The California Reporting Project is already one of 2019’s best use cases for collaborative journalism
The Golden State is setting a great example right now for the rest of the country to follow
Last month I was thrilled to hear that the California Reporting Project had grown to 33 news organizations working together to collect and analyze internal police misconduct records that were recently released under a new state law.
The news orgs, including KQED, the Bay Area News Group (notably The Mercury News and East Bay Times), the Los Angeles Times, CALMatters, KPCC, the Orange County Register and others, are examining hundreds of cases pulled from more than 1,100 public information requests across the state.
From The Times:
The documents provide a glimpse into how California police agencies evaluate misconduct, force and shootings by their officers — issues that have dominated a national debate over policing and fueled criticism that law enforcement agencies aren’t transparent enough with the communities they serve.
This is clearly an important project that is able to be tackled much more quickly and comprehensively because it’s a collaborative effort. (KPCC has a great post about why a collaborative approach is so effective, plus a full list of participants.) This is one of the best use cases I’ve seen for collaborative journalism yet in 2019.
But it didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t easy.
I chatted with Ethan Lindsey, executive editor at KQED News, about the project this week. KQED, the Bay Area News Group and Investigative Studios were one group (the northern California set) of original collaborators on the effort. The Los Angeles Times and KPCC led a southern California group.
Because everyone in California knew the law shielding these police misconduct records from public view changed at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2019, the fact that multiples news organizations were going after the documents was no secret. KQED reporters Alex Emslie and Sukey Lewis had been working on a strategy for weeks, for example, and others were doing the same.
Lindsey told me the key for this collaboration to work was all the news entities openly agreeing that these now-public records needed to be in the public domain, and that by working together, they could make that happen much more quickly and thoroughly than if they all did it separately.
In a statement, the California Reporting Project coalition said:
The newsrooms have agreed to set aside competition and work collaboratively given the public service this reporting will provide.
It also helped that several of the partners had worked together on other projects. This is critical: Previous collaborations had built trust between some of the journalists, which gave the collaborative the legs it needed to scale.
It was Megan Garvey of KPCC — who had worked with KQED on the California Dream collaborative — who helped facilitate some of the early conversations to work with bigger partners including the Los Angeles Times, Lindsey said.
“There was some real walking on eggshells,” Lindsey recalled about some of the conversations. “We all agreed we wanted to work together, but what does working together mean?”
There were a lot of phone calls, a lot of delicate conversations about access to the documents, who should be involved, who would be able to report on what and when, and, eventually, a detailed MOU. How it works now is that once someone makes a records request, they tell the entire group, and once they receive the records they are quickly uploaded and shared with everyone.
“This isn’t just another collaboration,” Neil Chase, CEO at CALMatters and former executive editor of the Bay Area News Group, told me via email. “This is, to me, the watershed moment when we had built enough interest in collaboration and understanding of its statewide importance, and enough experience that we had the muscles to do it. So when the opportunity arose, it just happened. It’s a huge moment.”
There were 33 news organizations participating as of this week, and Lindsey told me they’re considering requests to join from several others, including some national publications.
“We have to decide now how to bring other people in,” Lindsey said. “We don’t want to be a closed-door group, but we also don’t want to just share (the work) without some buy-in.”
In addition to the important role that the MOU has played, Lindsey noted that the project management role that Adriene Hill, senior editor of the California Dream collaborative, stepped in to play was crucial.
“She has been doing yeoman’s work, helping out running calls, meeting deliverables and moving the project forward. … Without her, I don’t know if this would have happened,” Lindsey said.
California is a bit unique in that collaboration has been part of its ecosystem, in some regards, for a long time.
New America Media, when it was still in existence, coordinated collaborative efforts among ethnic media in California and beyond for decades.
California is home to free-standing initiatives like the Bay Area Media Collaborative and several partnership-oriented entities including the Center for Investigative Reporting/Reveal, the Center for Health Journalism and CALMatters. The public media sector also includes quite a few strong collaborators, including KQED and KPCC.
We can look back to 2013’s collaborative effort by nine news organizations in the state to better cover valley fever, an initiative organized by the Center for Health Journalism (then called Reporting on Health), which regularly runs collaborative reporting projects.
The state garnered a lot of attention a few years ago with the SF Homeless Project. And the California Dream project has been a partnership between CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio.
A couple weeks ago, I was chatting with another top editor at a California newspaper and she told me that this is just the tip of the iceberg — there are several more collaborative initiatives in the works that could be groundbreaking.
My response: Keep ’em coming.
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Stefanie Murray is the director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab Fund of the Community Foundation of New Jerseyand the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.