From the beginning, the underlying assumption of the Center was — and still is — that news organizations can accomplish things by working together that no individual organization would be able to achieve on its own.
Below is a timeline (written and interactive) of major events, achievements, and initiatives by the Center for Cooperative Media from it’s launch in 2012 to the present.
NOTE: The timeline and the accompanying text was written and compiled by Joe Amditis, the Center’s assistant director of products and events and longest-running staff member, over the course of the last five years. The first five years of the timeline were written in 2017 at the five-year anniversary of the launch of the Center. The last five years are still being written. This timeline and page are currently under construction and are only updated through early 2021. For a more detailed look at our work over the last several years, you can download and read our annual reports here.
2012: E pluribus, nuntium
We realized, of course, that fostering cooperation among media outfits would be challenging at times. Journalists, by nature, are not always the most cooperative species. Aside from the fierce competition between some of the state’s largest news organizations, there are also rivalries that exist among news organizations of all sizes. Still, we decided to stick a bunch of pins in a map and try to to figure out where the state’s news assets were and find ways that we might be able to get them to play nice.
One of the Center’s biggest advocates and then-associate director, Debbie Galant, led the charge as she traveled from city to city, meeting and speaking with newsroom leaders and news entrepreneurs from all over the state, in an attempt to get a better lay of the cooperative media landscape.
Debbie’s first clue that we were on to something came when, while visiting those newsrooms, she met Justin E. Auciello, founder of Jersey Shore Hurricane News. JSHN was, and still is, a Facebook crowdsourcing phenomenon that became both a model and an inspiration for news entrepreneurs and media startups everywhere.
Then, in late October 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit. Sandy slammed into New Jersey and the rest of the tristate area before the Center even had our website up and running. Yet, in an incredible feat of technology and cooperation, the Center managed to marshal the efforts of eight hyperlocal news sites, plus Jersey Shore Hurricane News, to create #NJSandy, a multi-day live-blog hosted by ScribbleLive. The following week, with the added help of WNYC, WHYY and students of Montclair State’s School of Communication and Media, we follow that with the #NJVote campaign, which tracked local voting problems in the presidential election in the wake of Sandy’s destruction.
2013: Media hacks, micro-grants, and immigration
After the election, we asked our partners to join forces once again for another editorial project. In the process, we learned that the idea of newsroom collaboration was starting to stick — even without the winds of a natural disaster at our backs. Out of that process came The Immigration Project, a nine-month effort to report on the lives and experiences of immigrants living in the Garden State.
All of the content produced as part of The Immigration Project was made available to our partners throughout the state using our Story Exchange, an innovative platform that allows news organizations to embed each other’s stories as if they were YouTube videos.
After the new year, we launched two more major initiatives: the Grow & Strengthen program and a series of projects aimed at encouraging investigative and data reporting by members of the NJ news ecosystem.
The main purpose of the Grow & Strengthen program was to expand and fortify the news ecosystem in New Jersey. We identified a cohort of news entrepreneurs who were interested in starting new sites, gave them small micro-grants to help get their operations off the ground, and hosted regular coaching sessions at Montclair State University and made sure they connected regularly through monthly peer-to-peer meet-ups. We seeded and nurtured a total of 15 news projects in the state. (Disclaimer: I was leading one of them at the time, called Muckgers.)
Our second major objective was to encourage and support investigative journalism and data reporting by our members. In order to accomplish this, we launched two programs that started in early 2013: Hack Jersey, our first journalist-coder hackathon; and our Open Public Records Act coaching program.
We partnered with 37-year local government veteran and Bloustein School public policy researcher, Marc Pfeiffer, to provide assistance to investigative reporters and partners looking to file public records requests, free of charge.
2014: New Jersey news and a national conference
With two solid years of cooperative media experimentation under our belts, we started looking outward to find ways we might bring aspects of the New Jersey news ecosystem model — or at least some of the lessons learned from it — to other parts of the country. Part of that process involved hosting a national conference on local media innovation and the future of local news to get a better sense of the national discussion surrounding local journalism as an industry.
In April 2014, we convened more than 250 thought leaders from around the country for a national conference on innovation in local media, called Innovate Local.
In March, we partnered with the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York City to host the first of several summits for community and ethnic media leaders in the tristate area.
Throughout the year, we continued to coordinate trainings and workshops on topics such as investigative reporting, starting a news site, working with spreadsheets, and using your archives to make money and find new stories.
In May, we hosted the Open Data NJ Summit. The goal was to get journalists, watchdogs, citizens activists and government officials to work together to find ways to make state and local data more accessible (and legible).
In November, we held our first Election Night Open Newsroom for the 2014 elections. Together with NJ Spotlight, we built and populated a live election map as the results came in on election night. The newsroom was open to all hyperlocal publishers, students, faculty, freelancers, and any journalist without a newsroom. We paid our volunteers in pizza and ended up winning the 2014 Excellence in Journalism award from the NJ Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the Online Deadline Reporting category.
2015: Engagement, new technology and collaborative reporting
We kicked off 2015 with a push to get some of our partners thinking about the changing mobile news landscape. One of the main goals of our Conquer Mobile workshop with Montclair State University professor Amir Husak, was to help our partners peek under the hood of their smartphone, understand its various components and begin to imagine how it can change their news operation.
We also tried to emphasize the importance of understanding and working with data on a regular basis. In February, we hosted an event called Data Day 2015, which included presentations from representatives of Parse.ly, Find the Best, Ethnic NJ, NJ Advance Media, the Bergen Record and the NJ Data Book at Rutgers University. The goal was to show our partners how data can help them tell stories and how it can help you better understand your community. The event also served as a brainstorming session for the second iteration of our statewide NJ news hackathon, Hack Jersey 2.0, which we hosted in late March 2015.
Another major theme for the Center and the NJ News Commons in 2015 was community engagement. We wanted to look at all the smart ways media organizations can use engagement to report the news, create brand loyalty, fund their enterprises and turn an active ear towards their communities.
Engage Local, our second national media conference, kicked off on June 15 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ. The main event consisted of a town hall, during which journalists, civic leaders and the public discussed the issue of redevelopment in New Jersey’s largest city.
The event was part of the National Community and News Literacy Roundtables Project, a joint initiative of the American Society of News Editors, The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the News Literacy Project and the American Press Institute.
Day two of Engage Local was held across the street at the historic Robert Treat Hotel. Highlights included a lunch conversation between Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, and Merrill Brown, then-director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Steve Waldman also unveiled a proposal to launch the Report for America project, which went on to launch a pilot program to place and pay for three new reporters in the heart of rural Appalachia.
Collaborative reporting also became a major focus for us in 2015 with the launch of our first statewide reporting collaboration: Dirty Little Secrets: Investigating New Jersey’s Toxic Legacy. The goal of the project was to identify and report on the lesser-known sources of contamination in New Jersey, which is known for its abundance of Superfund sites.
Coordinated by The Center for Investigative Reporting, with help from the Center for Cooperative Media and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies, we set out to explore the local effects of pollution with media partners across New Jersey, including New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, WBGO and New Brunswick Today.
Our partners identified more than 15,000 active or pending contaminated sites in the Garden State – that list includes abandoned dry cleaners, concrete companies, tire centers, auto body shop, and lots and lots of gas stations. Most of the sites identified were in some stage of remediation, but we found more than 1,300 with no remediation professional or plan to speak of.
As part of our plan to expand the reach of our partners’ reporting beyond the format of the news story, we partnered with Storyworks to translate Brenda Flanagan’s hard-hitting report for NJTV into an hour-long dark comedy called “Terra Incognita”, performed at the George Street Playhouse.
We also partnered with WFMU, an independent radio station in Jersey City, to host a comedy contest series aimed at spotlighting the very serious ways that toxic contamination affects communities across New Jersey through fact-based stand-up comedy.
Unfortunately, Dirty Little Secrets would be the last major project that our then-associate director, Debbie Galant, would work on during her tenure at the Center. Toward the end of the summer, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and chose to step away from her position at the Center to focus on her treatment (and a podcast she started with her son as a way to chronicle her battle with cancer, which they dubbed The Chemo Files). Galant would go on to make a full recovery and is currently in remission — plus, The Chemo Files won the 2016 June L. Biedler Prize for cancer reporting!
With Debbie gone, the day-to-day operations of the Center were left for me to handle while the university continued the search for a new director and associate director. In the meantime, I was temporarily promoted to acting director and acting associate director.
2016: New leadership, new projects, and new collaborations
We kicked off 2016 with a crowdfunding campaign to raise at least $30,000 to support collaborative reporting on immigration issues and policies in New Jersey. We called the project In the Shadow of Liberty: Immigration in New Jersey. We partnered with NJ Spotlight to raise the money, two-thirds of which would be dedicated to their own reporting efforts over the course of the next year.
The crowdfunding campaign, hosted on the now-defunct Beaconreader platform, was a resounding success. We managed to raise more than $31,000 to support the collaborative project, and we immediately began looking for reporting partners.
We received a range of grant applications from journalists and local publishers across the state. In order to ensure diversity in our grantee selection process, we also partnered with the now-defunct New America Media to help us attract ethnic, community, and transnational media grantees. In the end, we awarded more than $5,800 in reporting grants to nine local reporting outlets and journalists. We also awarded $1,000 to Anthony Ewing of EthnicNJ.com to help him update his maps of ethnic and immigrant-owned restaurants and business in New Jersey. Ewing also used part of the money to create a list of available state and local immigration resources.
In total, our partners produced at least 39 stories, focusing on more than 12 different local and ethnic communities, as part of the Shadow of Liberty collaboration.
The Center gets a new director
Stefanie Murray was named as the new director of the Center in April, and she immediately set out to familiarize herself with our partners and the individual issues they faced. Murray’s long tenure as a reporter and editor in newsrooms across the country meant she already had a strong grasp on the most glaring issue facing publishers and reporters alike: revenue.
Money, money, money
With that in mind, we decided to host two sustainability summits for NJ News Commons members — one in North Jersey and one in South Jersey — in preparation for our annual national media conference, Sustain Local, which was scheduled for the fall. The turnout at both events was impressive; it was clear that this was something our partners cared about and wanted to discuss further.
In the meantime, we were already busy soliciting applications for the second iteration of our Sales and Revenue Bootcamp, which first launched in the summer of 2015. Business coach Joe Michaud and sales guru Eleanor Cippel worked with a handful of partners and their prospective sales representatives to hone their skills and become acquainted with what Cippel calls the “9 Week Intentional Seller Program.”
Revenue and sustainability were obviously the two of the biggest themes that year, but there was another aspect of journalism’s downturn over the last decade or two that remained largely unaddressed: layoffs and newsroom job losses. Stefanie Murray had seen this play out first-hand in newsrooms where she worked and, after news broke in September about another round of layoffs in Gannett newsrooms across the state, we were determined to do something — anything — to address the issue in New Jersey.
With support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Center’s research director Sarah Stonbely began working on a report that aimed to examine the effects these newsroom layoffs were having on the coverage of the communities that lost their reporters. The paper, which was released in March 2017, was titled “Layoffs in Local Newsrooms: Documenting the changing New Jersey local journalism ecosystem, 2016–2017.”
In the meantime, the Center hosted a free luncheon, networking event and roundtable discussion at Montclair State University. We called the event “Life After the Newsroom,” and it featured a panel of people who were either let go from legacy organizations or took a buyout, and went on to forge new or different career paths for themselves in the aftermath. The event was completely sold out by the time the doors opened.
2017: One nation, under collaboration
It’s been a crazy year for the Center — and for many others, I’m sure — but 2017 has also been one of our most productive and promising years yet.
The theme of this year was, of course, collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. Whether we’re talking about our international Collaborative Journalism Summit in May, our third consecutive statewide collaborative reporting on the governor’s race (including our collaborative Election Night coverage), our latest report identifying six different collaborative reporting models, our seven Rita Allen collaborative reporting grantees, or the partnerships we’ve formed in recent months with newsrooms across the country as part of the Facebook Journalism Project — in 2017, collaboration was king.
New research, new programs, and a new building
One of our crowning achievements this year was the release of our second major research project: Comparing Models of Collaborative Journalism. In September, research director Sarah Stonbely unveiled her findings during the grand opening of the university’s new state-of-the-art School of Communication and Media building, which boasts the first end-to-end 4K broadcast production studio and control room at any university in the country.
Stonbely’s research identifies six models of collaborative journalism currently being used for news collaborations across the world. The report also cites 44 ongoing collaborations, which include more than 500 newsrooms and $200 million in funding for collaborations since the early 2000s.
A bigger table with different voices
As with all of our projects, however, diversity is paramount to success. The Center has worked consistently over the last five years to improve in this area, and we still have much work to do. That is why we started this year by partnering again with New America Media — which boasts a nationwide network of ethnic and diaspora media partners — and NJ Advance Media to host a roundtable discussion in January with representatives from New Jersey’s ethnic press. The goal of this meeting was to identify the editorial and other priorities of their respective organizations and communities.
In April, we organized another roundtable discussion with New Jersey media leaders, this time with representatives of the state’s Latino and Hispanic newsrooms. The goal was essentially the same: to learn more about the editorial and other priorities of New Jersey’s Spanish-language reporting and publishing community. We also opened the event to anyone with an interest or stake the future of Spanish-language media in the region.
We took the lessons we learned and applied them to our work on the Voting Block collaborative reporting project. Voting Block was our second statewide collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and — with the help and hard work of New America Media and more than 25 ethnic, hyperlocal, and statewide reporting partners in New Jersey — we were able to elevate “perspectives that often do not make it into mainstream news,” according to the American Press Institute.
There is still much work to be done in this area, which is why we are continuing to work with New America Media’s ethnic and community media partners, even though the organization itself no longer exists. Our first event in 2018 will be another ethnic and community media summit, where we will hear from the state’s ethnic media leaders and identify their editorial priorities and the challenges they expect to face in the new year.
2018: Kicking collaboration into high gear
It was the start of the second year of the Trump administration, and many news organizations were still trying to figure out how to cover and deal with the onslaught of stories and information pouring out of Washington and the various centers of power across the country. Meanwhile, local and hyperlocal newsrooms were still battling many of the same forces and revenue problems that had been ravaging the industry for the previous decade or so — news organizations were still losing staff at alarming rates and public opinion about journalism wasn’t looking too good. It was also a midterm election year in 2018, and New Jersey had just elected a new governor after eight years of the Christie administration.
Broadly speaking, the Center mostly focused on solidifying its relationships with our local partners — especially our ethnic and community media partners across the state.
The Collaborative Journalism Database is born
One of the Center’s crowning achievements in 2018 from an organizational perspective was the launch of the Collaborative Journalism Database, a sprawling compendium of collaborative reporting projects and networks for other reporters and newsrooms to peruse and learn from.
Since the beginning of that year, the Center had been collecting, organizing and standardizing information about dozens of collaborative journalism projects around the world. Our goal was to maintain a database that can serve as a hub of information about collaborative journalism, something that would be useful to journalists, scholars, media executives, funders and others seeking information on how such projects work, who’s doing them and what they’re covering.
The database features all different kinds of collaborations, from temporary, content-sharing efforts to more integrated approaches where newsrooms shared content, data, and resources at the organizational level. We used the categories from Dr. Sarah Stonbely’s research paper on collaborative journalism models to classify each project into one of six categories, depending on how long the collaboration was and how the organizations involved worked with each other.
Toward the end of the year, the database would be translated into both Spanish and Portuguese.
Local news revenue is still king
Throughout the year, revenue and ways to make more of it was a central theme for many of the Center’s events and programs. In addition to a series of revenue-focused webinars and workshops in partnership with trade organizations like LION Publishers, the Center also hosted a “Reader Revenue” summit in the newly-christened School of Communication and Media building on the campus of Montclair State University. The day-long event featured speakers from Membership Puzzle, News Revenue Hub, American Press Institute and the Lenfest Institute. Roughly 80 people attended, mostly publishers and editors from independent and nonprofit news publishers from across the country.
The Center also hosted or coordinated a handful of revenue-adjacent events to help local publishers grasp (and hopefully master) everything from social media marketing, to various platform strategies, to podcasting basics, to understanding the unique advantages that small publishers have over larger ones.
Understanding how New Jersey gets (and feels about) its local news, plus ecosystem mapping
Local news outlets in 2018 were still competing for the attention of their audiences like never before. In such a high-choice environment, the Center wanted to learn more about what local news providers could do to make sure their news is valuable to their audiences. Likewise, what kinds of data do organizations with missions to support and strengthen local news need to do their work? Dr. Stonbely’s report, “What do New Jersey news consumers want? Assessing satisfaction with local news,” laid some of the groundwork for answering these questions.
Later that year, Stonbely and co-author Prof. Tara George set their sights on understanding the influence of three commonly-cited features of success when it comes to digital local news outlets: the background of the publisher, experimentation with different revenue streams, and the wealth of the surrounding community. Their report, titled “Health and wealth in local news: Examining community wealth, publisher background, source of revenue,” found that of the three, only the wealth of the community is statistically correlated with “success” (which we define as organizational longevity + three indicators of economic success).
Finally, the Center believes that knowing the true landscape of the local news ecosystem in this digital age could help our work, and others, in so many ways. More than a year earlier, Stonbely began working on a new method to address this urgent question.
Stonbely had been considering the work a three-phase process. Phase 1, now complete, was a literature review that summarized the entire ecosystem/ecology literature to-date, organized the studies according to eight different typologies, and fleshed out a new method that will allow for both depth and scale in the study of local news ecosystems. Phase 1 was co-authored by Sarah Stonbely, Magda Konieczna, assistant professor of journalism at Temple University, and Jesse Holcomb, assistant professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College.
The Collaborative Journalism Summit is here to stay
The response we got from attendees and speakers in the wake of the inaugural Collaborative Journalism Summit made it abundantly clear that the Summit would be back again the next year — and the next, and the next, and the next.
The 2018 conference built on the success of the previous summit, which focused on case studies of successful collaborative projects and featured keynote speakers representing The Panama Papers, Google News Lab and Electionland. The 2018 Collaborative Journalism Summit was set for May 10–11. 2018 inside the new School of Communication and Media building at Montclair State University, and featured a day-and-a-half of panels, roundtables, networking, and socializing about all things collaborative journalism.
Roughly 150 people attended the event, mostly journalists, media execs, trade association folks and funders. It featured three keynote sessions, eight case studies, seven workshops and two cocktail receptions. Among the major takeaways were a “state of collaboration” video that gives an overview of the current state of collaborative journalism at the Summit, a new playbook for collaboration from the Solutions Journalism Network, a collaborative journalism workbook from Project Facet, a look at election-related collaboratives happening all over the world, and a deep dive into partnerships between ethnic and mainstream media.
Collaborating with community
Community engagement was another big theme for the Center in 2018, and it played a large role in several of our major projects that year. The big two were Voting Block and Stories of Atlantic City, both of which relied heavily on the philosophy of the social and engagement journalism schools of practice.
Voting Block 2018 came on the heels of an historic election in New Jersey. The previous year, New Jersey chose a governor without an incumbent in the race for the first time in 12 years. It was a critical moment for the future of the state, and it came at a time when conversations across the political divide were increasingly difficult. That year, 25 newsrooms that cover New Jersey joined the collaborative reporting initiative and pioneered a new way to cover elections that brought together newsrooms to use the same engagement framework to inform their reporting. The idea was to spark political dialogue in New Jersey, amplify local priorities from the public for the next governor’s agenda, and deepen engagement between communities and newsrooms.
Coordinated by The Center for Cooperative Media, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and New America Media, the project brought together a diverse cohort of media organizations, including WNYC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight, The Record, Route 40, Zaman Amerika and Reporte Hispano, to collectively pilot this reporting method. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation provided critical funding to support the project.
In the end, Voting Block newsrooms talked with more than 100 neighbors about their political priorities, produced over 70 local stories and together provided statewide coverage of the election as a network. The project was so successful and so well-received, that we quickly agreed to launch a third iteration of the project the following year in 2019, even though there were no major elections scheduled for that cycle.
That same spirit of community engagement and participatory journalism is what fueled our work in the southern half of the state with the launch of Stories of Atlantic City. Once the glittering gambling capital of the East Coast, the city famously suffered from a severe economic downturn over the last decade as five of its 12 casinos shut down, 11,000 jobs were lost and the state of New Jersey took over its finances.
But that’s not the only story Atlantic City has to tell.
To change the narrative about Atlantic City and help the community heal itself and grow, in late September the Center partnered with Free Press and Images and Voices of Hope (ivoh) to host two dozen community members and journalists at Stockton University’s Carnegie Center for a workshop on restorative narrative, a storytelling strategy that is best described as a “strength-based” approach to media. The term refers to journalism or storytelling that highlights the assets of a particular individual or community instead of the deficits and shortcomings.
The first phase of the project culminated in the publication of eight stories and a community launch party later in May 2019. The results, highlighted in this report, were powerful and the founding partners agreed to continue the effort in Atlantic City and to take the concept to other communities across the U.S. in future iterations.
Collaborating across campuses
Near the end of the year, the Center announced one of its final major new initiatives: the NJ College News Commons. Modeled after the Center’s flagship partner network, the NJ News Commons, the NJCNC is a network of student journalists, advisors, publishers and media organizations that have all agreed to communicate and work together in order to improve the quality and sustainability of student journalism in the Garden State.
The idea for the NJCNC was born out of a series of conversations between Center staff and Tara George, professor of local journalism at Montclair State University. So far, we’ve been able to recruit several campus media organizations from a handful of NJ colleges and universities, including Montclair State University, Rutgers University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, The College of New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Rowan University, and New Jersey City University.
2019: The Before Times™
We kicked off 2019 by jumping straight into another round of DEI grants aimed at helping New Jersey journalists attend trainings, events and conferences hosted in 2018 by organizations that work toward improving diversity, equity and inclusion in media. The grants were used to cover registration, travel costs, or member dues related to the event. In March, we announced the first cohort of 2019 grantees (our third round of DEI grants).
A week later, we announced that the 2019 Collaborative Journalism Summit — the third iteration of our now-international conference — would be held at WHYY Studios in sunny Philadelphia, PA on May 16-17. The theme for 2019 was “Making an Impact.”
New at this year’s conference was a pre-Summit convening we helped to coordinate in partnership with Solutions Journalism Network at Resolve Philadelphia. The event was held the morning of Thursday, May 16 and it included a deep-dive behind the scenes at Resolve and a look at how it works, plus lots of peer discussion about collaboratives.
The main stage of the Summit started later that day and started back up again early Friday morning at the studios of WHYY, where we discussed the current state of collaborative journalism, heard keynotes from the BBC and City Bureau, dove into impact-tracking for collaborations, discussed how to build media cooperatives, and took a tour of more than a dozen unique collaborative efforts across the United States.
Not only did the 2019 Summit break all of our records for attendance (we actually ran out of food), but the post-conference survey results were fantastic. The Center was brimming with gratitude. Our mission that year was to inform and connect journalists and help the industry move forward — and we definitely achieved our goal.
Exploring local news audiences
In February, our friend and colleague Ned Berke introduced the Audience Explorer, a free analytics dashboard for small and medium-size news publishers. The Audience Explorer is built on a set of 10 reports that drills into Google Analytics to specifically pull the kind of data publishers need to grow a relationship with their loyal and potentially-loyal readers. It provides side-by-side views of three different segments of readers, the content that resonates, and the platforms driving engagement with your website.
Basically, the Audience Explorer helps local publishers understand and build an audience funnel.
(A year later, the dashboard and all the associated documents were translated to Spanish by SembraMedia. Read the Spanish-language version here.)
Award-winning local NJ news
February is also that time of the year when we typically announce and celebrate the winners of our annual Excellence in Local News Awards for local NJ publishers and reporters, and this year was no different.
We revealed the six winners on Feb. 8 during an awards ceremony and banquet, where each was presented with an award certificate and $100 prize for work they did in 2018 in the fields of local news innovation, collaboration, investigative reporting, campus reporting, sustainability, and engagement. We also presented an award for Partner of the Year.
Travel the country and learn from your peers
For many new, small, independent and nonprofit players in media, funds are limited and so is their time. They don’t have the budgets to travel to convenings or visit peers in other cities. And sometimes they don’t even know that their counterparts exist. Likewise, many journalists working for large commercial enterprises have seen their professional development opportunities erode amid budget cuts.
That’s why in 2019 we created and launched the Peer Learning + Collaboration (PLAC) Fund, an initiative to facilitate and accelerate peer learning, relationship building, and collaboration among journalists, media makers, and communicators in the United States. The Center facilitated the Fund, which was generously supported by Democracy Fund.
The idea for the Fund grew out of gatherings that Democracy Fund hosted to convene ecosystem builders in the U.S. throughout 2017 and 2018. Organizations including the Center, as well as City Bureau, the NC Newsroom Cooperative, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, Coast Alaska, and the Jefferson Center met and shared upcoming projects, ideas, lessons learned and offered support for one another. That’s the same kind of peer-to-peer learning we hoped to inspire with the Peer Fund.
The plan was to award grants to support travel and convening expenses for grantees to meet and spend time with each other. We especially focused on supporting journalists of color and those from, or intending to serve, underserved and underrepresented communities.
The other function of the fund was to organize convenings in four U.S. cities to help introduce the concept of collaboration and connected news ecosystems (one model of which is the NJ News Commons) and hopefully inspire future peer learning.
Mapping New Jersey’s local news ecosystem (cont’d)
In March, Dr. Sarah Stonbely released Phase II of her ongoing ecosystem mapping project with researcher Jesse Holcomb. The goal of the project was to create the most comprehensive, but scalable, local news ecosystem mapping project to-date, one that could be replicated across the United States. It buildt explicitly on the methodology and execution of Phil Napoli’s News Measures Research Project, but with some important tweaks.
In her first post about the mapping project, Stonbely discussed the balance between depth and scale in news ecosystem studies. Here she talked about the use of databases to build a “census” of local news providers for a given area.
Understanding any local news ecosystem is impossible without first understanding the depth and breadth of news production there. It sounds simple, but the reality of answering that question with data is much more complex. Obviously, producers of local news operate in several media: print, broadcast, and online. Failing to account for any one medium will produce an inaccurate picture of the local news landscape in question. The problem was that no comprehensive list or database existed that covered local news producers across all media.
Stories of Atlantic City goes live
In Atlantic City, we saw an opportunity to test out a new kind of collaborative journalism effort, one that focused entirely on restorative narrative stories and one that put the community squarely in the driver’s seat of what stories got told. We decided the call it Stories of Atlantic City. The partnership began in fall of 2018 when we convened a meeting of journalists and community members to discuss media coverage in Atlantic City and consider what stories would look like here if they were told through a restorative narrative lens.
The basic premise is simple: A group of community members are going to find good stories, and a group of media outlets have agreed to tell those stories.
At its core, SoAC is a collaborative restorative narratives series. It’s an initiative that grew out of Free Press’ News Voices work in Atlantic City in 2015 and culminated in a partnership in 2018 between Free Press, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, Stockton University, Images and Voices of Hope (ivoh), a group of engaged community members and five local media outlets.
The team and a group of community members reconvened in April with our media partners, including The Press of Atlantic City, Route 40, Atlantic City Times, Breaking AC, Stockton University and SNJ Today, to pitch the stories. At the end of that discussion the journalists each chose a story to tell.
Our media partners, working with Ilsa Flanagan of ivoh and Stefanie Murray and Joe Amditis at the Center, then reported out those stories and co-published or co-broadcasted them all on an agreed-upon day in May. Following publication, we hosted a storytellers event in Atlantic City to bring the community together and let the people featured in the pieces talk about their experiences in front of a live audience.
In November, we released a detailed report covering the major challenges and successes of the project, which you can click here to read in full.
Studying the state of ethnic and community media in New Jersey
Ethnic and community media are crucial interlocutors in the many ethnic, religious, and non-English-language communities in New Jersey and beyond. Yet, as with the local news landscape in general, detailed understanding of the numerous providers in the area is spotty.
The Center’s report, titled “The State of Ethnic and Community Media in New Jersey,” was our first attempt at putting together a detailed accounting of the ethnic and community media providers serving the Garden State. In addition to a “census” of outlets, the report includes both quantitative and qualitative description of their operations, a discussion of themes common among them, and recommendations for how we and others might support them as they continue to serve as crucial news and information providers to their respective communities.
In the report, Sarah Stonbely and Oni Advincula documented a robust and optimistic, yet under-resourced and under-appreciated sector made up of at least 119 outlets serving New Jersey. These media outlets are generally well established with roots in communities dating back decades. Stonbely and Advincula also found that they tend to be close to their audiences, drawing on voices and viewpoints from a wide variety of community members and taking a high degree of input from them as well.
You can read the full report here.
In addition to the report, we created a database of ethnic and community outlets that serve New Jersey and a submission form where any ethnic and community outlet not included in our database can be identified for inclusion. The database includes outlet names as well as information such as community served, whether the outlet provides local news, and language of publication
More DEI travel and peer-learning grants
A week after publishing our latest research paper, the Center announced new cohorts of DEI grantees and Peer Fund recipients, along with a review of our first round of Peer Fund grants. In previous rounds, we awarded three sets of nearly $15,000 in DEI grants for journalists in our state to attend events put on by NABJ, AAJA, NAHJ, NAJA, AWSM, and NLGJA. Here’s a look at our third round of DEI grantees.
In October, we announced yet another round of DEI grantees.
During the first six months of 2019, the Peer Fund also awarded $15,000 in grants to support peer-to-peer learning for journalists from Philadelphia to California to Alaska. In June, we announced yet another round of grants. Our judges for this round were Michael Bolden, Melanie Sill, and Julianne Chiaet.
We also announced three upcoming Peer Fund gatherings at City Bureau in Chicago on Aug. 16, Outlier Media in Detroit on Sept. 27, and the Texas Tribune in Austin on Oct. 17. Finally, we announced that the Peer Fund would be visiting four U.S. cities over the following year to conduct workshops about healthy, connected and collaborative news ecosystems. Our first two cities were Cleveland over the summer and Oklahoma City in the fall of 2019.
In its second cycle of grant-making, the Peer Fund supported peer-to-peer learning for journalists from New Hampshire to Illinois to California. That includes the $17,000 we awarded over the last few months to assist journalists with travel to our “Share + Learn” events with City Bureau and Outlier Media. The judges for our second round of PLAC grants were Rebecca Landsberry, Andrè Natta, and Pavni Mittal.
In November, we announced another series of grants to support five collaborative reporting projects in Oklahoma City. Through our partnership with the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation and Inasmuch Foundation, the Center awarded five projects funding of up to $9,400 each. We announced the funding at our Peer Fund workshop in Oklahoma City. The five grantees were announced in Jan. 2020.
A year-long campus climate collaboration
Following the launch of the NJ College News Commons at the end of 2018, student reporters, editors, and advisers from six colleges and universities from across New Jersey — Montclair State University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, The College of New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Rowan University, and New Jersey City University — came together to launch a year-long climate collaboration project starting in the fall of 2019. The goal of the project was to bring together as many campus media organizations in the state as possible and help them to work together on reporting on climate and environment stories over the course of the following two semesters.
The project began in earnest earlier that year after students from multiple campus media organizations independently decided to cover the climate crisis during the fall 2019 semester. Since then, we discussed the idea with the rest of the NJCNC partners over the course of a few months, and decided to host a climate change reporting trip at River Barge Park along the banks of the Hackensack River on Aug. 23. The event served as the official kickoff for the project.
The students heard from New York Times environment reporter John Schwartz, ProPublica engagement reporter Maya Miller, and NJ Advance Media’s environment and outdoors reporter Michael Sol Warren about what it’s like to do this kind of work on a daily basis. We discussed everything from the language we use when describing people and their beliefs about climate to the kinds of issues students should expect to face when attempting to report on climate-related issues on campus and in their respective communities.
After the roundtable was over, we joined boat captains from the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority (formerly the Meadowlands Commission) and a representative from the NY/NJ Baykeeper for an hour-long pontoon boat ride up and down the Hackensack River to learn more about New Jersey’s Meadowlands and the creatures that inhabit them.
Everyone in our collaborative agreed to make climate and environmental coverage a central part of their work over the course of the fall semester. Which stories our partners ran, how many stories they ran, and what those stories said was completely up to each partner — each outlet retained its editorial independence.
2020 Census: NJ Media Counts
With the 2020 Census lurking just around the corner, and the Trump administration already attempting to muddy the waters when it came to historically marginalized and undercounted communities, the Center launched the NJ Media Counts project to help make sure New Jersey’s vulnerable and traditionally overlooked communities were properly represented and counted. The Center’s Census work was spurred by conversations we had with members of the Census 2020 NJ Coalition in regard to how local media — especially ethnic, community and in-language media — could be motivated to do more coverage of the 2020 Census.
The project began with a training and sourcing workshop for journalists about the 2020 Census, which was hosted on the campus of Rutgers University in Newark in August 2019. The workshop, organized by the Center, included several speakers and presentations from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Census 2020 NJ Coalition, along with two local journalists who had experience covering the census. About 50 people attended the event, including several reporters from ethnic media publications in New Jersey. The New Jersey training was based in part on a national series of training workshops led by the Poynter Institute and D’Vera Cohn.
The goal of the convening was to raise awareness about the 2020 Census — especially the timeline — and seed coverage ideas. Afterward, the Center worked with OpenNews to publish a guide for other journalists about how they could organize a similar training event. OpenNews arranged to provide small grants to help offset costs.
Following that event, the Center worked with one of its longtime funders, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, on a grant that would provide stipends to ethnic and community reporters for their work on census coverage. That grant also allowed the Center to hire Anthony Advincula to join the project as its coordinator. As a result, we launched a new community reporting fellowship program intended to support ethnic media journalists and their coverage of the 2020 U.S. Census, which supported 12 reporters and editors from New Jersey’s ethnic media to produce in-depth stories about the challenges and opportunities of the 2020 Census in diverse communities — Gujarati, Turkish, African American, Hindi, Hungarian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Filipino, Chinese and Latino. Each fellow received a stipend for their participation.
Additionally, some of the fellows organized and held forums in the communities they serve, along with trusted leaders in their communities and advocacy partners across the state. The forums were held in various languages other than English, including Spanish, Gujarati, Hindi, Turkish, Urdu, and Bangla.
The Grow + Strengthen program returns
In 2013, the Center for Cooperative Media launched the first round of its Grow + Strengthen program. Five years later, we revived the program with a specific focus on supporting revenue and funding experiments for NJ local media. Six local news and information providers in New Jersey were given grants of $5,000 each to help fun revenue experimentation and other projects related to preserving and improving the sustainability of their organizations.
Grantees also received a one-year LION Publishers membership paid for by the Center — as long as the grantee qualified for LION membership, of course — as well as business coaching from Kelly Gilfillan, chair of LION Publishers.
Winners were notified the week of Feb. 10, 2020. They experiments and sustainability efforts they received funding for were supposed to be conducted over a period of six months, during which time the grantees would have been expected to document their efforts and provide a midterm report in May and final report in early September 2020.
Unfortunately, the year 2020 had slightly different plans in store for New Jersey and the rest of the world.
2020: The world grinds to a halt
The beginning of 2020 at the Center began like any other year: we were busy announcing our upcoming training schedule, judging submissions for that year’s Excellence in Local News Awards, and pretending like we still had plenty of time to prepare for the upcoming 2020 Collaborative Journalism Summit. Little did we know what this year would have in store for us, for New Jersey, for journalism, and for the world.
New Jersey local news gets a shot in the arm (pun intended)
Before things started getting dark, however, the local journalism scene in the Garden State was treated to at least one bit of good news: the state government finally released the funding for the first-in-the-nation public funding experiment, the NJ Civic Information Consortium. The idea for the Consortium came from the folks over at Free Press, particularly the minds of Fiona Morgan and the execution of Mike Rispoli, and the bill had initially passed in 2018 to great fanfare (and the usual hand-wringing).
Now, the state had finally released the first $1 million of the $2 million that had been earmarked for the Consortium. “The bill establishing the consortium passed the state legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2018 and was signed into law by Gov. Murphy,” according to Free Press. “But while the state’s FY 2019 budget dedicated money for the consortium, Murphy later said that the earmarked funds were not yet available. The Murphy administration released this money on Thursday.”
What’s more, Montclair State University would later be chosen to serve as the host university for the Consortium, with the Center providing invaluable back office and logistical services to the board during the first round of grants.
Counting the historically undercounted
During those first few months of the year, when everyone could still meet in person, the Center was focused on its NJ Media Counts project, an attempt to increase coverage of and turnout for the upcoming 2020 Census in New Jersey’s marginalized and most vulnerable communities. Project coordinator Oni Advincula and I were working hard to coordinate a series of town hall discussions and community meetings in New Jersey’s Turkish, Black, Latino, Indian and South Asian, Korean, and other communities across the state.
The first few town halls went off without a hitch, and we were able to gather members of various underserved communities in a room together, share a meal, and discuss the importance of the Census in the hopes that attendees — and the ethnic and community media reporters in the room — would take that information and enthusiasm back to their families and friends.
Climate reporting project continues for a second semester
In February, the NJ College News Commons reconvened for a second climate change reporting trip — this time to Duke Farms in Hillsborough, NJ — to launch the second and final semester of the NJ College Climate Collaboration. I chose Duke Farms as the location for this trip because the entire property is full of real-world examples of sustainable architecture and living practices. The point of the event was to learn about some of New Jersey’s unique environmental assets, natural habitats, and vital ecosystems (and how they could be impacted by climate change),
build on the excitement and momentum from the last semester of this collaborative climate reporting project and use it to fuel our work throughout the spring semester, and hopefully leave with a clear sense of which projects/topics we will work on this spring, as well as who our most valuable and useful partners are, and what concrete steps we need to take to make those projects successful.
In between a tour of the facilities and a sneak peek at the maple syrup “Sugar Shack,” NJCNC students and faculty sat down for lunch with Will Atkinson of Climate Central to hear how his organization works with newsrooms across the country to provide them with accurate and actionable information to supplement their reporting efforts.
The event was a success, as was the collaboration as a whole, and I was later awarded the Ron Miskoff Journalism Educator of the Year Award from the NJ Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for my work facilitating the collaboration.
The state shuts down and the Center goes virtual
We hosted a few more in-person events in February and early March 2020, including our NJ Excellence in Local News Awards banquet and ceremony and a workshop announcing the relaunch of the NJ Story Exchange in partnership with a new platform called Nordot.
Little did we know it, but that would be the last time the Center met with any of its partners or supporters in groups of more than 2-3 people for the next 18 months (and counting). As the number of COVID-19 cases in the state doubled overnight from 5 to 10, Gov. Phil Murphy announced a statewide lockdown of all non-essential businesses and workplaces. Montclair State University had already done the same for all non-essential campus employees the week before.
In fact, the Center had already started taken a series of steps to take us virtual starting in early March. Our director Stefanie Murray and the rest of us had been watching the spread of the virus across the country (and our neighboring metropolis across the river in NYC) for a few weeks, and Murray wasted no time in issuing guidance for how we would proceed while doing everything in our power to support our partners through this growing uncertainty.
On March 13, we announced that the 2020 Collaborative Journalism Summit would go fully virtual and would be hosted in-place instead of in-person in North Carolina, as originally planned. A few days later we unveiled a series of changes and new offerings to make sure we were ready to meet the needs of our partners and constituents as the news (and case numbers) seemed to become more dire every week.
First, we collected feedback from members about what they were facing and brainstormed solutions. That input, along with what we already knew from our previous work supporting news organizations in the state, helped mold a three-pronged initial approach to supporting NJ News Commons members in the midst of COVID-19; that first approach focused on information sharing, content sharing and funding. Shortly thereafter, the Center added translation and collaboration coordination to how it was approaching the pandemic.
The programs we offered (and some we continue to offer) our partners in the NJ News Commons and NJ College News Commons networks include:
— Arrangement with NJ Spotlight News to provide all of its COVID-19 stories for republication by NJ News Commons members for free
— A pop-up daily newsletter sharing NJ Spotlight content and other reporting resources
— Arrangements to provide shared graphics and photos for republication for free
— Daily communication of COVID-19 related journalism resources, including funding opportunities
— Translation of COVID-19 content into Spanish, English and Korean
— Creation of a fellowship to support ethnic media reporters covering COVID-19
— Creation of a fellowship to support freelancers covering COVID-19 in their communities
— Launch of the Loved and Lost project
— Distribution of 20 gift cards worth $250 each to support equipment purchases for journalists
— Initiation of SMS-based information need surveys in Newark, Atlantic City and Camden in partnership with Outlier Media and Free Press.
You can click here to see our COVID-19 reporting resources and click here to read our full report on the Center’s pandemic response.
One of the first virtual sessions we organized for our partners was an AMA with Stephen Stirling, a former investigative reporter for NJ.com who had recently launched his own newsletter called Coronaviral to keep track of the virus and its impacts in the tri-state region. We invited members of the NJ News Commons to attend a virtual “AMA” with Steve on March 19, where he agreed to answer questions from our partners about what it’s like to report on the pandemic, where to find accurate data, and other topics.
Next, I hosted a series of webinars starting on March 23 aimed at helping people who weren’t used to working remotely adjust to the new conditions and give them a basic sense of which apps and programs would best meet their needs.
Supporting collaborative news ecosystems
The final stretch of the Peer Learning + Collaboration Fund involved conducting information assessments in three NJ cities, as mentioned above, and a series of “Share + Learn” events with different newsrooms across the country. In Newark, we convened a group of community stakeholders and local news and information providers on March 19 for a virtual workshop on how to build a healthy, collaborative news ecosystem in New Jersey’s largest and most diverse city.
As the Center had been seeing through the early findings of its news ecosystem mapping project, led by our research director Sarah Stonbely, there are (growing) news deserts in South Jersey. In particular, we were concerned about the (growing) lack of news and information provided by and for communities of color.
So we decided to team up with PABJ and see what we could do to help out. Hence, the South Jersey Information Equity Project was born. The project’s goal is to increase the amount of credible news and information produced by and for communities of color in South Jersey. In late June, the SJIEP officially began when we hired Sarah Glover — veteran journalist, leadership fellow with Press Forward, and former PABJ president — to lead the first phase of the project, which included research into the current information ecosystem in South Jersey paired with an assessment of information need gaps.
In April, we hosted the first virtual “Share + Learn” event of 2020 in partnership with The Devil Strip, which was based out of Akron, Ohio. The event was also supported by the Community Information Cooperative. This session featured a discussion with staff, contributors, and some of the nearly 400 community members who had become co-owners of The Devil Strip about the value of shared governance and ownership.
Toward the end of the month, Sarah Stonbely and Jesse Holcomb released the first phase of their News Ecosystem Mapping Project, which identified every local news and information provider in the state. This study built on the work of others in the field in two key ways: first, by identifying the complete range of journalistic news providers (print, digital and broadcast) serving an entire US state, and second, by mapping those news providers according to the communities they cover, rather than where they are headquartered, as some have done.
Their research yielded a final tally of 779 — a significant number, but one that is difficult to compare because, to their knowledge, no other state has a comparable list. Their hope is that this research can serve as a proof of concept that can be replicated elsewhere. That list of 779 outlets include news providers from all media — newspapers, digital-first or digital-native online outlets, radio stations, and television stations. Included within that number are university newspapers, outlets that primarily serve ethnic communities, and religious outlets that provide timely news and information about those important institutions.
Stonbely and Holcomb also gathered information such as outlets’ websites (if any), ownership structures, and coverage area as reported by the outlet. Read more about the project and see the full map here.
Finally, thanks to a partnership with Heather Bryant of Project Facet and funding support from Rita Allen Foundation, the Center surveyed the country’s leading collaboration managers in 2019 to help create a toolkit for improving collaborative efforts.
We released the first three of the six guides on April 30, 2020. They included:
— Building equity in journalism collaborations, by Angilee Shah
— Building a tool set for journalism collaborations, by Heather Bryant
— The Collaborative Journalism Workbook, Second Edition, by Heather Bryant
Later that year, we released the final three of the six guides in October. They included:
— Budget and finance for journalism collaborations, by Shady Grove Oliver.
— Building new partnerships for journalism collaborations, by Heather Bryant.
— Collaborating with non-news partners, by Heather Bryant.
You can download the PDF of each by clicking the links above, or you can see them all online at collaborativejournalismhandbook.org.
Hosting one of the largest virtual U.S. journalism events ever
The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University has hosted the Collaborative Journalism Summit every year since 2017. The first two conferences took place in Montclair, N.J.; the 2019 Summit was held in Philadelphia. This year our plan was to host the Summit in Charlotte, N.C. on May 14–15.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of our colleague, Denise Shannon, we had already completed 75% of the planning for the 2020 conference by early March. Two of our staffers had flown down to Charlotte to tour the Queens University campus and Myers Park Baptist Church, where our sessions would be hosted. We had enthusiastic sponsors lined up, the venue booked, the food completely selected (down to the type of salad we’d serve at lunch), student workers recruited and at least half of the speakers confirmed.
Then mid-March hit, and state after state-ordered lockdowns in response to the emerging coronavirus pandemic.
In a matter of days it became clear that an in-person event in May wasn’t going to happen. We read about other journalism conferences postponing or cancelling altogether, but we decided almost immediately to host our conference online.
Remembering all those we loved and lost
By the middle of June 2020, at least 12,835 people had died in New Jersey due to COVID-19.
We had to revise that sentence several times since Stefanie Murray first started writing the post announcing the launch of our new collaboration with NorthJersey.com, and that number has since ballooned to 28,177 deaths as I’m writing this history in November 2021.
Earlier that year, journalists at The Record and NorthJersey.com started a project to memorialize New Jersey’s COVID-19 victims. At that time, the state had several hundred deaths. Stefanie reached out to the top editor there, Dan Sforza, and by the time they got on the phone the death toll had hit 1,500 and was growing rapidly.
Stefanie’s ask was simple: Given the scale of the tragedy, would The Record and NorthJersey.com be willing to share management of its project with us at the Center for Cooperative Media, and allow us to transform it into a statewide collaboration? Yes, Dan said. He and his team knew they wouldn’t be able to tackle the project alone. And that’s become ever more true as the number of deaths has swelled.
Thus, the Loved + Lost project was re-born as a statewide collaboration, thanks to initial support from the Nicholson Foundation. Our goal was two-fold: First, to name as many New Jersey COVID-19 victims as we were able to verify and add them to our wall of names at LovedAndLostNJ.com; and second, to have journalists and storytellers do as many stories as possible about the people who died.
In September 2020, Center staff presented the project during a brief session at the 2020 Online News Association conference.
If you have lost a loved one to COVID-19 and would like to add their name to the wall of names, you can still use this form to send us that information.
More research and reports released
Since climate change is (and will continue to be) one of the biggest stories of most people’s lifetimes, we decided to take a look at how journalists are working together to tackle the topic and all of its related issues. The result is a research paper by Caroline Porter we released in July 2020, titled “Adapting to a changing climate: How collaboration addresses unique challenges in climate-change and environmental reporting.” The report is part of a series of research and guides related to collaborative journalism produced in 2020 by the Center, thanks to generous support from Rita Allen Foundation.
In August, Impact Architects, together with the Center for Cooperative Media, released a research project (which you can read and download in full here) that was conducted over the course of the previous three years to understand what type of impact collaborative journalism initiatives aimed for, and how they knew if they succeeded. This research was funded in part by Rita Allen Foundation.
In September, the Center published the culmination of more than a year and a half of internal assessments and strategic planning processes by articulating our core values and six strategic objectives for our future work. Read this post and you’ll find the Center’s mission, vision, values and strategic objectives for future work over the next few years. This reflects months of thought and planning, and is only the tip of the iceberg. For each objective, we’ve got early plans in place for execution, which we will revisit as a team at least quarterly to assess and evaluate.
In October, the Center released a full report on the successes of its NJ Media Counts initiative, which provided support for 12 reporters and editors from New Jersey’s ethnic media to produce in-depth stories about the challenges and opportunities of the 2020 Census in diverse communities — Gujarati, Turkish, African American, Hindi, Hungarian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Filipino, Chinese and Latino. Each fellow received a stipend for their participation. Read more about the project and download the full report here.
And in December, we released a full report on all the election-related programs and initiatives we provided to our reporting partners.
Electing a new president in the middle of a pandemic
As if nationwide lockdowns, racial justice uprisings, and a global pandemic weren’t enough, 2020 was also a presidential election year. It was time for America to decide whether to stick with another four years of Donald J. Trump, or bring his reign to one-term end.
The 2020 U.S. elections came at a time of deep partisan divide amid a global pandemic and a painful national reckoning with racism. Misinformation and disinformation coursed through social media platforms. The stakes could not have been higher.
The pandemic dramatically changed the way politicians campaigned and how people voted, adding more stress to an already chaotic-feeling time. News organizations around the country focused much more attention on the voting process in 2020, as mail-in ballots became commonplace in many states. In New Jersey, it was the first time that every registered voter was sent a mail-in ballot. While coverage of down-ballot races and ballot questions were important to statewide and local news organizations, the presidential election overshadowed many other things. Security was a big concern, as well — the security of the election itself, and security for journalists who would be covering it.
In surveying the landscape and talking with partners, the Center decided to put early emphasis on helping news organizations understand and explain the voting process and on providing additional training and incentivizing ethnic media and mainstream media collaboration. Then in late fall, content sharing was added to the mix with the launch of Votebeat.
Among the 2020 election initiatives the Center spearheaded were:
— An arrangement with NJ Spotlight News to make its statewide “How to vote in New Jersey” story and video about mail-in ballots available for republication; social graphics about the voting process were also created and shared with NJ News Commons members.
— Translation of the NJ Spotlight News “How to vote in New Jersey” piece from English into an additional 10 languages; the article was then published by 10 ethnic media outlets.
— Creation of a pop-up newsletter to share content produced by Votebeat with NJ News Commons members for republication.
— Fellowships with five ethnic and community media reporters to allow them to do additional election-related reporting.
— Telebriefings and training webinars, including one about disaster planning with Election SOS.
— The provision of legal help on and after Election Day for journalists facing legal issues regarding reporting at polling stations or covering protests or celebrations.
2021: There it is again, that funny feeling
As I write this, we’re coming up on the second anniversary of the start of the global coronavirus pandemic and even though we have multiple effective and available vaccines — we might even have one in pill form soon — people are still dying by the dozens every day and hospitals are still struggling to cope with the influx of COVID patients. There’s a sort of perpetual unease and background anxiety that permeates society and serves as the backdrop for all social interactions, especially as people and organizations timidly attempt to start holding large public gatherings again. That funny feeling, if you will, doesn’t seem like it’s going away any time soon. Yet, there is still work to do, and the Center is still determined to do it.
Vaccines are available, but some remain hesitant
The FDA first approved the Pfizer vaccine under an emergency use authorization in mid-December 2020, but the rollout process was anything but smooth. Many communities across the United States, especially communities of color, were immediately hesitant to get vaccinated — some communities for better reasons than others.
As such, one of the Center’s first actions of 2021 was to schedule press briefings about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and response in New Jersey. The press briefings were exclusively for NJ News Commons members, particularly our ethnic and community media partners, with the goal of ensuring our partners had direct access to medical and public health experts so they could provide their communities with the latest accurate information about the vaccine.
Our second COVID-19 press briefing specifically focused on the racial disparities and potential solutions regarding vaccine distribution in New Jersey. Speakers included Amanda Medina-Forrester, executive director of the Office of Minority and Multicultural Health at the NJ Department of Health, Gregory Paulson, executive director of the Trenton Health Team, Dr. Stephanie Silvera, epidemiologist and professor in the Public Health Department at Montclair State University, and Rev. Charles Boyer, founding director of Salvation and Social Justice.
Our third COVID-19 press briefing focused on how our partners can spot mis- and disinformation about the vaccine, how to properly report on it, and how to provide factual information to keep their respective communities informed.
Following our last COVID-19 reporting fellowship in 2020, the Center launched another fellowship for ethnic and community media in New Jersey. This latest fellowship, apocryphally titled “After the Pandemic: Reporting on NJ underserved communities,” was launched to support up to 10 journalists from New Jersey’s community and ethnic press for a total of six months. The Center hosted monthly press briefings for the fellows on various topics of timely interest and general relevance, and we provided access to experts and public officials in the state. Oni Advincula coordinated the fellowship program, and helped to facilitate translation services and disseminate fact sheets. Each fellow received stipends of $2,000 and opportunities for additional reporting partnerships with large mainstream New Jersey media organizations.
In July, we hosted our fourth COVID-19 press briefing for NJ News Commons members and COVID reporting fellows. This time we brought together experts and public health officials as cases and hospitalizations were skyrocketing throughout the state due to the Delta variant. The highly contagious new variant had already accounted for nearly 27 percent of all coronavirus strains recorded in the state as of June 19, according to the latest COVID-19 Variant Surveillance Report released by the NJ Department of Health and the CDC. We hosted Dr. David Adinaro, deputy commissioner of public health services for the New Jersey Department of Health, and our partners were able to ask him about the latest case numbers in the state, what residents needed to know about the variant, Delta variant symptoms, concerns about possible new lockdowns, and how people can keep their families and communities safe.
Our September press briefing had a different focus. After a number of discussions with our partners and reporting fellows, we decided to host a press briefing about the impact the pandemic was having on immigrant communities in New Jersey. We invited Nedia Morsy, Director of Organizing at Make the Road NJ, and Muzaffar Chishti, Director of the MPI office at the New York University School of Law to answer questions about how people of color and immigrant families in NJ had been particularly impacted by the ongoing pandemic, including the state’s undocumented immigrant population.
Non-COVID press briefings for NJ media
In the wake of the horrific, racist shooting at a massage parlor in Atlanta, GA, the Center decided to dedicate our next press briefing in June to making sure our partners understood how to ensure sensitivity, accuracy, and cultural nuance in their coverage of AAPI communities in NJ. As journalists covering communities in New Jersey, we believe it’s crucial to constantly reflect and look closely at our responsibility in covering issues related to race and ethnicity.
The briefing included Jun Choi, co-founder of Jersey Promise and former mayor of Edison, NJ; Jongwon Lee, reporter for Korean-language media and lawyer representing one of the victims’ families in the Atlanta shooting; and Brian Jon, founder of Asian American Youth Council in New Jersey. The discussion will be moderated by Mary Chao, reporter and columnist for The Record and NorthJersey.com.
In October, Oni Advincula — through sheer force of will — was able to secure an exclusive press briefing for NJ News Commons members (right before the gubernatorial election) with none other than NJ Gov. Phil Murphy. During the briefing, one of our members asked Murphy if New Jersey would follow in the footsteps of New York City and California and set aside advertising dollars to spend specifically with ethnic and community media.
“I wouldn’t necessarily commit, but it’s something I would absolutely consider. We do some of this already,” said Murphy. “I would be very much open to doing that. It’s a smart way to get to people. And frankly, in a more targeted, closer to the ground way than the big, other media players, whether they be print radio, or television or digital.”
Profiles of local news and information providers
One of the last aspects of our reporting fellowship was a series of profiles highlighting two of our ethnic media partners in NJ. The first was a profile on how a small, Korean weekly called Miju News, also known as the Korean Business Journal, is able to serve its niche community and thrive. With seven full-time reporters (five of them based in the paper’s headquarters in Fairfax, VA) and five freelancers, Miju News has been thriving by focusing on what many hemorrhaging mainstream news outlets cannot do: sticking to its unique audience, taking advantage of its language skills and culturally-nuanced knowledge about the community, and practicing advocacy journalism.
The second profile was a brief history of how NJ-based Hungarian weekly Amerikai Népszava has survived the test of time for 130 years — through World War I and II, the Holocaust, the Great Depression, and global pandemics that ravaged humanity — and managed to thrive as a newly-digital publication.
“We now get up to 50,000 online visits a day — and it’s fascinating that they are from every corner of Hungary and America,” publisher Laszlo Bartus said. “Because of our expanded reach, we have been able to maintain an outsize impact.”
The NJ News Commons relaunches with new member tiers, benefits, and more
In December, we rolled out a months-in-the-making relaunch and restructuring of the NJ News Commons, our flagship network of news and information providers from all across the state.
The NJ News Commons had previously limited its membership to news organizations and journalism freelancers in the past. But it became clear that many across our state are invested in news and information. Moreover, access to robust, accurate information can save lives and supports civic health and community resiliency.
To expand membership and better support local news in New Jersey, the Center recreated the News Commons around an individual membership structure.
By transitioning to a network structure that builds relationships with individuals—including journalists, media creators and concerned citizens — we sought to foster stronger partnerships with those directly involved in producing the news and content that inform NJ communities, as well as with local news readers and enthusiasts, and affiliated academic, community, and philanthropic institutions that round out New Jersey’s news ecosystem.
Joe Amditis is the assistant director of products and events (and the unofficial historian) at the Center for Cooperative Media. Contact him at [email protected].
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.