It started with a simple premise: News organizations, working together, might be able to achieve some useful economies.
It’s the same impulse that led to the creation of the Associated Press during the Mexican-American War in 1846. Only in this case, instead of the costs of foreign war coverage, it was layoffs at the Star-Ledger and the state’s decision to dump its public broadcasting network, NJN, which motivated the idea of a statewide news cooperative. That, and a hunch that news entrepreneurs would begin to fill the gap. So with grants from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a significant investment from Montclair State University, we began our work in July 2012.
We knew fostering cooperation among media companies wouldn’t be easy. As the old saying goes, “Would Macy’s tell Gimbels?” Journalists are not, by nature, the most cooperative species. Not only is there fierce competition among the state’s biggest newspapers, there are sometimes rivalries between news organizations of every size. And yet, undeterred, we stuck a bunch of pins in a map in a first attempt to figure out where the state’s news assets were and began a round of calls.
We knew we were onto something when, on one of the first trips, we met Justin Auciello, founder of Jersey Shore Hurricane News, a Facebook crowdsourcing phenomenon that would become a model and inspiration for news entrepreneurs everywhere.
Our first big test came with Hurricane Sandy, which came barrelling toward us even before we had a website built. In an amazing convergence of technology and cooperation, we harnessed the efforts of eight hyperlocal news sites, plus Jersey Shore Hurricane News, to create #NJSandy, a multi-day live-blog hosted by ScribbleLive. The following week, with the added help of WNYC and WHYY and students in Montclair State’s School of Communication and Media, we came back with #NJVote, which tracked local voting problems in the presidential election in the wake of Sandy’s destruction.
Six months later, when we asked partners to come together to work on an editorial project, we found that collaboration could unfold even without the fuel of a natural disaster. Out of that meeting came The Immigration Project, a nine-month effort to report on the lives of immigrants in the state. All content produced by The Immigration Project was made available to news sites throughout the state using our Story Exchange, an innovative platform that allows news organizations to actually embed each other’s stories.
In fact, the Story Exchange has proven to be our most popular innovation. Powered initially by the now-defunct Repost.us and now supported by iCopyright, the Story Exchange allows news sites to use each other’s content free of charge. As anti-intuitive as it sounds — giving away content you’ve sweated to create — our partners enjoy its benefits. The smaller news sites like it mostly because it allows them to expand their audience. While the larger sites use it mainly to expand their coverage.
In 2013, we began to focus on two new missions. The first was to encourage investigative and data reporting in the news ecosystem. We kicked this off in January 2013 by helping to create Hack Jersey and holding our first journalist-coder hackathon. We also began offering free support for investigative reporting and filing public records requests. In May 2014, we spearheaded an open data initiative in the state. And we are planning a second hackathon this spring.
Our second major mission, begun in 2013, is to grow the news ecosystem. Under a program we call Grow and Strengthen, we have seeded 15 media startups since October 2013. We support these news entrepreneurs with micro-grants, coaching and peer-to-peer sessions in which they help each other.
And though most of our work is focused on New Jersey, we also are part of the bigger community of media folks trying to figure out the future of journalism. In April 2014, for example, we convened more than 250 thought leaders for a national conference on innovation in local media.
Those are some of our major accomplishments, but our work often proceeds in quieter ways. We write a daily newsletter highlighting the best journalism about the state, give trainings on everything from social media to covering elections, and connect people and media organizations with each other almost every day.
And from that first round of calls two years ago, we have grown our partnerships to more than 120 media partners.
This is just a start. We still have a lot of work to do to support and strengthen the NJ news ecosystem. We want to seed more sites, help our existing sites adapt to emerging challenges, and foster depth, collaboration and innovation in storytelling.
Can we count on your help? If you’re running a media company in New Jersey and have not become a partner, we need you onboard. If you believe news is important to a vibrant democracy, help spread word of our mission through social media. And if you or your institution would like to support programs that train and support New Jersey media companies and journalists, we welcome your donations or in-kind support.
Debbie Galant is associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State. She also writes essays on Medium.
Credit: Debbie Galant