What is collaborative journalism?

So what exactly is collaborative journalism? We’re glad you asked!

There a several different ways to look at collaborative journalism, but we define it broadly as the practice of executing journalistic endeavors using a cross-entity approach.

This encompasses news organizations working together (and with other non-news entities) on reporting projects, partnering on audience engagement efforts, co-collecting and sharing data, or even teaming up to build technology that supports multiple organizations working toward a shared journalistic goal.

The video playlist below is a good place to start if you’re looking to get an overview of the current state of collaboration.

In an industry where competition between organizations and individual journalists has always been a cornerstone of the field, working across such boundaries is certainly anathema to many. But the fact of the matter is that journalism is rapidly evolving and times have changed. Collaborative projects and partnerships have increasingly been shown to improve journalism and its reach. There are numerous present-day examples from around the world of successful collaborations — ranging from coverage of elections in Europe and the U.S. to the Panama Papers, the largest collaborative reporting project in history, involving more than 100 media partners working in 25 languages in nearly 80 countries.

Such projects are also being recognized by the industry. Multiple collaborative efforts have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in recent years, including the Panama Papers, the Marshall Project and ProPublica, and the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media, gave a 5-minute talk about collaborative journalism in December 2016 at Newsgeist. Watch below:

Want to know more?

Below you’ll find an excerpt from our September 2017 research report “Comparing Models of Collaborative Journalism.” This excerpt gives a brief history of collaborative journalism between news organizations.

A Brief History

In some sense all journalism is collaborative; there is usually at least a reporter and an editor, and perhaps a photographer, videographer, or visual data person. Moreover, collaboration among reporters or between newsrooms has been practiced in different forms for more than one hundred years. One of the earliest journalism collaborations was among the newsrooms that made up “the wires” in the mid-nineteenth century. “The birth of the wire service industry as we know it,” Shmanske (1986, p. 61) wrote, “occurred in 1846 when six New York daily newspapers joined to form the Associated Press. The purpose of this union was to cooperate in receiving news, that is, to share all news that came in and split the expenses evenly.”

In the twentieth century, especially after the advent of the penny papers, competition between outlets was the norm. “Every era of journalism features forms of competition and cooperation,” Graves and Konieczna (2015, p. 1970) state. “The professional and economic logic of news in the last century made the former more visible than the latter.”

Yet even during the height of profitability in the late twentieth century, when competition, not collaboration, was the most salient relationship between newsrooms, it was common practice for journalists on the same beat to collaborate by sharing notes, swapping tips, and in general helping each other out (Graves and Konieczna 2015, p. 1971). Formal collaboration during that period was most common within an organization, rather than between. For example, Cable News Network (CNN) was formed in 1980, and codified intra-newsroom sharing – between the national headquarters and its television news affiliates – with CNN Newsource, in 1988. Gannett’s USA Today Network, which gathers content from local newsrooms across the country for packaging in the national edition, was re-booted in 2015 to take advantage of the latest technology for sharing content. 

There was also sharing between smaller newsrooms and organizations; New California Media (now New America Media) began developing collaborative reporting projects in the late 1990s “as a way to combine the strengths of ethnic media, the intimate knowledge (including language skills) of diverse communities – with those of mainstream journalism (particularly investigative reporting and knowledge of public policy and politics).”

At the local level, newspaper chains have been “collaborating” for decades; small suburban weeklies shared content with the large metro paper and vice versa. However, there is a qualitative difference in the consciousness and intentionality with which collaborations are now being undertaken.

The attention from outside organizations, and their money, makes a difference.

“There’s a lot of introspection” about collaboration now, and the organizations funding it are trying to learn lessons and see what works and what doesn’t, says Denise Young, who holds the title executive editor of collaborative journalism at an upstate New York public radio station. She, and others like her, are part of a nascent cohort of journalists whose main focus is to manage multi-outlet collaborations.

The current excitement about collaborative journalism began in the mid-2000s, when publishers, journalism scholars, and foundations began to look at the opportunities made possible by digital networking (Benkler, 2006). In 2009, J-Lab, funded by the Knight Foundation and led by Jan Schaffer, fostered nine newsroom collaborations, four of which are still active. In 2010, Josh Stearns (now at Democracy Fund) catalogued “a growing inventory of journalism collaborations,” citing nearly 40 arrangements between all manner of media outlet – though not all with positive impacts for the news and the community, as we discuss in the conclusion. Also in 2009, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) began funding journalistic collaborations; as of 2017 CPB has put nearly $32 million into 29 local and regional partnerships, and counting.

In 2012, the message of an event co-sponsored by the University of California-Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program and PBS MediaShift, titled “Collab/Space 2012,” was that “the longevity of individual news outlets increasingly relies on a willingness and ability to collaborate.”6 In 2014, Pew Research Center declared it to be “a new era of interest” in journalism partnerships, as they called them. (Research on the topic has called collaborative journalism by several names, including “convergence” (e.g. Dailey, Demo, and Spillman, 2005), “networked journalism” (Schaffer, 2010), and “news sharing” (Graves and Konieczna, 2015).)

Click here to read the full report.