I need more money than the maximum amount?
To maintain equity and to be able to support as many individuals as we can during a time of travel restrictions, we currently don’t intend to support requests for more than $1,000 per collaborator. If you need help figuring out how to rein in the cost of your effort so it’s more affordable, we are happy to help! Email us at peerfund@collaborativejournalism.org.

What are my reporting responsibilities if I am awarded, and accept, an award?
All parties — lead collaborators and co-collaborators — will be asked to fill out a form and survey reporting on how your work together went and its expected outcomes, and we’ll ask you to take screenshots or video and share those with us, too. We’ll publish selected reports (we’ll let you know if yours is one of them!) and we highly encourage you to write about your work separately and publish it on your own or share it with your networks.

What happens if our collaboration falls through?
Ugh! We understand that happens. If you’re able to reschedule, that would be best. If you have to cancel the project entirely, we’ll ask you to return the grant but we can work with you on the amount if you’re out money (i.e., if you already had to pay some expenses, etc.).

I am a journalist who gets inundated with requests from peers who want to work with me; can you help?
Yes! First, congrats on being a superstar. Second, email us: peerfund@collaborativejournalism.org.

What if you haven’t answered my question in these FAQs?
Let us know! We know we haven’t anticipated everything. Email peerfund@collaborativejournalism.org.

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👋 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.

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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