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Collaborative Scaffolding: The Key to Successful Collaborative Journalism

By Caroline Porter and Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, May 2022

In spring 2020 Steve Leone, a newspaper editor in Concord, New Hampshire, faced a problem. The news was both dire and critical; and yet, his newspaper’s advertising nearly halved overnight, his team was forced to quickly adjust to remote work, and reporters faced a massive learning curve to cover the pandemic.

Now Publisher of The Concord Monitor, Leone did something he’d never done in his decades as a journalist. He opened up his local media collaborative’s shared Google Doc and began to post stories reported by his competitors. Through the local collaborative, a group of local newsrooms and partners working together to produce and distribute local news stories, the Monitor also began alerting competitors when the paper had a hot story about to publish.

The following spring, nearly 900 miles south, the fall-out from the pandemic could be measured in eviction metrics, with thousands of renters behind on their payments in Charlotte. Three journalists from three different media outlets started meeting weekly to analyze more than 700 eviction cases, producing a major feature story with three bylines from three organizations.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, about 20 news organizations were meeting monthly to pitch stories that had one major requirement: the news organizations had to work together in order to receive funding from the collaborative. Each newsroom could not move forward on a story without partnering with another.

In an industry whose history is pockmarked by clickbait, hero worship, and competitive speed, these acts of collaboration cut against the grain of decades of business-as-usual. We’re more familiar with well-worn storylines about newsroom woes that include phases like “resource-strapped,” or “victim of recent lay-offs,” and stories that describe either the death of a news outlet or the crafty way one person circumnavigated such perils with singular ingenuity.

As a rallying cry for a new way of doing the news, collaboration is a flashy buzzword (often touted as a path to industry salvation) that pops up in nearly every discussion about where the industry should go. Yet anyone who has dared mount a collaborative project has quickly learned that productive and authentic collaboration remains exceptionally difficult to sustain. Personalities clash, incentives get easily misaligned, resources inevitably dry up, the news cycle moves on.

Given that sustained collaboration between newsrooms is so difficult, runs counter to so many deeply-held industry norms, and is also an idea on which so many future hopes are riding — we must figure out how to increase the chances of collaborative success. But to do that, we have to ask ourselves: Do we really know what successful collaboration looks like? And what does it take to sustain successful collaboration over time, beyond a single story?

We believe the answers to these questions are emerging from a set of local media collaboratives that have been hard at work together over the last few years, focusing a solutions frame on a single topic critical to the quality of life in their communities.

For the last year, we have studied the impact six collaboratives are creating for their members, their partner newsrooms, their media ecosystems, and their communities. Using interviews, surveys, and observations of meetings throughout a yearlong period that comprised the major news events of 2020–2021, we had a front-row seat to the ups and downs of these collaborative journalism efforts. This essay reviews the key findings of our research. The full results of our research, including a detailed description of our methodology, are available here.

Not all of the collaboratives we studied were fully mature. In fact, one lost its funding after failing to meet grant obligations during our course of observation and then re-started its efforts a few months later. But when we compared the collaboratives that were maturing and able to hang together and produce results, to those that were developing, we were able to uncover a set of elements driving sustained collaboration over time. The maturing groups in our study had developed strong collaborative scaffolding that helped them weather the inevitable difficulties of collaborative work and create change both within and outside their memberships.

The idea of collaborative scaffolding — what it is, how it works, and why it matters — is our contribution to the current conversation on the future of local journalism and how to get there.

Our research approach

Our insights derive from an impact study we developed and implemented examining the process and output of six local media collaboratives. The cohort of journalism collaboratives that we studied are part of the Local Media Project, a five-year program conceived and produced by the Solutions Journalism Network to launch and support solutions-journalism collaboratives around the U.S., with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. These collaboratives’ distinction lies in their commitment to reporting on both problems and their fixes and in their focus on a single subject of particular urgency within their community. The collaboratives’ areas of focus range from affordable housing to mental health. In their founding, the smallest collaborative had nine members and the largest collaborative had 22 members. Most collaboratives focused on the metro areas, though there are also two statewide collaboratives and one regional collaborative in the cohort. (For a detailed overview of each collaborative’s focus and members, see the full report.)

A “collaborative” refers to a group of newsrooms and non-news members from different organizations that come together to produce joint reporting, often related to a single topic. The newsrooms which were part of the collaboratives we studied generally designated one journalist per newsroom (one person per organization, in the case of non-news members) to participate in the collaborative. The journalist members of the collaborative would then work on behalf of the newsroom in the collaborative. Some collaboratives also held separate meetings for editorial leaders and for reporters. The collaboratives we studied met as a group with a cadence of their choosing, such as weekly or monthly, to review editorial projects in the works and to pitch and approve new projects. Across the collaboratives we studied, group decisions were generally made by majority rule, with members voting in-person in meetings or sometimes weighing in over email. Group policies such as voting methods, as well as editorial policies, such as how to edit, credit and share content, were decided at the collaborative-specific level.

The collaboratives in our cohort were each based in a geographic region and were given funding to become part of the Solutions Journalism Network’s Local Media Project. As a condition of funding, the collaboratives were required to choose a single topic and cover that topic using a solutions journalism approach. Once a collaborative had identified a subject, members often pitched stories that interested them, and then members would weigh how new story ideas fit within their broader collection of work. Other times, members identified a critical issue and broke down the story into separate areas to cover, assigning different members different stories. (For a detailed analysis of the developmental phases of these collaboratives, see the full report.)

We’ve found what works to sustain collaboration, and it’s collaborative scaffolding.

We found that the most mature collaboratives had a strong sense of shared values, operated with a high degree of trust, and had a commitment to the collaborative as an entity. The values, trust, and commitment operated like a scaffold to keep the groups moving forward on their projects, even when they encountered challenges. We call the critical ingredient to their success collaborative scaffolding. Collaborative scaffolding is a way of thinking and working together that any collaborative group can build, and that increases the chances of collaborative success. So what does collaborative scaffolding look like? And what can it accomplish?

Strong scaffolding looks like a community-first value system.

Journalists often draw inspiration from general ideals about “serving the public,” a broad and opaque umbrella for industry values that can quickly become lip service. We found that strong collaborative scaffolding makes values explicit and brings members together in service of a common set of ideals.

The most powerful of those values is orienting around the needs of a collaborative’s communities first. We saw that in mature collaboratives, a shared orientation to not just provide information to an audience but to actually support a community with actionable information led to different editorial goals than we’ve seen in typical newsrooms.

In mature collaboratives, a shared orientation to community service had the power to bring together journalists from different backgrounds and different newsrooms into a sense of common purpose, motivation, and momentum.

What did this look like in practice? The most obvious examples we saw were in mature collaboratives’ responses to the the murder of George Floyd, the pandemic, and the 2020 election cycle. Before spring 2020, most of the collaboratives we studied were finding their way, choosing subject areas to focus on and building out their processes. The heavy news cycle of 2020 required unique responses from newsrooms of all kinds, and we observed that the mature collaboratives were able to move more swiftly to identify and address the information needs.

In all of our mature and maturing collaboratives, the members expanded and coordinated coverage that would not have been feasible from one newsroom alone, motivated by the desire to get their communities as much critical information as possible. At a mundane level, this often looked like members working together to compile questions for press conferences or hash out strategies to avoid duplicate stories. At a more complex level, this looked like, for example, the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative’s producing a multi-part graphic news series that was freely distributed through the public library branches and online through social media. The series explains the pandemic at the local level, in both English and Spanish, in partnership with a local arts group and the public library.

The murder of George Floyd, the 2020 election cycle, and the covid-19 pandemic catalyzed a growth spurt in the collaborative scaffolding of the mature collaboratives we studied. Rather than drive these newsrooms apart, we saw how the shared community-service orientation encouraged closer coordination, sharing, strategizing, and led to a sense of pride and meaning in the quality of the group’s output.

For example, collaborative members in New Hampshire reflected that the the murder of George Floyd, the pandemic, and the 2020 election marked a new phase of development within their collaborative. Whereas before, members were tentative about sharing and coordinating plans, the urgency of community needs helped collaborative members begin to share and delegate coverage organically. “We all kind of saw this new opportunity to create a statewide collaborative reporting effort on Covid-19,” said one collaborative member. “We were able to collaboratively give readers a statewide view of Covid. It happened seamlessly.”

But the community orientation in mature and maturing collaboratives went many steps beyond coordinated coverage. Guided by the solutions framework, the Northeast Ohio collaborative, for example, approached the issue of residents’ utilities being turned off by preparing a guide of how to get help to keep residents’ lights on. The guide was distributed at places where residents were already, like a local health center.

Orienting together to meet community needs also helped mature collaboratives think concretely about how those needs might differ by community and by story. For example, one collaborative member in Charlotte explained how she evolved her thinking from the idea that one newspaper could meet all parts of her community and started leaning on smaller news partners:

“Everything can’t serve every audience. So we stop trying to do that and instead think about how multiple pieces of journalism serve more specific audiences. You tend to serve nobody if you try to say, ‘Well, this is for everybody,’ Because it can’t be! The collaborative really challenged my thinking about who cares about a story, and why are they going to read it.”

Not every collaborative we observed had been able to build the shared orientation to community needs necessary for strong collaborative scaffolding. For example, one member of a developing collaborative said this about how to define the collaborative’s audience: “I don’t know, if I know the answer to that,” said the member. “And that feels like something that we should know, more specifically who our audience is.”

Strong scaffolding looks like high degrees of trust among members.

Trust is a bedrock ingredient of strong collaborative scaffolding because high-quality collaborative work is dependent on the quality of relationships among collaborators. In the mature collaboratives we studied, members had developed enough trust to share time, resources, and learning with each other. That trust took time to build, and we learned, could also be damaged.

In some cases the trust among members was built through the process of re-examining their reporting practices and assumptions in light of solutions journalism’s community-first orientation. For example, the members of the Charlotte collaborative reported to us that they appreciated the role of solutions journalism in forcing an explicit reassessment and re-dedication to the craft of reporting through the lens of community service. That reflective process required more communication, vulnerability, and sharing among the members than they usually shared with industry colleagues.

In addition to building trust among members, members felt the reflection and learning inherent solutions approach also was leading to an improvement in their reporting chops and in other collaborations blooming outside the collaborative. For example, one New Hampshire collaborative member shared, “Because both [my news organization] and the Granite State News Collaborative are engaged in SJN projects, the quality of our reporting has improved; I consider coaching and instruction in these methods important and game-changing.”

Collaborative scaffolding takes time to build in part because trust takes time to build. But we saw in the mature collaboratives we studied that building trust is possible, even when things start out rocky. For example, the New Hampshire collaborative, which had a high degree of trust amongst its members during our observation period, initially struggled to build this element of collaborative scaffolding. “The biggest hurdle in our first two years was that the members seemed to struggle to trust each other,” explained the New Hampshire collaborative director.

Some of the trust hurdles in news collaboration stem from competitive feelings among newsrooms and among reporters. Explained one New Hampshire member, “Certainly at the beginning, people were much more cautious, not knowing am I going to be giving up a competitive advantage?”

Working together with positive results helped collaborative members in New Hampshire moderate their fear and feelings of competition and build trust. The collaborative member continued: “Over time, I think that people have seen other people are sharing, and have seen that people are willing to contribute and contribute quality pieces. The collaborative itself was producing pieces, which I think also made it easier to see that this was a shared work product.”

The developing collaboratives, in contrast, were still on the road to developing strong trust amongst members. For example, one of the developing collaboratives we studied consistently struggled to build trust between larger and smaller outlets in the group. “We have not done much co-reporting with other members,” reported one collaborative member. “And I think part of it is because that’s a lot harder to do than just sharing stories and things like that. It’s a lot harder.”

Strong scaffolding looks like commitment to the collaborative as an entity.

Strong collaborative scaffolding helps members rise above their organizational identity to identify with — and feel commitment to — the collaborative as whole. The members of the mature collaboratives we studied expressed deep commitment to and affiliation with the collaborative as a “thing.” This went beyond buy-in and enthusiasm to a true identification with the collaborative itself. Participation in the collaborative influenced how members thought about themselves as journalists and the service they provide to their community.

The best example of commitment to the collaborative as a stand-alone entity is the Broke in Philly (BIP) collaborative. This collaborative benefits from a unique sense of confidence among the cohort we studied, in part because it is the oldest and most experienced, but also because of its role as part of a larger operation, Resolve Philly. Resolve Philly grew out of the first solutions journalism collaborative supported by Solutions Journalism Network, The Reentry Project.

“There is a whole organization that is dedicated to making this collaboration work as well as it can,” shared an editor within the organization.

Resolve Philly’s stewardship of Broke in Philly means their members benefit from additional time and resources dedicated to making collaborative relationships successful. For example, in 2021 alone,109 BIP journalists participated in BIP-sponsored lunch and learns, intended to allow members to share skills with each other. The collaborative offered $15 Grubhub gift certificates to encourage members from different newsrooms to have lunch together. And each collaborative meeting started with an ice-breaker as an activity to prioritize relationship-building outside of the reporting work.

But not all the collaboratives we studied were yet able to elicit such commitment. For example, one of our developing collaboratives struggled to help its members understand and practice the solutions journalism approach. The lack of understanding and commitment led to a lack of joint-reporting projects, which further undermined learning and buy-in. The collaborative experience did not hold enough meaning or gain enough momentum for members to take risks in working together, and near the end of the first year, two members had left the collaborative and the collaborative did not receive its second-year funding. Since then, the collaborative has brought on a new project manager, established a new plan, and relaunched with new funding from SJN for six more months.

Another developing collaborative which struggled to build commitment was working to overcome the competitive distrust and self-interest of its member newsrooms. Another primarily focused its work together on improving coverage for individual member newsrooms rather than working toward a collaborative-first approach. We observed that the interactions of this collaborative were much more transactional, and some of its members agreed. One member put it this way: “What is the bare minimum? Oh, you want me to upload two stories that ran four months ago? Yep, I got you.”

Collaborative scaffolding is the bridge from theory to practice.

What impact does strong collaborative scaffolding have? Through supporting the shared values, trust, and commitment of a group of journalists working together, strong collaborative scaffolding becomes the engine of sustained change in a media ecosystem. We observed that where collaborative scaffolding was strong, collaboratives affected change not just in how individual journalists work, but in how their local information ecosystems evolved.

Strong scaffolding fosters sustained, productive connections among journalists and news organizations beyond the collaborative experience.

The positive changes in individuals journalists’ relationship to each other and to the practice of journalism was the most obvious impact we observed of strong collaborative scaffolding. The mature collaboratives we studied knitted together and sustained new relationships among journalists from a wide spectrum of news organizations, many of whom otherwise would not have reason to meet, let alone work together over an extended period of time.

Some of the positive effects of strong collaborative scaffolding stem from group composition. For example, each collaborative in our study included a Spanish-language media outlet or a Spanish media advisory group, as well as a mix of community media, corporate-owned media, public media and non-news partners, such as a local public library. “Many of us were meeting each other for the first time and are much more inclined now to offer a hand or lend an ear,” wrote one respondent in the research survey of members. “We’re certainly all talking more frequently, which is a huge benefit, and learning more about how other folks work,” reported another.

In mature collaboratives with strong scaffolding, individual members connected not only around the core reporting topic, but found reasons to collaborate outside of the formal collaborative as well. For example, one member shared with us: “We just traded articles with a partner in the collaborative. The two articles were not part of what the collaborative shares, but we both decided it was mutually beneficial to trade.”

The effects of powerful collaborative scaffolding can even extend beyond the topic-focused work to foster new and deeper connections between newsrooms. For example, one member in Charlotte said the collaborative connected her directly with another news leader, and together they have built out separate collaborations, including the sharing of a Report for America reporter. “This partnership has allowed us to write stories that we were unable to write before for lack of resources and we are expanding our audiences,” she wrote.

Strong scaffolding promotes deeper engagement with communities.

Stronger collaborative scaffolding also produces more outward-facing engagement between the collaboratives and their communities. We saw that compared with developing collaboratives, the mature collaboratives with strong scaffolding made notable strides in holding engagement events, which showed promise as ways to lift community voices into the public arena. For example, a maturing collaborative within the cohort participated in nine events throughout the year, ranging from panels to listening sessions.

We also saw that when collaborative scaffolding worked well, joint coverage reflected new sources, different languages and humanizing details that had the potential to widen the communities served. For example, one mature collaborative with strong scaffolding chose the subject of race and equity in their coverage area for their reporting subject, and developed community boards to offer feedback and ideas for each reporting vertical within the broader subject. “The collaborative is helping to broaden editorial viewpoints, which … would then also lead to different coverage, maybe more diverse coverage in more neighborhoods by [my news organization],” shared one member of another mature collaborative.

Strong scaffolding can lead to positive media funding and policy outcomes.

Strong collaborative scaffolding can also have a direct impact on policy and funding. We saw how maturing and mature collaboratives’ focus on a single subject generated buzz could command the awareness, attention, and action of media funders and policymakers.

The policy impacts we observed were often directly related to the solutions covered by the collaboratives. For example, in Charlotte, after the collaborative covered solutions to expiring housing vouchers, the Charlotte Housing Authority voted to move forward with one of the solutions highlighted by the collaborative. In New Hampshire, as part of its solutions-focused series on race and equity, the collaborative heard from members of the Latino community about a controversial draft bill prohibiting certain types of diversity curricula in the state’s schools. Following the collaborative’s reporting on the legislation and the impacts it might have, the governor opposed the measure and ultimately a weaker version of the bill was included in the state budget. And in Cleveland, a collaborative member published a solution-focused story about housing legislation, and shortly thereafter, a nearby city replicated the idea, which was also introduced in two other communities.

In addition to direct policy impact, we also found that many collaboratives were able to amplify the successful work of community groups in ways that influenced local funding. For example, in 2021, a group focused on vaccine distribution called Chicagoland Vaccine Partnership was awarded $1 million through a pooled fund from different foundations. The group cited the Chicago collaborative’s coverage of their efforts as a reason for the funding. Another group, Increase the Peace, said it raised $400,000 through grants and donations after it was covered by a member of the Chicago collaborative. In Northeast Ohio, an anonymous donor gave $50,000 to a community group after a collaborative member produced a story about the group’s work to prevent evictions. The community group cited the collaborative and the story as the reason for the donation. In another Northeast Ohio example, an organization that hosted Covid-19 vaccination clinics in historically Black churches received $250,000 from the Cleveland Foundation after a collaborative story on the subject, and the organization’s leader pointed to the story as an impetus for the grant.

Collaboratives have also been able to raise additional funds to support their work on the strength of their reporting, and some have been able to recruit new funders into local media. For example, in New Hampshire, the Granite State News Collaborative has raised about $240,000 since 2019 from local and national funders as well as from individual donors on the strength of its work, outside of its Solutions Journalism Network funding. One donor, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, asked the collaborative to speak about the importance of journalism and civic engagement at their Funders Forum meeting. And in Philadelphia, Resolve Philly, which houses Broke in Philly, received an award as a top nonprofit in 2021 and was granted $1 million from the Philadelphia COVID-19 Community Information Fund to support member newsrooms’ Covid-19 coverage in 2020.

Strong scaffolding can build pathways to community change, over time.

Impact on communities is the ultimate, highest aim for collaborations. Creating impact at this level requires the kinds of long-term practice changes, attitude changes, news, and information ecosystem engagement, and systemic change we have been pointing towards.

Within the timeframe of our study, and given the relatively short life to date of most of the collaboratives we studied, we were not able to uncover robust indications of the long-term impact of the collaboratives on their local communities. This stands to reason: community members’ relationships with the media are typically older than the collaboratives’ efforts, and longstanding, sustained change in dialogue and trust requires more time.

That said, we believe the solutions journalism framework in particular helps lay out pathways for audience members to participate in community change, which is one possible pathway through which local collaboratives may be able to create systemic change. Though gathering widespread evidence will require more time to study, we do have indications of possible long-term outcomes.

As a result of the solutions journalism coverage our collaboratives produced, we saw a handful of action-oriented networks developing in local ecosystems through attendance at events, building email lists, a texting group and volunteer opportunities. We could also detect a small change in audience attitudes in some places.

In the audience surveys we conducted, respondents reported ways their general outlook on their communities had changed, largely focusing on more compassion, awareness, and understanding. For example, in our audience survey for Philadelphia’s collaborative, 75% of respondents said that after engaging with a news story about economic mobility in Philadelphia, they discussed it with a friend or family member. Nearly one in five respondents said they changed personal behaviors or beliefs, and 26% said they followed a local journalist or journalism organization on social media. Other examples that respondents provided include: “share with educators for classroom use,” “contacted my state representative,” “shared with colleagues, use to inform my work,” and “raising my consciousness.”

Our nascent community impact data suggest that collaborative scaffolding is the foundation on which collaboratives can create community impact. Creating impact at the community level requires the kinds of long-term practice changes, mindset shifts, and community engagement that collaborative scaffolding makes possible. This means strong collaborative scaffolding is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient for creating community impact. Collaboratives need more time and resources to continue the hard work of making community change.

The special role of solutions journalism

While we believe the idea of a collaborative lifecycle and the concept of collaborative scaffolding can be usefully applied to all types of collaborative journalism, we also wanted to explore the special role that solutions journalism might play in the creation and development of collaborative scaffolding. Our research suggests that solutions journalism can develop and strengthen collaborative scaffolding in three ways: through meeting collaborators’ needs beyond monetary resources, by providing a rigorous way to test assumptions, and through fostering a sense of community and belonging to a movement larger than the single collaborative.

Solutions journalism as a whole provides a ready-made values framework that is the core of collaborative scaffolding. The unique differentiator of solutions journalism as a basis for collaboration is that the specific values of the approach meet collaborators’ needs for meaningful participation, service, and learning — in addition to the Solutions Journalism Network providing resources for reporting. The mere existence of an explicit, shared set of values has the potential to get collaborators from very different backgrounds on the same page from the very beginning. The kind of strong, early, momentum that explicit values provide can carry a collaborative through the inevitable ups and downs of the early stages of work together.

The solutions journalism framework also provides explicit ways to test assumptions about usual ways of practicing journalism. The reporting style can be very exacting and rigorous, even as the reporting products can take a wide range of forms. When practiced in a collaborative context, solutions journalism’s focus on generating insight with rigor helps build the trust that is a key component of collaborative scaffolding because reporters are forced to question their assumptions and be transparent about their practices together.

Finally, the structure, resources, and network of the Solutions Journalism Network itself helped create a container for collaborative scaffolding to develop and foster community and belonging. Distinct from other funders and associations in the space, funding flows to collaboratives, not to specific media organizations, which helps tamp down competition. And from sharing internal planning documents, to disseminating revenue strategies and other tips for engaging group members, to organizing inter-collaborative happy hours, the Local Media Project central organizers created spaces for members to feel part of a movement bigger than themselves.

Collaborative Scaffolding and New Theories of Change for Journalism

Journalism’s systems and theory of change need an update. We believe that collaborative scaffolding, built with explicit values and goals that work alongside and for community needs, is one path to new structures that truly produce positive change. This is especially the case when collaboratives include member organizations that are not news organizations.

We have seen firsthand the incredible capacity of journalists to work together, across differences and divides, in pursuit of community service. Collaborations, especially when they grow more expansive in their ideas and less beholden to industry culture, can better partner with community members to share information and stories to pave the way for better outcomes, faster and with more buy-in. Strong collaborative scaffolding is the key to that success.

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Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism