Over the last year, a number of news outlets have done what has traditionally been anathema to journalists: collaborate with the competition. From Florida to Maine, Ohio to Texas, newspapers (mostly) are sharing content, merging bureaus, and consolidating printing operations. The efforts that have garnered headlines, though, have a whiff of desperation about them—if not for the severity of the problems newspapers face, we sense, none of this would be happening. But beyond this safety-in-numbers mindset, there is something more fundamental under way. Journalists are creating ways to work with one another, with students, and with the public to sustain journalism’s most important contributions to society.
Wisconsin is an emerging hub of this experimentation. In February, Andy Hall, a long-time investigative reporter, launched the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting with $100,000 from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The center, housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication, has partnered with the school, and with Wisconsin public broadcasting. Hall hopes to bring in other media outlets in the state, as well a cadre of volunteer “citizen investigators.”
In early April, meanwhile, a cross-section of Madison-area media—from mainstream outlets to Spanish-language outlets to a high-school newspaper—attended an organizational meeting for a new collaborative effort called All Together Now.
The Madison projects come on the heels of The New England Center for Investigative Reporting, which launched in January at Boston University, and the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism here at Columbia. And these centers follow in the footsteps of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, which has been doing collaborative work since 1977, and the Center for Public Integrity, which began in 1989.
So its no coincidence that CIR and CPI will bring Hall and the rest of the upstarts together this summer for a conference in New York to begin discussing what organizers hope will eventually become a fifty-state consortium of nonprofit, collaborative, investigative centers. Bill Buzenberg, who runs the Center for Public Integrity, says he has been in touch with refugees from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about starting online operations.
Collaboration needs to become central to journalism’s mission—and the mainstream press needs to get on board. From foreign capitals to U.S. statehouses, it is a way to extend our shrinking newsrooms, begin to rebuild public trust, and ensure that the standards of the professional press help shape the development of new journalistic endeavors.
Jan Schaffer is trying to give mainstream outlets a nudge. Schaffer, who heads J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, is building a project in which five mainstream news outlets in different markets will each partner with five hyper-local sites in their communities. She hopes to have the partnerships in place by early summer.
Collaboration poses a number of challenges, both operational and ethical. How do you handle real or perceived conflicts of interest related to funders? What is the appropriate role for students and citizen volunteers in investigations that can damage reputations and influence public policy? How will former competitors work together, and to what extent should competition be part of the collaborative equation?
These efforts depend on philanthropy now, but as they evolve, another challenge will be to develop multiple revenue sources to replace all or part of the grants. “The question,” says Hall, “is whether, over time, communities will help support organizations like ours.” Collaboration is no silver bullet, but the potential upside is hard to deny. And if it makes people feel invested in serious journalism, then they will be more likely to support it.The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.