Our story

A brief history of the Center for Cooperative Media

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 of the major CCM events and initiatives over the last five years. Click here to see the timeline in a separate browser window.

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 orgs 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.)

In this post from February 2015, our business coach, Joe Michaud, reflected on the qualities that helped make these news startups successful — as well as those that may lead to failure.

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.

Joe Amditis is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media. Contact him at amditisj@montclair.edu.

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.