A Promising New Start on News Collaboration, but There’s Another Non-Starter as Well

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After fits and starts going back to the previous decade, are local and community news sites ready to get serious about collaboration to meet the demands of increasingly picky readers?

There have been several partnerships going back to the previous decade, like the seven-year-old, still-healthy alliance between the nonprofit Charlottesville Tomorrow and the older print-digital The Daily Progress (owned by Warren Buffet’s BH Media Group) that serves the demanding news consumers of that historic Virginia town But collaborations like there were more the exception than the rule.

But next week the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in suburban North Jersey will launch a local/national news partnership project that will show community sites in Jersey how, for example, they can produce the same eye-catching data visualizations that are routinely published by national publications.

There’s no shortage of data on the Internet that is as granular as the blocks that make up a neighborhood — school academic scores by race and ethnicity and physician and hospital ratings, for example. But local publishers are often averse to plunging into such numbers because they fear it’s too complicated to get done by the next deadline.

The New Jersey pilot is being funded by the Democracy Fund, which promotes more and richer engagement between the news media and the public, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, whose strong support of local journalism includes major funding for the Center for Cooperative Media at MSU.

What especially interests me about the New Jersey pilot is that the people behind it, beginning with Center Director Stefanie Murray, see collaboration as a way to making local and community news work as a sustainable business as well as an endeavor in civic betterment. You can’t have one without the other.

Here’s what Murray told me:

“One of our main goals is to learn how to create partnerships between local and national news outlets that really WORK and establish some best practices/guidelines that others can follow. The end game here is to figure out how to disseminate impactful journalism into communities that otherwise wouldn’t have had access to such information.

“That ties in to sustainability for local news outlets because it’s about producing important content that impacts people’s lives, that they find value in and that they want to support — be it through financial support (subscription, membership, crowdfunding, etc.) or indirect support (advertising, etc.).”


Now, let’s zoom to Milwaukee to look at a decidedly different spirit of collaboration that exists at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which, in April, became part of Gannett’s expanding chain of local newspapers, along with other members of the Journal Media Group.

For two years, the Journal Sentinel has been an enthusiastic collaborator with Milwaukee-based 371 Productions in that group’s “Precious Lives” a two-year, 100-part series about “young people and gun violence in Milwaukee.”

For its part, the paper, using research compiled by 371 Productions, has written often-gripping articles based on some of the numerous black homicide victims in the city and giving voice, beyond sound bites, to grieving family members.

The paper has also run the radio podcasts in which 371’s neighborhood-knowledgeable hosts, producers and other journalists get behind the headlines, like in this show (click on podcast #1) that was put together on the fly in the midst of the protests and rioting that followed that fatal police shooting of African-American Syville Smith, 23, in a confrontation where, authorities, said, Smith was armed. The officer involved in Smith’s shooting was also black and had attended Smith’s high school at the same time.

But, strangely, the Journal Sentinel, in trying to assemble the big picture behind the shooting and its violent aftermath, did not collaborate with an obvious, well-placed resource — the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development. Instead, the paper referred to its “A Dream Derailed” series from 2004. That’s right – 2004!

The Center for Economic Development and its Director, Marc Levine, have painstakingly charted when and how manufacturing jobs have left Milwaukee for its predominantly white suburbs and sometimes foreign countries, putting thousands of African-Americans out of work. It has documented how the prime mover behind black job loss was not “globalism” – the bugbear in the Journal Sentinel’s 2004 series – but racially influenced decisions made in corporate board rooms and by local, state and federal elected leaders and the bureaucrats who carried out the decisions.

The Center and Levine’s many reports – which are as current as this year and all clickable on the Center’s site – would have given the Journal Sentinel virtually all the information it would need to put together a this-is-why-it-happened story within days of the shooting of Syville Smith and the violent reaction in the Sherman Park neighborhood where he lived and died.

On Aug. 19 – six days after Smith was killed — I asked the chief author of the 2004 series, John Schmid, why his paper was still featuring a 12-year-old story to help explain what was happening here and now. “We have a step-back follow-up in the works,” he said. “This is inevitable post-2004, given how much has changed in the 10 years since then. Not sure on exact publication date.”

As of yesterday (Wednesday), the Journal Sentinel had not sought the help of the UWM Center for Economic Development or Director Marc Levine. So, while the Journal Sentinel takes its leisurely “step-back follow-up,” its readers remain in the dark about “how much has changed” in more than a decade.

In Milwaukee, at least, journalistic collaboration is still going through fits as well as starts.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.