Bad news seems to be everywhere for news organizations today. Budget cuts leading to declines in newsroom staff, decreases in advertising revenues for print publications and the growing shift for many newspapers and news magazines such as Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor, and Seattle Post-Intelligencer to digital-only formats, combined with the uncertainty about potential new business models, have exacerbated a long-simmering “two-legged crisis” in journalism (Blumler, 2010).
Although warnings about a crisis in journalism are hardly new with the rise of social media (Anderson, Dardenne, & Killenberg, 1994; Rosen, 1996), today’s social media landscape has played a role in challenging journalism as a profession (Hermida, 2012; Lewis, 2012) and especially the business models of advertising-supported, commercial journalism. This breakdown in producer-audience relations and eroding business models have combined to create a greater sense of urgency among those warning about the decline of journalism and its effects on modern democracy (Lowrey & Anderson, 2005; McChesney & Nichols, 2010; McChesney & Pickard, 2011; McChesney, 2012). In 2016, trust in media sank to a new low according to a Gallup poll, with only 32% of people saying they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the news they are getting (Swfit, 2016). This does not bode well for a profession that has built itself on assertions of credibility, trust, and truthfulness and that claims it has a key role for healthy, functioning democracies.
I make a case here that the typical categories of mainstream journalism and alternative journalism, or professional journalism and citizen journalism (or its variants, such as participatory journalism, DIY journalism, or hyperlocal journalism), cannot adequately explain the dynamic interactions and cross-fertilization that is taking place between professional journalists—the traditional producers of news content—and audiences, the traditional consumers of that content. Further, these categories leave us with conceptual blind spots when studying journalism, especially “journalism from the edges” (Lasica, 2003, p. 71) of mainstream or professional journalism. In today’s social media world, the blurring of roles of media producers and media consumers make those edges even bigger.
I propose that a different name, collaborative journalism, will help us better understand the changes taking place today in journalism. Looking at collaborative journalism through the lens of the emerging work on collaborative cultural production and social production communities will gives us a more robust conceptual framework from which to better explore and understand the interactions between professional journalists, news organizations, and “citizen” or amateur news production. Furthermore, it may show how our notions of news are changing, and what that may mean for citizens, news organizations, democratic government, and the networked public sphere.
Why “Collaborative Journalism?”
Calling for a new name to categorize the practices and organizational structures that are as diverse and complex as we see among the range of media outlets today is not merely about semantics. It is an attempt to reframe the discussion and the way we look at the interactions taking place today with the various types of journalisms being practiced. Without a proper frame to situate our understanding, certain key concepts cannot be properly examined. Framing journalism becomes especially important because of the disruptions taking place today in all communications professions, especially journalism, and the “critical juncture” in communications we are at, as McChesney states (McChesney, 2007; McChesney & Nichols, 2010; McChesney & Pickard, 2011).
Considering what shape our media and communication environment may take into the rest of the 21st century, it is especially vital now to properly understand what is taking place today so we can examine issues in ways that do not limit our ability to look at new or alternative ways of media production. More specifically, reframing may open the profession to new ways of seeing journalistic work and the nature of news, letting us situate legacy practices that work well with innovative practices in social production that may redefine journalism and news as we know it today.
The term “collaborative journalism” works well on several levels. First, it avoids the traditional dualisms seen in the more commonly used terms such as “citizen journalism,” “participatory journalism,” or “alternative journalism.” It also is not without precedent. In 2012, J-Lab released the findings of a two-year study funded by the Knight Foundation for what it termed “nine collaborative journalism pilot projects” that involved hyperlocal media outlets working with established media organizations throughout the U.S. (Schaffer, 2012). Also in 2012, Mercer University opened the Center for Collaborative Journalism at its Macon, Georgia campus, funded by the Knight Foundation and in partnership with The Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting (Knight Foundation, 2013; Mercer University, 2013). There are, of course, other academic centers that are exploring new types of journalism in the digital world, even if they do not specifically use the term “collaborative journalism,” including Kennesaw State University’s Center for Sustainable Journalism, American University’s Center for Social Media, and Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media, among others. The terms may be different, but the basic premises behind what centers like these are examining all touch on aspects of collaboration in its various complexities.
Second, and in alignment with how “collaborative” is being used by J-Lab and Mercer University, the term better captures the new ways in which professional news organizations are influencing, being influenced by, and interacting with a range of online media startups, blogs, hyperlocal news, citizen journalism sites, and social media. Authors that have recently examined the future of journalism have stressed the collaborative aspect of journalism not only among journalists themselves, but among the public and other institutional players (Batsell, 2015; Jarvis, 2014; Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2014). The ways that blogs and citizen media sites interact with professional news media sites are too varied and complex to fit in this essay, but suffice it to say that previous attempts to create typologies of journalism models to the varying practices, such as was done by J-Lab in 2012, have seen much overlap in practices, principles, and organizational cultures, making clear typologies problematic.
It is important to properly define “collaboration,” which will also help explain why the term “collaborative journalism” is a better descriptor than traditional terms that have been used such as “participatory journalism,” “DIY journalism,” “hyperlocal journalism,” or even “citizen journalism.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, collaboration is defined as: “united labour, co-operation; esp. in literary, artistic, or scientific work.” Because cooperation is mentioned in the definition, it is worth also seeing how OED defines cooperation: “The act of co-operating, i.e., of working together towards the same end, purpose, or effect; joint operation.”
Cooperation has been looked at from a number of research traditions, including sociology, anthropology, peace studies, psychology and even biology in the form of evolutionary theory. Game theory and the variations of the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma Game explain how cooperative behavior can form through tit-for-tat actions even in automated systems (Axelrod, 1984, 1997). In the research literature on cooperation, various concepts such as reciprocity, trust, power, and culture are used to help frame or define the various functions and types of cooperation, but the term “collaboration” is rarely mentioned. When collaboration is used, it is not defined and often seems to be used synonymously with cooperation (Argyle, 1991; Axelrod, 1997).
Research on collaboration tends to be more focused on management science, organizational studies, and collaboration engineering (CE) (Kolfschoten, de Vreede, Briggs, & Sol, 2010) than research on cooperation, which has a wider social scientific range of research. Collaboration can take place in formal organizational arrangements, such as partnerships between government agencies and civic groups, or in more informal ways through networks and communities of practice (Kamensky, Burlin, & Abramson, 2004). The business literature on collaboration, depending on the target audience, tends to focus on one or the other of these possibilities for collaboration and often promises techniques and methods for managers to achieve success through collaboration within an organizational environment or between organizations (Hansen, 2009; E. Rosen, 2009; Straus & Layton, 2002). Even in the business literature, however, there is no agreed-upon definition of collaboration because of the range of perspectives different scholars come from when studying aspects of collaborative practices. This gives a surprising lack of theoretical cohesiveness to the notion of collaboration and what it entails, with the exception of research done by Gray and Wood (Gray & Wood, 1991; Wood & Gray, 1991).
In an article that tried to define a comprehensive theory of collaboration, Wood and Gray looked at research on collaboration from a number of different researchers and created a definition that was a revision of an earlier definition of collaboration by Gray: “Collaboration occurs when a group of autonomous stakeholders of a problem domain engage in an interactive process, using shared rules, norms, and structures, to act or decide on issues related to that domain.” (p. 146, Wood & Gray, 1991)
Wood and Gray were primarily interested in creating a comprehensive theory of collaboration in order to further future studies that could help answer research questions such as “who is doing what, with what means, toward which ends?” (p. 146) The term “problem domain” was meant to cover the possibility of stakeholders having either common or different interests, while “autonomy” shows that the stakeholders are participating by choice in a collaboration and able to make independent decisions in the collaboration. The term “interactive processes” indicates that there is a change-oriented relationship involved among participating stakeholders, while shared rules, norms and structures may be implicit but may also need to be agreed upon before collaboration can take place. “Shared structures,” in Wood and Gray’s definition, are evolving and flexible and in fact they suggest that the duration of the structures can be a way to classify different forms of collaboration. All of these components can be mapped out to the domain of collaborative journalism, as Table 1 shows.
Table 1: Wood and Gray’s Definition of “collaboration” and comparison to collaborative journalism practices
Wood and Gray term
Collaborative journalism comparison and relevance
Stakeholders are participating by choice and able to make independent decisions
News organizations and citizens or citizen media choose to participate or work together on short-term or long-term projects.
Stakeholders may have either common or different interests
Groups may share interests in getting more readers or site visits and increasing news coverage of certain topics, as well as developing sustainable business models.
The interaction between citizens and professional journalists can potentially change views and practices among both groups, along with changing audience and media producer relationships.
Shared rules, norms, and structures
May be implicit, but may also need to be explicitly stated
Citizens adopt many professional news norms and practices, but sometimes rules or practices have to be explicitly stated or training given to citizens who want to practice journalism.
Some common themes emerge from empirical research done on collaborative projects that researchers say has led to success in collaboration. These themes include: common aims; communication; commitment and determination; compromise; appropriate working processes; accountability; democracy and equality; resources; trust; and power (Huxham & Vangen, 2001). Note how some of the themes mirror issues examined in research on cooperation, especially trust and power. The notions of reciprocity and culture, although not stated outright by Huxham and Vangen, underlie most of the other themes they outline.
Michael Schrage, in his study of collaborative technologies, cites many of the same aspects of collaboration that practitioners have noted, such as communication. However, he emphasizes that simply having communication is not enough. He states that the creation of something new while working together is a vital component to collaboration that differentiates it from communication, other forms of teamwork, and even romance. He states:
“collaboration is the process of shared creation: two or more individuals with complementary skills interacting to create a shared understanding that none had previously possessed or could have come to on their own. Collaboration creates a shared meaning about a process, a product, or an event.” (Schrage, 1990, p. 40)
A component of cooperation, as most operational definitions and as the OED definition suggests, is the act of working together toward a shared goal. Two men pursuing the same woman are not acting cooperatively; rather, they are pursuing individual goals with the same objective (Argyle, 1991). In collaboration, the agents may be working together toward a shared goal, but they may also be working together toward different goals. Kolfschoten, et al. (2010) state that collaboration does not require creation of a shared understanding and does not define it, as Schrage claims, although they recognize that shared understanding may have an important role in collaborative efforts. They reject the notion that creating a shared understanding as an objective defines collaboration.
I agree with this point, but I also believe that Schrage is not saying that shared understanding is an objective in and of itself. Rather, he is saying that the process of collaboration will lead to a shared understanding between the parties involved. The parties may not be collaborating for the purpose of generating a shared understanding, but nevertheless a new, shared understanding results (even as the shared understanding does not necessarily have to be equally shared or given the same value within parties). This is different than making shared understanding an objective. The difference may seem trivial, but it is an important difference between collaboration and cooperation.
In short, cooperation can be defined as working together toward a shared goal, while collaboration is a process of shared creation and understanding that may be toward a shared goal or different goals. In cooperation, there is already some fundamental level of shared understanding that enhances the agents’ ability to cooperate, and no shared meaning may be generated. The Prisoner’s Dilemma Game does not need any notion of shared meaning to achieve cooperation as an optimal strategy. Collaboration does not preclude some level of existing shared understanding or shared rules or norms, as Wood and Gray state, but as Schrage highlights the process itself also helps create a shared meaning that did not exist prior to the collaboration, even as the agents may work toward separate goals. The distinction helps show what makes the term “collaborative journalism” a better representation of the dynamics taking place today.
Characteristics of Collaborative Journalism
The difference between the mainstream practices of professional journalism or even its non-profit counterparts such as ProPublica and what I am defining as collaborative journalism is an important one. In mainstream journalism, roles are clearly defined by titles and largely hierarchical—a reporter has little if any say in her story after it has reached a certain point in the news production process, usually does not even choose which stories she covers, and there is little sense of creating shared meaning.
There is an equally large divide between professional journalists and the audience, or general public. Collaboration, if it happens at all between the public and journalists, is infrequent and generally does not encourage the creation of shared meaning. If anything, as journalists feel increasingly threatened as professionals, they are more likely to create and demarcate boundaries both professional and institutional in order to separate themselves from non-professionals, much as we have seen in the debates regarding whether blogging is journalism or not even as blogging changes journalism (Hermida, 2009; Kim Bivens, 2008). For most mainstream news organizations, the audience has relatively little input in what types of stories are covered and is relegated to a reactionary or responsive role in the form of letters to the editor, op-eds, or in discussion forums at the ends of articles.
Broadly speaking, collaborative journalism differs from professional journalism in its organizational structures and practices. These structures and practices may borrow from professional journalism to a greater or lesser degree depending on the collaborative journalism organization, but overall they tend to be more heterarchical and more inclusive of the audience in the decision-making and news-creation process than professional journalism organizations. Barriers to entry are extremely low or non-existent, and participation on democratic principles is encouraged by many collaborative journalism sites.
In addition to the differing organizational structures and practices, there are three main characteristics that help define collaborative journalism. These are the influences from professional journalism norms, values, and ideals; the role of curation; and the social production of news.
Influences from Professional Journalism Norms, Values, and Ideals
One thing that differentiates collaborative journalism sites from other online forums and communities of practice such as fan sites, gaming sites, or even blogs in which people debate and discuss issues important to them is the focus collaborative journalism sites have on news and of a sense of a larger public interest or public audience. Fan sites and gaming forums have specialized, robust discussions over specific topics and usually do not consider a larger audience, or general public, outside their specific interests in the way that journalism sites do.
This notion of speaking to a wider audience, a public, is part of a worldview taken from professional journalism values and ideals. In reporting on something, even if it is simply taking video or photographs and sending them to CNN’s iReport, there is an implicit notion of providing new information as a public good to an unseen and imagined audience. Furthermore, as news organizations provide training in production and news reporting and writing techniques, citizens are simultaneously receiving definitions and norms of what is defined as “newsworthy” and what is not. This training in journalism practices simultaneously imparts certain professional norms on citizens, reinforcing the sense that professional journalists are the best arbiters of what news should be (Usher, 2011).
Collaborative journalism acknowledges this influence, but also acknowledges that increased citizen participation in news production can influence certain norms and assumptions regarding professional journalism. This dynamic has begun to be explored by other scholars (Aitamurto & Lewis, 2012; Heinonen, 2011; Hermida, 2011, 2012; Hermida & Thurman, 2008; Lewis, 2012; Paterson & Domingo, 2008; Schmitz Weiss & Domingo, 2010), but deserves much further study and is an area of great research interest to me.
It is understood here that citizens participating in collaborative news ventures do not simply accept every dictate and norm handed down from on high by professional journalists, but neither do they throw everything out and start with a tabula rasa. The variable influences create a flexible and fluid situation that simultaneously helps but that can also hinder some collaborative journalism practices. For our purposes in this chapter it is enough to state that collaborative journalism borrows freely from professional journalism norms, ideals, and values—and sometimes does so unconsciously—even as its practices may in turn influence those norms, ideals, and values.
Schrage’s definition of collaboration differentiates collaborative journalism from current practices by some mainstream newsrooms today that use citizen reporters primarily as raw news feeds with little or no editorial voice in what gets produced or written, or in defining what is newsworthy. The term “collaborative” covers multiple levels of relationships without making a judgment on the validity of one form of journalism over another. It emphasizes the relational aspect of the situation, and covers the mentoring relationship between professional and citizen journalists, the work among citizens themselves, and what is done at the inter-organizational level between collaborative journalism sites and mainstream news organizations.
Largely because of the plethora of information available online, curation has taken on greater importance in social media in recent years. The definition of the term “curation” has been undergoing something of a transformation in the past few years, and the lack of definitional clarity needs to be addressed. Traditionally, curators are in museums or sometimes libraries and are seen as subject experts in their fields, are responsible for keeping abreast of new scholarly developments in their fields, choosing new materials for museum or library collections, ensuring the collections are well-preserved, and deciding what items are shown to the public. They also created knowledge as they researched the history of items and interpreted their meanings within the field or museum collection (American Association of Museums Curators Committee, 2009).
Museum curators could be compared in some ways with the gatekeeping role that journalists and editors play with media in the sense that both groups, through specialized knowledge or expertise, had access to information that the general public generally did not have access to. Part of both the curator’s and journalist’s roles were to decide what information was relevant to their respective audiences and give that limited and packaged form of the information to them. Like journalists, curators also interpreted existing information and created new knowledge.
Today, with the plethora of information online, the act of curation has taken on new meanings through new practices. Unlike the traditional gatekeeping model of journalism (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009; White, 1950), in which journalists acted as an important filter of information to the public, today curation does not exclude information but rather acts on a “publish, then filter” model (Shirky, 2008). This signals an important shift in the role that curation plays, as the gatekeepers, who previously kept certain information from their audience as part of the gatekeeping process, now act more as “gatewatchers” (Bruns, 2005), who direct their audience to sources that they assume the audience will find interesting and that encourage the audience members to explore more or even access the sources directly. The gatewatching process is not only done by professionals, but can now be done by anyone, and can gain relevance and importance with more collaboration and participation from users, creating a kind of “crowdcuration.”
Ratings systems can be considered as a type of curation that uses this dynamic, as can the numbers of user comments or other displays of interest in articles, such as the number of times an article is shared.
User feedback in the form of discussion comments can also be seen as a kind of curation in so far as some comments may add relevant information or correct errors in stories (though admittedly most comments do not do this). However, even stating an opinion and making comments is a tacit admission of the relevance of an article to a user, and rough measures of an article’s popularity (or controversy) can be gleaned from looking at the number of comments about it.
Curational practices continue to evolve and grow and better automated systems develop that let online users determine who they trust for their curated content, although the growth of the use of algorithms is not without its problems in terms of putting content in front of readers.
Social Production of News
Collaborative journalism shares characteristics of the social production of news with citizen or participatory journalism, social news, and alternative journalism, especially regarding diminishing the differences between media producers and media audiences and the greater role that audiences play in creating or producing news.
In fact, the term “social production community” (SPC) can be used to refer to how participants work in collaborative journalism organizations. Collaborative journalism is a type of social production. Collaborative journalism sites offer the same kinds of interaction and discussion for users about news that gatewatching or social news sites provide, but the discussions in collaborative journalism sites like Wikinews also expand into the realm of “meta-news” issues. For example, in Wikinews, debates range among active users about the validity of sources used, word choices, and headlines, as well as fact-checking and general content guidelines (Wikinews, 2013). There are also active discussions in the “Watercooler” or “Talk” section of Wikinews about a range of policies regarding the site itself that affect its look and content (Wikinews, 2007). This type of transparent conversation about “behind the scenes” issues of the news production process that are normally hidden from the audience, or that go unquestioned by professional journalists, gives participants in Wikinews a more complex and reflexive look at how news stories are produced and the nature and type of news, which the gatewatching sites do not do in such an apparent or reflexive way.
In the Talk section of Wikinews we can see how the ideal of transparency can often run against the real-world practicalities of news production and how it can affect the culture of an SPC. Furthermore, we clearly see in these meta-news discussions the influences that news norms and values have had on participants and their concepts of news and the news production process.
A different framework from which to look at collaborative journalism as a type of social production may not seem immediately obvious but it actually bears many relevant similarities to collaborative journalism. In fact, collaborative journalism SPCs may do well to model some of their production and organizational practices after SPCs that have proved to be successful over the years not only from an organizational and sustainable community sense, but from an economic one as well.
Comparing F/OSS and Collaborative Journalism
The free and open source software (F/OSS) movement is an excellent example of SPCs, and its various success stories have been held up as examples of how collaborative social production can successfully stand against the growing commercialization of the Internet and computing. Further, F/OSS collaborative activities challenge fundamentally many of the assumptions we have in traditional economics and society regarding the basic selfishness of people and our supposed lack of willingness to work together without material rewards, or the need to work within the structure of a firm (Benkler, 2002).
The F/OSS community consists of various software developers, computer programmers, and engineers who believe in consensus, transparency, participation, and the power of an intellectual commons as a greater public good over intellectual property (Stallman, 2010). They are largely responsible for a growing number of free or low-cost software applications and tools that are accessible to more people than their higher-priced proprietary counterparts. Government agencies in the U.S. such as the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Veterans Administration (VA), and local governments in the U.S. and abroad have either mandated their offices search for open source software solutions or have adopted open source in whole or in part throughout their organizations in order to save money.
After the massive problems regarding the launch of the Healthcare.gov website, which used proprietary software, an online petition was created to demand that the site be created using open source software, with some experts saying the problems were largely because the government did not use open source software (Grothaus, 2013). The city government of Munich, Germany was one of the largest migrations entirely to open source software in 2009, although it is far more common for organizations to use open source as support for or along with proprietary software systems (Romeo, 2008).
Making comparisons between the F/OSS movement and collaborative journalism may seem to be a stretch, but actually much can be gleaned from looking at their similarities, as seen in Table 2. Similar comparisons have also been made by some scholars looking at Wikipedia, and how journalism may be reinvented from adopting lessons from the F/OSS movement, or how journalism can be re-imagined within an open source framework (Lewis & Usher, 2013; Lih, 2004; Witt, 2006).
Table 2: Shared Characteristics Between F/OSS Movement and Collaborative Journalism
Knowledge and culture production
Role of social production
Communities of practice
Serving a greater public good
Beliefs about intellectual property
Challenges toward established business practices
Breakdown of producer/consumer divide
Encouraging audience activity
It is perhaps easier to see collaborative journalism as a type of knowledge or culture production than open source software, but the latter nevertheless is also knowledge and culture production. To be sure, it may not be as accessible to the average person as reading a news story is because far more people can read words than who can write computer code, but open source software as a type of social production nevertheless has important implications for knowledge production and business models (Chesbrough, 2003).
Aspects of social production also challenge conventional wisdom regarding business models, although this has been seen more in F/OSS than in collaborative journalism to date. Nevertheless, the fact that many people are willing to participate and work for free in both realms defies conventional market logic regarding incentives and rewards to work.
F/OSS software and projects have challenged corporate control of computing far more effectively than any alternative media business model has ever challenged mainstream media organizations. From operating systems such as Linux, databases like MySQL, Web software projects from the Apache Foundation, and Web browsers such as Firefox we can see examples of where companies have had to adapt to threats to their traditional business models from free and open source software.
The role of intellectual property regimes for creative works also touches both areas, though in varying degrees. F/OSS supporters are often very vocal about the detrimental effect proprietary computer systems have on a range of issues, including creativity, the rate of innovation, security, and economic health (Chesbrough, 2003; Lessig, 2001, 2004). Similarly, collaborative journalism needs to operate in a realm in which information and content is not walled off behind intellectual property barriers such as licensing or permission fees. Both areas share an inherent interest in keeping as much information and knowledge available in the public domain as possible, although in this they both face an uphill battle as intellectual property regimes become more comprehensive and restrictive (Lessig, 2001, 2004).
Collaborative journalism sites can be seen as some of several online projects that challenge modern assumptions about journalism, just as F/OSS projects have challenged assumptions about software development and the nature of the Internet. By extension, provocative questions are raised about the current state of journalism and its roles, our networked public sphere and the implications for democracy. On one hand, the democratic potential of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) has long been touted by many scholars, journalists, and activists (Dertouzos, 1997; Gillmor, 2004; Morrisett, 2003; Negroponte, 1995; Rheingold, 2002; Shirky, 2008).
On the other hand, the growing commercialization of the Internet and legislative changes that have greatly expanded intellectual property rights has lead some scholars to conclude that the Internet, like radio and other promising communication technologies before it, could easily fall far short of its democratizing potential as the Internet succumbs to corporate interests and the rules of the capitalist marketplace (Bagdikian, 2004; Balkin, 2004; Benkler, 2006; Curran, 2003; Lessig, 2001, 2004, McChesney, 1999, 2004, 2013; Morozov, 2014). At the heart of the debate is the viability of what John Fiske has called “semiotic democracy,”—“a society in which all persons are free and able to participate actively, if not equally, in the generation of and circulation of meanings and values” (Fiske, 1988; Madow, 1993, p. 146).
By reframing our understanding of the changes taking place in journalism today by examining collaborative journalism sites, we are better able to analyze fundamental issues around and possible futures for the nature of news, the state of journalism, and the ability of citizens to engage in democratic society in meaningful ways. I have made a case for why the term “collaborative journalism” best frames these issues, encompassing relevant characteristics of these dynamics while avoiding some of the conceptual pitfalls that have arisen from using other commonly used terms such as citizen or participatory journalism. I have provided some key aspects of collaborative journalism and compared some of these aspects to the F/OSS movement, of which it shares a philosophical heritage.
Shawn McIntosh, Assistant Professor of Digital Journalism and Communications
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