by Ben DeJarnette
The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University works to grow and strengthen the local journalism ecosystem in New Jersey. Its flagship project, NJ News Commons, works with about 150 news organizations — from legacy publishers to hyperlocal startups — on collaborative journalism projects in New Jersey. The NJ News Commons allows its members to share and re-publish content through a centralized “story exchange,” and its reporting partnerships with the Center for Investigative Reporting, NJ Spotlight and other news organizations have helped strengthen public-interest journalism across the state.
Project Goals: The Center launched in 2012 with a mission “to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey citizens.” The Center does this through the NJ News Commons and the use of other partnerships, collaborations, research, communication, extensive training and professional development and networking opportunities.
Tools and Technology: The NJ News Commons uses iCopyright’s repubHub software to facilitate story-sharing with its network. The Center has also used Beacon, a now-defunct crowdfunding platform, to raise money for collaborative journalism projects. Additionally, the organization relies on Google Drive, DropBox, Facebook Groups and Slack to communicate and coordinate with its partners and NJ News Commons members.
Impact: Since its inception, the Center has seeded and coached 15 news startups; hosted four national conferences; facilitated three statewide collaborative reporting projects; set up a content sharing network, NJ News Commons, where thousands of news stories have been exchanged between partners; launched a daily newsletter highlighting important New Jersey stories; developed a partnership network of more than 150 news outlets across the state; and led a deep array of training seminars and professional development sessions.
Organization Background: The Center is a grant-funded program based at the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University (MSU). Its major funders include MSU, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund.
Project Resources: The Center had a total operating budget of $410,000 in 2016-2017. Its top funders include Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Democracy Fund.
Here’s what worked
1. Making content sharing easy for news partners
It’s one thing for news organizations to agree they want to share content, but it’s an even bigger challenge to develop a system that allows them to do it. The problem: News organizations often use different content management systems, and getting them in sync with each other can require either purchasing proprietary software or building a tech solution from scratch.
Neither option is without its pitfalls (a recent MediaShift story discusses a few of the challenges), but Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media, says the decision to use iCopyright’s software repubHub has been well received by NJ News Commons partners. “The stories are embeddable like a YouTube video, and the publisher who published the original content actually gets a view in their system,” Murray said. “Publishers like that. It helps them track how iCopyright is working for them, and it also builds their traffic and their brand.”
One limitation of repubHub is that its syndication software only works for sharing text stories — not video or audio. But repubHub is compatible with WordPress, Joomba, Drupal, and other CMSs, and it doesn’t require much work by journalists. (This video offers a handy overview.)
2. Helping news organizations understand how collaboration adds up for them
Collaboration is a new concept for most legacy news organizations, where editors and executives are more accustomed to viewing other publications as competition, not partners. As a result, these outlets are often hesitant to collaborate, Murray says, and often for the same three reasons: They believe they can report a story effectively without collaboration, they don’t trust the work of other collaborators, or they don’t understand what’s in it for them.
Murray, who previously served as executive editor at The Tennessean, says she “absolutely understands their hesitancy.” But in her case for collaboration, she points out that partnering with smaller local and hyperlocal news outlets is an opportunity for legacy outlets to develop stronger source connections (“A lot of the smaller publishers have very deep ties to their communities,” she explained), as well as to boost traffic and build their brand. “You can say, ‘We’re big enough. We get millions of pageviews. They get 50,000 pageviews,’” Murray said. “But the fact is you never know where you’re going to grow audience… Are the extra pageviews going to pay off tomorrow? Probably not. But if you look at it as a longer term investment, there’s an opportunity to develop and build your network across the state.”
Murray says the trust component requires ongoing networking between legacy outlets and local and hyperlocal publishers. “It just takes time,” she said. “NJ Spotlight has done a really good job in the state of being collaborative and being open to working with smaller publishers, so there’s a trust that’s building, and that helps them collaborate.”
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Designating a project lead for all collaborative reporting projects
“It sounds simple, but it’s really critical,” Murray said. “Someone has to be in charge. And it really helps if you have someone who understands how different newsrooms works and who can speak the language of editors.”
It’s a lesson that Murray and her team learned during the Center’s Dirty Little Secrets collaboration, when eight different news partners all submitted information requests to the same government agency. Murray says the barrage of requests spooked the agency spokesman and delayed the release of important documents. “We just needed to call him and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing a collaborative project, you’re obviously going to be a big source, so you’re going get a lot of calls from a lot of people. Having a project manager would have helped with that.”
Here’s what else you should know
- Executive decisions: “If you come to the table and say, ‘We want to build a collaborative project,’ you’ll get a bunch of people with their own interests that want to build it around this and this and this,” Murray said. “You end up going in circles.” A better approach is to come up with the project idea first, and then recruit partners to get on board. Added Murray: “Do some ground research and know what issues are important in your state. That’s really critical.”
- Adding capacity: For example, the Center helped NJ Spotlight crowdfund more than $30,000 for In the Shadow of Liberty, a reporting series about immigration policy and immigrant community in New Jersey. And with its current Voting Block project, the Center is providing reporting grants to hyperlocal news organizations, offering editing support, helping fund photography, and providing coaching and audience engagement help in partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting.
- Don’t be a stranger: “If you’re the organization that’s pulling other entities together, it’s so important to be on the ground with them, always reading their content, going to their events, inviting them to your events and checking up on them,” Murray said, adding that it’s not unlike the work of a good journalism. “We look at it like maintaining source relationships. All these partners are our sources, and we have to maintain consistent relationships with them. It takes a lot of effort, but that’s what makes these things work.”
- Final word: “Collaborative projects work well when we can tap into a shared passion or a topic that resonates among different newsrooms,” Murray said. “Nothing will spur people to work together better than when they all buy into the topic and they can all see the impact.”