A headshot of Fiona Morgan standing in front of her bookshelf with blue and pink text and the bottom that reads, “Collaborator Q+A.”

Q&A: Fiona Morgan on how journalism, research, and organizing rely on collaboration

Fiona Morgan runs Branchhead Consulting, an independent practice that aims to build stronger local news and information ecosystems.

Morgan has worked as a journalist, academic researcher, organizer, and engagement specialist — and she knows that collaboration is key to achieving her goals. We caught up with Morgan to hear about what she’s working on and how she does it.

WF: How did you get started in journalism?

FM: I graduated college and got hired as an intern at Salon.com back in the early days of online journalism. I loved it, but I ended up moving back home to Durham, North Carolina to be close to family. There I became a staff writer at the Independent Weekly, now called Indy Week, which is still going, I’m glad to say. I covered a little bit of everything, and I also cultivated a beat writing about media and technology — things like broadband access, net neutrality, media ownership and consolidation and how that affects local communities.

I was reporting on how that consolidation was happening in our backyard and I was writing so much about the crisis in news that I wanted to do something about it. So I went to graduate school for public policy at Duke and studied with Jay Hamilton, who studies the economics of media and really cares a lot about journalism as a public good. I did some academic research with Jay on the economics of information inequality.

From there, I worked at Free Press and co-launched the News Voices program. I learned a lot about organizing and facilitating community conversations. So I have this mix of being a journalist, researcher, and organizer — and in the past few years I’ve built my consulting practice to blend it all together and help build stronger local news ecosystems. Whether I’m working with a funder, newsroom, or a field-serving organization like INN or LION, we try to figure out how we can foster collaboration and serve local and community information needs.

A photo of several post-it notes on a whiteboard. The main green one in the middle reads, “Trust through transparency.”
Screenshot from “Creating a Culture of Listening: Using Dialogue to Bridge Divides,” from American Press Institute.

WF: Why is collaboration so important in journalism, research, and organizing?

FM: I see it as a recognition of reality. It’s how information works; it’s how people learn things. When I was a reporter, I was mindful of the fact that I wasn’t an expert in every single topic that I wrote about. I relied on other people to get my work done, whether it was interviewing a source or collaborating with another reporter. Nobody does anything alone, right? I feel like this moment right now in journalism is a recognition of what’s always been true — that we can’t do this work by ourselves.

Collaboration is essential, whether you’re partnering with other newsrooms to make sure that you can reach people and strengthen your reporting, or whether you’re working with community groups to share information and help make sure that you know what’s happening in those communities. Maybe it’s just the people I’m lucky to work with, but I feel like there’s such a cooperative sense — I shine when you shine. We are all trying to help each other accomplish our goals. We make time for each other if we’re having a challenge or want to talk through something. It’s just how it works, and I love it, but it’s very different than the newsroom culture that I think was dominant at the time that I was coming up early in my career.

WF: How have you seen journalism change in your career and become more collaborative? What do you think is responsible for this?

FM: A lot of what’s changed is the way we think about serving people and putting their experience at the center of what we’re doing. When I was in graduate school, the Knight Commission and the Federal Communications Commission put out reports on information needs, saying, “Okay, what do we really need in order to have a functioning democracy and functioning communities?” Thinking in terms of information needs was the big shift in my mind that led me to this work, and I think that’s the biggest shift culturally in journalism.

People don’t have the same kind of media habits they used to. It’s a very different experience to be overwhelmed all the time with information, and so little of it is quality local information. So we have to think about, ‘How are we going to break through, reach people, and get them what they need in the moments they need it?’ Thinking about both the information needs of individual people and of communities collectively is, I think, the biggest change.

WF: What is your typical process when you collaborate with people and organizations?

FM: I often work with either a local foundation or a collaborative group that already exists. I’ll start by talking to the people who live in that place and are working there — how they see the big picture, their challenges, and what they want to know. I try to make sure I identify the people who historically and currently are left out, or those who may have been affected by the harm that journalism has done. This is often Black, Latino, and immigrant communities, though it can also be really specific neighborhoods.

I then try to draw up an asset map, which basically just means looking for the people who are working on the problems in this community, who are organizing folks, and who are really holding relationships and making great things happen here. Those are the people that I want to talk to. I try to get a representative sense of who’s there and use multiple methods to reach out to people — interviews, focus groups, SMS surveys.

With any work I do for a client, I want them to be more equipped to do that work themselves in the future, and more equipped to do it collaboratively. For example, Allison Taylor Levine is leading the Delaware Local Journalism Initiative, and I have been working with her for the past several months on a local news ecosystem assessment where we also partnered with Outlier Media on a text message survey to assess information needs in Delaware.

Allison knows Delaware like the back of her hand — she knows the geographies, the subcultures, the people, the organizations — and she was able to put together a team to work with us. Some were journalists, but some weren’t. We had a librarian on the team, which was awesome. We did all this work together: tons of interviews, focus groups, some publicly announced listening sessions to invite people in the community to join in the research we were doing.

WF: When you’re doing this work, do you worry about how effective you can be if you’re coming from outside of a community? How do you work through these concerns?

FM: Oh, totally. That was my biggest concern when I started doing this, because I’ve been in situations like that, where consultants have come in from outside and spent a few weeks just to tell us what we already knew — get some of it wrong — and then leave. I did not want to be that type of consultant. I really try to approach it as capacity building and helping others to do this work themselves.

I started working with the American Journalism Project just as COVID hit, and we ended up developing a community listening ambassador program. I realized immediately that I couldn’t do this if I didn’t have people who really live there to help me do the research. I put out a call for community ambassadors, offered to pay people $20 an hour, and I hired a really interesting mosaic of people with different perspectives across communities. Those ambassadors then interviewed people they know with a survey, asking about how they get information, how they feel about local news, what questions they have about their community, and what they’d like to see. They take notes and share them with me through an Airtable form. AJP published a toolkit so others can do something similar.

It all comes back to collaboration. I can’t do this by myself. We need to have others involved, and it builds investment in the outcome. For example, I helped facilitate a community conversation with a nonprofit newsroom that was starting up, and a few months down the line, they ended up hiring someone on that call as a reporter. By engaging in this type of collaboration, you’re basically cultivating leadership in the community — you never know if they’ll go on to do reporting or even found their own organization.

WF: What are some of the biggest lessons or learnings in your career?

FM: It takes time. Don’t be impatient or impose a timetable that’s unrealistic. Community listening, community building, and collaboration is very relationship driven and it works best when we are accounting for all the things that happen in our lives — and when we can be flexible when circumstances change. Don’t be rigid; be responsive.

Also, if you’re listening, you have to be willing to do something in response to what you hear. Ask yourself: Am I willing to make a change in the way that I go about my work? Am I willing to reach out and help somebody get the resources they need? Am I willing to change my assumptions? This willingness to change is how collaboration can improve all of our work.

👋 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.

Will Fischer is a journalist covering the intersection of technology and media. He’s worked for Business Insider and New York magazine, and conducted local news research for City Bureau. Follow Will on Twitter @willfisch15 or email him at willfisch15@gmail.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, 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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Will Fischer

Will Fischer

I write about collaborative journalism and local media ecosystems. Follow me on Twitter @willfisch15 or email me at willfisch15@gmail.com.