We’re launching another collaborative reporting project. Join us.

I spent a sizable chunk of 2015 helping to coordinate Dirty Little Secrets, the Center for Cooperative Media’s first statewide collaborative reporting project. The experience taught me a lot.

Lessons

For starters, I learned that there are way too many toxic contaminants hiding in plain sight in New Jersey. They come in many forms, like abandoned gas stations, underground storage tanks and, of course, the infamous Passaic River (not to mention our municipal water pipes and the paint on our walls).

I learned that people have a finite amount of patience, and that finding that limit is actually pretty easy. I learned that scheduling meetings and conference calls with people from multiple independent organizations is an art form of the highest order, and that anyone who can do it without blowing a head gasket must know a few cheat codes that they’re not sharing with the rest of us.

More importantly, I learned that journalists are much more open to cooperation than I thought. We tend to propagate this idea of the journalist as a salty curmudgeon who refuses to forgive Patch for laying them off. The truth is, there are a lot of journalists and publishers out there who are more than willing to set their competitive tendencies aside and work together to create something useful, meaningful, and good.

It’s not over yet. We’re still in the process of compiling and evaluating the impact of the project. There are still a few stories trickling in here and there, and we’re about to wrap up the submission period for our statewide undergraduate reporting contest on April 1. We’re also still working with the Center for Investigative Reporting on a handful of initiatives that will incorporate the arts.

What now?

If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from the collaborative reporting experience, it’s that we need more like it. Much more.

The good news is, we’re already knee-deep in the next one. We just wrapped up a successful Beacon crowdfunding campaign with NJ Spotlight to support comprehensive immigration coverage in New Jersey. We’re partnering with community and ethnic media from all over NJ to tell important stories about how immigration policies and communities affect our state and our lives at every level.

We’re calling the project, “In the Shadow of Liberty,” and we’ll be using everything we learned from Dirty Little Secrets to make this project even better.

For starters, we’re taking a third of the money we raised and giving it away. We managed to raise more than $31,000, thanks to a generous match from Beacon, so we have around $10,000 to play with — the rest will support NJ Spotlight’s immigration reporting efforts. The trick is getting the money into the right hands. I’m in the process of drafting a funding application form that we’ll be opening up to the public, so NJ publishers and freelancers alike will get a shot at some extra cash. (Sign up for our newsletter and stay tuned for more on this.)

One of the biggest problems our partner publications faced while working on Dirty Little Secrets was a lack of resources and reporters. Many newsrooms simply don’t have the bodies or the bank to pull one of their reporters of their regular beat to work on stories for a collaboration like DLS. But as much as we’d like to spread the wealth around to everyone, we can only stretch it so far. Some people will get money, some won’t. But while money is obviously a big draw for our prospective reporting partners, it’s not the only one.

Opportunities

There are plenty of other reasons to work with us on an important project like this. For one, it’s a great way to grow your network and establish new relationships with publications large and small. There are all kinds of content sharing opportunities, and you get to work with a bunch of brilliant and talented media makers.

As of this writing, we’ve teamed up with Reporte Hispano, Hechos Latinos,EthnicNJ, and New America Media. I’ve also spoken to people at Sing Tao Daily, the largest Chinese newspaper in the world, and Nowy Dzennik, New Jersey’s premiere Polish newspaper, to see if they’re interested in coming aboard. New America Media is also helping us connect with the vast network of ethnic media publications in New Jersey and the surrounding area. I’ll also be reaching out to each of the Center’s partners over the next few weeks and encouraging them to join our fledgling coalition.

This project also presents a great opportunity to get your content in front of new audiences. In the spirit of cooperation, both Reporte Hispano and Hechos Latinos have agreed to translate English content for their Spanish-speaking readers, and Spanish content into English. They’ll be translating as much of the content from the project as possible, all of which will be available for republishing, free of charge, by participating partners. Thanks to Simon Galperin for getting the ball rolling on this idea.

Challenges

This project, like every major undertaking, will undoubtedly present some challenges. One of those challenges will be creating and maintaining a coherent communication strategy between a diverse group of people with different priorities, skill sets, and mother tongues. We’ll have to come up with a way to keep everyone informed and on schedule, without stepping on too many toes or cramping our various styles.

Again, the issue of limited funding and human resources could give rise to some tension, but we’ve made it clear that our goal is to be as transparent as possible in our selection and decision-making processes.

Whatever the potential beef is about, we’ve all agreed that it’s important to have at least some kind of dispute resolution mechanism in place. We’re still not sure exactly what that will look like, but we’re working on it. Right now, the Center will act as a de facto mediator for any minor inter-partner disputes, should they occur.

The Center is funded by Montclair State University and the Dodge Foundation, so we don’t have to worry as much about monetizing our content, relying on exclusive and sustained site traffic, or selling ads. I believe our general financial disinterest in this regard will allow the Center to play the role of the impartial observer if we run into any problems along the way. Luckily, in most cases, the act of laying out a formal dispute resolution mechanism can actually help to alleviate some of the tension before it begins.

Next Steps

The only thing left to do at this point is to spread the word. That’s where you come in. This whole process will be fueled and informed by the principles of design thinking, which means we’ll be asking you and your community for input every step of the way.

Do you know of a publication or journalist who might be interested in working with us?

Do you have an idea for a story? How about a cool project management tool that will make my life easier? Is there a question about immigration you’ve been dying to ask? Maybe you heard about a similar project that we can learn from, or maybe you just want to let us know how important this project is to you.

Whatever it is, let us know. Send me an email at jamditis@gmail.com or call my office at (805) 334–5296 and leave me a message.

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