Collaborative Journalism Summit: Cooperative news networks often form in response to events, out of necessity

Whether responding to events, making the best of limited resources or reflecting community traditions, cooperative journalism ventures are forging pathways across an altered media landscape.

Illustrating the possibilities, panelists and audience members shared such experiences in a session on “Building a Cooperative News Network” during the Collaborative Journalism Summit, held May 4-5 at Montclair State University and hosted by the Center for Cooperative Media.

“This is like a dream come true,” said moderator Melanie Sill of the Democracy Fund.

In a seminal 2011 paper, Sill championed the concept of “open journalism,” which she described as “transparent, responsive and enriched through vibrant two-way connections with a networked universe.”

“To be here and see this level of cooperation, and see what’s happening is just really gratifying,” she said.

Which is not to say that its origins have been entirely benign.

“Generalized dyspepsia with what is happening with the state of newspapers” led to the formation of the North Carolina Newsroom Cooperative, said Mary Miller, a former reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh.

Miller, online pioneer Seth Effron and Hugh Stevens, counsel for the North Carolina Press Association, saw their state “making news in really awful ways,” while “parachute journalism” by national news organizations often missed the point, she said.

With a rallying cry of “support the storytellers,” the new group established a “home base” for laid-off reporters and other newly minted freelancers in Research Triangle Park. They had the necessary funding contacts, as Miller’s husband heads the Research Triangle Foundation.

Economics also prodded media cooperation in Detroit as the city made history in 2013 with the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy filing. That was the poisoned cherry on top of decades of economic and population decline, punctuated by a bruising labor dispute in the 1990s that weakened local newspapers.

“No one medium was going to be able to tell that story and how it was impacting residents,” said Michelle Srbinovich, general manager of WDET, Detroit’s National Public Radio affiliate. But “everybody in Detroit media knew each other,” she said, and began collaborating, tentatively at first, “then more intently.”

Scott McCartney of Detroit Public Television came aboard a year ago as regional coordinator of what was evolving into the multi-platform Detroit Journalism Cooperative. As a linkage among “two radio stations, online, a TV station, (and) five ethnic newspapers,” the cooperative can report stories in many different formats, he said.

“You’re not going to just see a written article, you’re going to see video of each interview, you’re going to hear the inflection, see the body language,” McCartney said. “Each institution does its own thing, and we share it all together.”

Some of that already was happening, often beneath the notice and noses of traditional media, said audience members and panelists.

“The first groups of media to actually begin collaboration because of necessity, because of structural racism, were communities of color,” said Manolia Charlotin of The Media Consortium.

“Ethnic” media “is often regarded as lesser media, a stepchild,” said Sandy Close, executive director of Pacific News Service, “and in fact, it’s hundreds of years old.”

At an initial 1996 meeting in San Francisco to organize what became New America Media, the participants from ethnic news organizations realized “we’re bigger than the Guardian and the Chronicle combined,” Close said. “If we work together, we can know more about each other’s communities, as well as become more visible and validated in the larger journalism community.”

That has been the dynamic in Michigan communities as well, said Hayg Oshagan, a communications professor from Wayne State University, who works with the five largest ethnic publications in the Detroit area. Their cooperation stems partly from journalistic reasons, but also “to create awareness and understanding between communities,” he said.

“We don’t have a bank of editors, we don’t have a copy desk,” said Keith Owens, editor of the Michigan Chronicle. But unlike larger news organizations, which may draw reporters from anywhere, “we have a depth of knowledge” that comes from living in the community, he said.

At Montclair State University, the NJ News Commons connects news media around the state on issues from this year’s race for governor to immigration, said Joe Amditis, associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media and the Commons.

A crowd-funding campaign raised $31,000 for a series on immigration to be disbursed among “people who are covering these communities,” he said. But Amditis acknowledged that “even giving away money was a challenge,” because “our relationships are not diverse enough.”

Truly inclusive cooperation can rectify these longstanding problems, Sill said, offering ” an opportunity to build something better than what happened in the past.”

Author Joseph Tyrrell is a New Jersey-based freelance journalist.

 


About the Collaborative Journalism Summit: The Collaborative Journalism Summit took place May 4-5, 2017 at Montclair State University. It was an international symposium on collaborative reporting projects and cooperative news networks. The summit was hosted by the Center for Cooperative Media and presented by Google News Lab and the Rita Allen Foundation, and is sponsored by the Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the CUNY Graduate School of JournalismMontclair State University and the Rita Allen Foundation.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

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