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May 18, 2020

5 lessons about sharing power in journalism collaborations

Graphic recording of a session at the Collaborative Journalism Summit on Resolve Philly’s governance structure by Derrick Dent

In 2020, collaboration in journalism is about way more than sorting through data together or expanding a story’s reach. Now, collaborative journalism means sharing power among journalists, readers and viewers, community partners, scientists, and more — delivering information that centers and addresses people’s voices and needs, together. 

For four years, the Collaborative Journalism Summit has served as a touchstone for master media collaborators, journalists edging away from competitive instincts, and researchers delving into the data behind the process and impact of partnered journalism projects. But due to the COVID-19 crisis the Center for Cooperative Media transformed the summit into a two-day Zoom extravaganza, drawing more than 750 signups. (Democracy Fund proudly sponsored this year’s summit, recommitting to supporting it when it became clear that an in-person gathering was not feasible. As others have said, the future of journalism is collaborative, and these kinds of convenings are vital for building the community and collective learning that shapes that future.)

The pandemic has elevated the need for robust collaborative and local journalism to tackle a story of this size and specificity. But it’s also reinforced the importance of seeding collaborations with equity and respect, recognizing the unequal effects of COVID-19 on our communities. At this year’s summit, collaborators shared their best practices and insights into sharing power in collaborations around COVID-19 and beyond. Here’s what stood out to us:

Collaboration is all about the community.

Collaborative journalism first took hold in the industry as a network of partnerships between newsrooms, overcoming competitive instincts to deliver impactful journalism to the broadest audience. But, as panelists pointed out, journalism can work at its strongest when those collaborations are representative of, legitimately include, and are trusted by the community at large.

This year’s summit raised the question, exacerbated by COVID-19’s impact: How are you recognizing and amplifying, not co-opting, the power that communities already have through your collaboration?


Share your power, throughout your workflow.

A collaboration can be most impactful when it involves the community in every step of the process by sharing power. As Darryl Holliday said at last year’s summit, “At City Bureau, we believe that journalism is not fundamentally a profession or an industry; it’s an act of citizenship, and our role is not simply to inform the public but to equip people to access the information they need to strengthen their communities.”

That theme was threaded throughout the 2020 summit, with panelists calling on journalists to consider the needs of the collaboration by asking and listening to community members, like Outlier Media does by texting Detroiters service journalism about their housing; and centering diverse perspectives in the planning process and leadership structure and financially supporting partners and freelancers in the collaboration, like Resolve Philly does with its non-hierarchical governance structure.


Communication keeps the collaboration grounded.

The need for an independent, “balcony view” facilitator of a collaboration was emphasized in nearly every explanation of a project. (See job descriptions previously rounded up by the Center for Cooperative Media here.) Cat herder, cheerleader, gatekeeper are other descriptions for collaboration point people like the team at Resolve Philly in its Broke in Philly and Reentry Project initiatives, Stephanie Carson of Carolina Public Press, Jeremy Bernfeld at Guns & America and WAMU, Vanessa de la Torre at the New England News Collaborative, and Rachel Glickhouse from ProPublica’s Electionland.

Their biggest task: clear communication and expectations.

Target your teamwork.

The journalistic prowess gathered in a collaboration can be harnessed beyond hitting “publish” on a piece. The News & Observer’s Robyn Tomlin explained how a group of North Carolina outlets were able to pressure government officials for more transparency during COVID-19 than they would have been able to on their own. Kathy Merritt of the Center for Public Broadcasting described how the CPB funds collaborations among public media stations based on the presence of “collaboration as a way of doing business rather than collaboration as a project.”

These targeted approaches can help transform, not just sustain, the way that journalists focus their work together.


Respect yourself and others.

Collaborations are only as successful as the relationships that comprise them. The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the need for a healthy relationship with oneself as well as relationships with others.

“We can’t control our partners. We can’t control their business. [Each challenge] is a learning opportunity for us to strategize around,” Donna Vestal of Election 2020: America Amplified, said. “Every obstacle is there for reason and you have to understand what is revealed.”

During one break, DaLyah Jones of the Texas Observer led participants through guided breathing and a discussion on self-care. She reminded us: “I can’t heal my community without also healing myself.”


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