Developing Journalism Collaborations for Local Impact. The Role of Collaborative Scaffolding and Solutions Journalism in Changing Local Media Ecosystems [full report]

Click to download

A solutions journalism collaborative is a group of local newsrooms and partners working together to produce and distribute local news stories with a solutions-focused approach. Solutions journalism collaboratives represent a two-pronged response to the challenges of diminished local news capacity. First, solutions journalism as a framework represents a potentially more transformative alternative to traditional problem-focused reporting.

Second, collaborative journalism as an approach seeks to address dwindling local media resources by bringing different newsrooms and partners together to share and co-create content. Ideally, a solutions journalism framework combined with a collaboration approach should have the potential to be a powerful intervention into local media ecosystems and should lead to meaningful outcomes for both journalists and audiences. What evidence do we have of the outcomes generated by solutions journalism collaboratives so far?

In this report, we summarize findings from a yearlong research project in 2020-2021, during which we studied a cohort of six solutions journalism collaboratives based in different parts of the United States. The
research included baseline case studies; interviews with journalists, editors and non-news partners, as well as audience members; meeting observations; and surveys among collaborative members and audience members.

Our interest was in specifying what outcomes these collaboratives were able to generate and how. Our findings reveal:

  • During our year of observation, we were able to construct a developmental life cycle for collaborative projects with four distinct phases, each with its own set of outcomes. These phases are coming together, sharing stories, co-creating content, and making space for impact.
  • We found the strongest evidence of outcomes in these developmental stages at the individual and group levels. We found evidence that, by bringing together journalists on a regular basis to discuss and debate how to produce work oriented around community needs, the collaboratives were able to build new connections between collaborators, deepen trust between their members, change traditional journalism mindsets, and eventually make space for wider impact.
  • We found that the most mature collaboratives had a strong sense of shared values, operated with a high degree of trust, and had a commitment to the collaborative as an entity. The values, trust, and commitment operated like a scaffold to keep the groups moving forward on their projects, even when they encountered challenges.
  • The overall outcome of successful collaborative development was strong collaborative scaffolding. Collaborative scaffolding is a collaborative-specific structure and culture that supports a new way of envisioning, producing and sharing high-quality information and news at the ecosystem level. This scaffolding is built over time as members work and learn together. Strong collaborative scaffolding allows members to rise above their specific newsroom identities and sustain working together in new ways.
  • We found evidence that strong collaborative scaffolding was leading to positive media funding and policy outcomes, and to some change in audience attitudes for some collaboratives. We found variations in the development of collaborative scaffolding that could be explained by the age and size of a collaborative,
  • its degree of in-person interactions, the degree of shared commitment to the solutions journalism framework, the quality of a collaborative’s leadership and project management, and the clarity of its subject orientation.
  • Within the timeframe of this study, and given the relatively short life of most of the collaboratives we studied, we were not able to uncover robust evidence of the long-term impact of the collaboratives on their local audiences. Audience members’ relationships with the media are typically older than the collaboratives’ efforts, and longstanding, sustained change in dialogue and trust requires more time.
  • We did, however, observe that the solutions framework is helping lay out pathways for audience members to participate in community change, which is one possible pathway through which collaboratives may be able to create systemic change over time. Though gathering widespread evidence will require more time to study, we do have evidence which points to possible long-term outcomes.
  • Finally, our analysis suggests that solutions journalism can develop and strengthen collaborative scaffolding in three ways: through meeting collaborators’ needs beyond monetary resources, by providing a rigorous way to test assumptions, and through fostering a sense of community and belonging to a movement larger than a single collaborative.

At the end of the report, we reflect on how solutions journalism collaboratives are like hands-on educational laboratories for training journalists in cutting-edge practices.