Partnership in-place

Lessons from a virtual panel on partnering to cover coronavirus at the 2020 Collaborative Journalism Summit

Andrew Elliman
May 19, 2020 · 8 min read
Graphic designed during the presentation in real-time by illustrator Derrick Dent.

From in-person to in-place. Last week the Center for Cooperative Media pulled off the improbable, taking online its 2020 Collaborative Journalism Summit. With an overflow audience of more than 750 virtual attendees, the collective enthusiasm for collaborative journalism (#collaborativej) radiated through the screen, that now more than ever, we’re all in this together.

One panel dealt in particular detail with coronavirus and journalism collaboration, or how once-competitive news organizations are learning to embrace cooperation in the face of unprecedented crisis. Among the presenters, Tina Griego of The Colorado Independent — which has itself recently rechartered within the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) — shared her learnings from COVID Diaries Colorado, an unprecedented coalition of 22+ local newsrooms working together to report nearly 60 stories recounting one day in the life for Colorado under COVID-19.

Join us below as we attempt to break down the recurring takeaways between the groundbreaking work Tina and her co-panelists have helped lead all around the country. (Please note that these are my paraphrased notes and interpretations. Read on for links to full transcripts and video recordings.)

TINA GRIEGO, managing editor of The Colorado Independent: The story of the news business in Colorado is all too familiar. Diminishing revenues, predatory ownership, widening coverage gaps. Through the Colorado News Collaborative, Tina and her colleagues set out to determine: How do we “marshall our collective resources” to do more, with less?

Whereas organic collaboration had already been percolating in the past year, the pandemic accelerated the sense of urgency. The question quickly became, how can we tell this story, the biggest of our lifetimes, in a compelling way that leverages our individual and collective strengths? How can we offer a panoramic view, that gives a personal, firsthand glimpse into the lives of Coloradans from all walks of life and all corners of the state?

Thus, COVID Diaries Colorado was born. Over the course of a single day, April 16 — then the deadliest day on record for the state — reporters fanned out across Colorado in search of individuals whose stories could be documented and woven into a master narrative. The project itself came together in less than a month — from the first date of conception to publication on newspaper front pages, radio and television broadcasts, and digital news sites across the state. “The amazing thing is that we pulled it off.”

CRISTINA TARDÁGUILA, associate director of Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network: As misinformation has itself spread like a virus across the globe, the World Health Organization has officially classified the current state of affairs as an “infodemic.”

With 100 fact-checkers working in 40+ languages across 70+ countries, debunking a database of more than 5,500 viral online hoaxes in the span of five months, the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance marks the largest coordinated effort by the fact-checking community to-date. “When we work together,” observes Christina. “We are stronger, faster, more accurate.”

SARAH ALVAREZ, editor of Outlier Media: Pre-dating the coronavirus, the Outlier Media model applies service journalism as an intervention. Rather than chasing breaking news, the Detroit-based organization seeks to fill information gaps that can cause real harm to communities, particularly of traditionally marginalized populations.

Since its founding in 2016, Outlier’s coverage has focused on access to housing and utilities, two longstanding problems that are now acutely exacerbated by the pandemic. As Detroiters grapple with fear, anxiety and grief, Outlier stands as a watchdog to command transparency and accountability.

Furthermore, Outlier forgoes a more traditional publishing presence in favor of collaborating with legacy newsrooms around the city and beyond. (It’s also helped launch similar projects in Wisconsin, Tennesse, and Georgia.) And as a relative newcomer to the scene, Outlier is able to broker collaboration among newsrooms that wouldn’t normally be keen to work together.

KATHY BEST, director of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland: The opportunity to collaborate was one of the key factors that drove Kathy from a career in newspaper journalism to her role at the University of Maryland. Not just a nice-to-have or added value, collaboration between departments, entire academic institutions, and increasingly journalism organizations, is core to their mission, part of their DNA.

Coming off a sweeping effort to investigate Baltimore’s climate divide, Kathy and her colleagues are preparing to launch a likeminded five-university collaboration, examining how the economic crash will affect those that were already on the edge.

Clockwise from top right: Tina Griego, Kathy Best, Cristina Tardáguila, moderator Taylor Mulcahey, Sarah Alvarez.

SARAH: “We use all the systems,” says Sarah. “Microsoft Teams, Google Docs, Slack, phone calls.” She interprets her role as an assignment editor for the entire city. Driving interest, placing stories, maintaining accountability. Outreach early, outreach often.

TINA: One must resist the urge to roll your eyes and say, “Oh Lord, not another Slack Channel,” Tina warns. COLab is creating a network of constant communication across many platforms — email, Slack, Zoom, Google Docs. As tedious as it at times may seem, that flywheel will be ready to roll back out for future projects.

As part of the infrastructure, the Associated Press generously offered the chance to pilot its new content-sharing tool, StoryShare — a place especially designed for journalists to collaborate on projects such as these. COVID Diaries wouldn’t have been possible without it, and COLab was just the third place in the nation to road test StoryShare.

CRISTINA: For any journalism collaboration, particularly one of global reach, you have to seek the audience where they are. For example, Americans are more apt to texting, whereas Asians prefer Facebook Messanger, in Cristina’s experience. The IFCN has connected with millions of users via its WhatsApp chatbot, with which audiences can vet content with a worldwide network of professional fact-checkers, available at their fingertips.

Presentation is another important component. The #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance has developed highly compelling data visualizations for contact tracing the various strains of misinformation as they transmit and mutate around the world. You can click to see where the 5G conspiracy originated, or if people are still crowdsourcing medical opinions on household cleaners.

TINA: COVID Diaries Colorado had a similar interactive digital map that geo-tagged and linked out to the 60-some stories. Then to supplement the written copy, subjects were asked to record smartphone video diaries throughout the day, which they really responded to.

Their candid, confessional-style contributions, which under normal circumstances would not have been solicited as part of the reporting process, added a unique and invaluable element of humanity to the story — and gave the broadcast journalists in the network particularly useful fodder. They also retaught a lesson Tina has learned time and again as a journalist — to just get out of the way and let people tell their stories. The results, being able to occupy someone else’s space, are often more powerful than you could have otherwise imagined. NOTE: Through an agreement with History Colorado, many of the primary source videos and journalist-reported stories will be archived for posterity, as part of the COVID-19 ‘History in the Making’ project.

KATHY: From a fundraising perspective, she’s found that there’s a lot more money available for collaborative projects of this nature. Simply put, funders have figured out they get more bang for their buck.

TINA: The great part about this collaboration, according to Tina, is that it came together with pre-existing resources, all managed by central air traffic controller supported by COLab. Now going forward, we can use this as a proof-of-concept to both readers and funders. Something to show them what’s possible when they support collaboration.

From left: Sarah Alvarez presents the SMS information needs survey conducted by Outlier Media, Tina Griego shares a video diary from COVID Diaries Colorado, Cristina Tardáguila demos a data visualization from the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance.

CRISTINA: Collaboration is journalism’s only chance for survival. Throughout the current crisis and into the future, we must work together, and maintain transparency in our reporting — show our work!

KATHY: The technology we’re using to communicate, amongst our collaborators and our audiences, is powerful. This crisis is an opportunity for newsrooms and organizations that maybe aren’t as familiar with these tools and platforms to harness that power and embrace it going forward.

Also, in her capacity as an academic administrator, Kathy reminded us that many internships have disappeared up in recent weeks. There are many talented student journalists out there looking for opportunities. If you can, hire them.

SARAH: She hopes that everyone — reporters and non-reporters alike — will come to appreciate what it’s like to be inside and information gap during this crisis. That it’s disorienting and often outright scary. These people are in our communities, and it’s our responsibility to work together to help them.

TINA: Newsrooms will never be flush again, and cliche though it may be, we have to seek strength in numbers, Tina stresses. We have to use that strength wisely, strategically and with awareness for those who are getting left out. A project like COVID Diaries Colorado, with 20+ newsrooms working together in a way that would have been unheard of even two years ago, is an encouraging step in the right direction.

Thank you to the Center for Cooperative Media for including COLab in this bold experiment in virtual conferencing, and for all the hard work it must have taken to pull off so seamlessly. Their website is loaded with resources from the event, including slides, transcripts and video recordings of this and other sessions. Here’s the footage from the coronavirus collaboration panel:

For updates on what’s next for COLab, join us at the Colorado Media Project. Colorado journalists remain committed to continuing this collaboration on behalf of our communities and their vital information needs. It’s never too late for Colorado newsrooms to get involved. Sign up to join the network.

Colorado Media Project

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