Increasingly, the term ‘community’ refers to online audiences and participants in story experiences. In this section, part, we’ll examine emerging technologies, with their accompanying opportunities and ethical challenges. We conclude with an overview of journalism that aims to explore a more hybrid, fluid, notion of co-creation, and its relationship with the traditions of authorship. We make an argument for a structural approach that recognizes the deep affordances of collaboration in digital journalism, and the quest to (re)build the commons.
In earlier forms of documentary, the term community often referred to people who inhabited a specific place and/or shared values and identities. In the digital context, the word also refers to online viewers, users, and participants. When documentarians began creating on the web as a native platform — as opposed to using the web to market linear films—the web radically shifted the potential for the agency of the audience to become co-creators.
Web-based interactive documentaries began flourishing in the early 2000s when web technology became robust enough to enable video formats more easily. (Cizek’s NFB Filmmaker in Residence is considered the first feature-length online documentary.) Often, these projects merged in-person community-based work with emerging tools of decentralized networks of engagement over the internet. Makers of these projects relied on a cohort of independently built platforms in order to organize community-generated stories. These platforms included: GroupStream, Vojo, Cowbird, Mozilla’s Popcorn, and Zeega, as well as video platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, and others that were just emerging.
The work of the audience on-line often happens in navigating the menu of an online documentary, thereby co-creating a textual path through a myriad of choices. It introduces non-linear, iterative relationships that afford a certain agency to the audience now scrolling through, or immersed, in a storyworld within which they can maneuver and to which, sometimes, they might contribute. This allows for expanded perspectives and readings. In many cases, these online documentaries also open up space for participation in the form of crowd-sourcing and, in terms of the period, user-generated input.
For 18 Days in Egypt (2011), Jigar Mehta and Yasmin Elayat experimented with the GroupStream platform as an online space in which Egyptians could share their stories of the 2011 political uprising in Egypt. One of the project’s biggest issues was the recruitment of participants, an issue facing this entire generation of early user-generated platforms. “A lot of the challenges that we had were the barriers to get people to actually participate,” said Jigar Mehta, who now works at AJ+, Al Jazeera Media Network’s online news and current events channel. Methta continued:
It turns out it’s a lot harder to do that than we thought. It requires a lot of the things that we're actually all familiar with as storytellers: actually spending time with the people who are sharing their stories, being on the ground, creating that intimacy between the audience and the subject.
Media scholar Henry Jenkins calls this the “the participation gap.”1 As Mandy Rose explains the challenge: “Uneven participation may be less to do with the lack of access to equipment or technologies sometimes referred to as the ‘digital divide’, and more to do with a lack of confidence in and understanding of the protocols of engagement.”2
For Sandy Storyline, a project about the personal and political narratives emerging from the Hurricane that damaged parts of New York City in 2012, the co-creators also needed to address the issue of recruitment. Michael Premo described it to us as a system of “pathways to participation” involving intense in-person meetings as well as online collaboration. “We had regular open meetings weekly, where anyone could come and were invited to give feedback and input around this core design question: …How do we collaborate with millions of people to tell a story?”
The landmark installation and web documentary, Question Bridge (2012), also interwove in-person and online methodologies by prompting Black male participants, of diverse backgrounds, to ask and answer questions of each other through the mediation of the project’s artists and their cameras (For more, see Spotlight: Question Bridge).
Yet the digital divide still exists. In the Quipu Project, (For more, see Spotlight on Quipu), the co-creators needed to work with sensitivity and thoughtfulness while in rural areas of Peru where there was limited or no internet access. This was the case, specifically, in remote Indigenous communities, and was necessary in order to also protect participants’ identities. María Court, Rosemarie Lerner, and Sebastián Melo of Chaka Films set out to support the Indigenous women who had endured state-run, forced sterilization in the 1990s under the government of then-President Fujimori.
For the Quipu Project, women were invited to participate (anonymously) by using telephones to call in and record their stories of these experiences as voice messages that could then be organized and distributed through a telephone interface and online. The co-creators left phones with women in remote communities as a method of gathering testimonies, and then promoted the project widely via radio broadcasting. As the documentary team traveled through communities, they would further invite a workshop participant to join them for the next event; this connected leaders of the network through in-person meetings, and strengthened the movement, while also providing a connection that could enable the support of global audiences.
According to Mandy Rose:
The Quipu Project demonstrates how interactive documentary co-creation can be harnessed to support activism. […] The media-making process is designed to develop capacity within an ongoing movement … both in person and virtually.3
Increasingly, through co-creative practices, people formerly known as audiences are afforded the opportunities to make contributions, not to mention making navigational choices, that ultimately inform the documentary text.
Importantly, the internet itself is misunderstood, according to Caroline Sinders, an artist from New Orleans researching the systems that regulate and proliferate hateful online comments. She argues that we need to understand that the internet is in fact a large system iteratively recreated by many sets of human hands. In our interview, she says she would like to see us:
talking more publicly about content moderation. How much of that, like how much of the backbone of the internet, is still maintained by people? So many open-source projects are built by volunteers. […] I think we think of the internet as this purely digital space when in fact … it is so full of people. And I think that maybe a bit of the future is recognizing the humanity of who builds and maintains the internet.
While on-line networks have connected the world to decentralized and open-source methods, the above projects demonstrate that in-person co-creation remains crucial to meaningfully challenge issues of inequity and injustice.
The red line of the digital divide is always on the move. New technologies and the social constructs that accompany them also bring new dilemmas towards issues of building co-creative participation and collaborative practices.
By November 2018, four billion people, or half of the world’s population, would be online, according to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world-wide web and a professor at MIT. To address its power imbalances, Berners-Lee calls urgently for a re-decentralization of the internet. He and coders around the world are co-creating a new software, Solid, to reclaim the internet from the new tech behemoths. On his World Wide Web Foundation’s Web site, Berners-Lee wrote in an open letter in 2018 : “While the problems facing the web are complex and large, I think we should see them as bugs: problems with existing code and software systems that have been created by people —and can be fixed by people.”
Additionally, emerging tech is moving beyond the tethered desktop and even mobile devices, onto new platforms and untethered spatial networks. In 2015, a second wave of VR projects took the Sundance Festival by storm. Since then, the avant-garde of experimental documentary and the arts have quickly shifted from the interactivity of the web to a new horizon of immersive tech, much of which is tied to inaccessible, complicated, and expensive hardware: 3D printers, VR, augmented reality, and AI. These technologies carry the promise of new emotional, experiential, and interconnected realms, and will aggregate, organize, and interpret massive amounts of data on a scale not seen before.
This moment may be evocative of early cinema, suggests William Uricchio, media scholar at MIT and Principal Investigator of the Open Documentary Lab. When the nascent form of film was still widely understood through the old lens of theatre and novel-writing, it took the radical approaches of collectives such as Vertov’s Kino-Eye to invent a new cinematic language. So too, Uricchio argues, the maturation of a language in VR might require a radical shift from cinematic approaches to new conceptualizations of spatial experiences and explorations.
VR production can be slow and cumbersome, and participatory projects are still rare. But in Brookline, Massachusetts, a permanent new community VR center, the Public VR Lab, has launched a space according to their website “that values and promotes digital inclusivity, accessibility, training, equipment and XR content in the public interest.” And this year in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the exciting new participatory VR game experiment, Fireflies: A Brownsville Story, is being launched.
Fireflies has been in the works for three years as a co-creation between the Brownsville Community Justice Center, Peoples’ Culture, more than thirty youth, and over 100 community members, all from Brownsville. Through workshops and conversations, the team decided to make a docu-game, rather than a traditional documentary or narrative film. They then created a Tech Lab that is now a permanent fixture within the Brownsville Community Justice Center. They began with a process-focused lab (with no predetermined outcome), rather than a product-driven project. “Our main goal, our chief goal is that the project is a catapult to something else, and that the work of art itself lives in any person who is a part of it,” says Nicholas Pilarski. The training and resulting production involved building custom computers, camera training, unity game design, and mapping open data via a geographic information system (GIS), with which they recreated Brownsville within the virtual space of the game that users can travel through and inhabit.
So far, however, immersive technology is cumbersome. Before the resulting images can be seen, the data requires long computer processing times, stitching, and effects building. It is all new and technically complex in ways that can be fetishized. The studio set-up for these emergent media projects can also be intimidating and overwhelming for non-professionals as well as for those living in, or coming from, vulnerable contexts. Because of this, projects require the initiators to finesse the weaving of production logistics with ethics. One of few accessible immersive platforms to emerge in 2019 is called REACH, a joint project between DepthKit (Scatter) and Emblematic. It introduces a simple a drag-and-drop interface for users to build worlds inside VR.
One project has gone quite a distance in employing emergent technologies and intentionally considering the implications of community-based approach. Using holograms and robust AI systems, the Shoah Foundation is working with a community of Holocaust survivors to create Dimensions in Testimony. This project allows users to ask a hologram of a Holocaust survivor questions about their life story. Using natural-language processing, the system calls up answers, developed through processing of hundreds of hours of pre-recordings.
Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation describes how the team captured the vast amount of data required for the project. To do this, Smith described how the team placed holocaust survivors in “a 15-foot dome with 6,000 LED lights and 116 cameras, and asked them 1,000 questions about their life over five days.” He commented in our interview:
Just seeing that, that would be an imposition and possibly dangerous for that individual to go through that experience. […] We ensured that first of all in the very beginning of this project, we engaged with holocaust survivors on our advisory group, before we even went into pilot. […] In fact, before we went into prototyping, survivors went down to look at the studio, talk through the process of production, [and] think through the issues that might come out of it.
Scholars and activists such as Sasha Costanza-Chock have expressed concern for the abandonment of some ethical and equitable concerns in emergent tech spaces, issues that have been raised and, partially, addressed in conventional documentary and journalism. To respond in part to these concerns, and to support inclusion and diversity in VR, the Ford Foundation has funded two labs for emerging artists-of-color: the Open Immerse Lab at the National Film Board of Canada and Canadian Film Centre, and Electric South/New Dimensions in South Africa. As Cara Mertes, director of Ford Just Films, explains in Immerse:
Creating access for content makers in this moment just before mass audiences adopt these new storytelling technologies is crucial to the development of the aesthetic language itself, as well as fueling a subsequent critical discourse that is centered squarely in building a more inclusive and equitable body of commentary that adds to the larger discussions.
Emerging tech is accelerating and fragmented, yet it affords new opportunities for expression. But it also introduces new dilemmas of limited distribution, and in many cases, technology-first agendas. Along with the struggle to arrive at coherent approaches to these immersive forms, makers concerned with community-based co-creation must confront the inaccessibility of the devices and knowledge they are founded on.
by Sara Rafsky
The stories are painful to hear. In recording after recording, the subjects speak about being among the nearly 300,000 women (along with thousands of men) who were brutally subjected to sterilization under the government of the former Peruvian President, Alberto Fujimori, in the 1990s. The program targeted rural, poor, and Indigenous communities, who were forced to participate in it without their informed consent. Many continue to suffer painful symptoms and side effects from the procedures to this day. Their testimonies, along with listeners’ responses, form the core of the interactive and co-creative documentary, Quipu Project (2015).
Filmmakers Rosemarie Lerner (Peru) and María Ignacia Court (Chile) were galvanized into action when the sterilization program was debated during the 2011 Peruvian presidential campaign. Lerner realized that while many of the survivors had been interviewed by other media, they had never had an opportunity to participate or comment on the final productions. According to a study by Mandy Rose, the two filmmakers set out to develop a co-creative approach as a means “to engage with this disenfranchised community in a way that would offer them control in the process and would prove of value to them in their struggle for justice.”4
In the ancient Incan system of Quipu, colorful knotted strings were used to keep official records and tell stories. In the online documentary, Quipu Project, users click through colored-dot icons, each representing a section of the testimonies of the more than 100 women (and counting) who dialed a free phone number and left anonymous messages about their experiences. People from around the world who listened to their stories then recorded messages in response. The audio was collected using Drupal VoIP, an open-source, voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) developed at MIT’s Center for Civic Media. The result is a participatory oral-history project that culminates in a call-to-action.
Lerner and Ignacia Court spent over a year travelling to various regions of Peru, gradually, and with setbacks, gaining the confidence of local women and civil-society organizations, and recording stories. The co-creators had to take into account the limited online connectivity of the region. “The only technology [the participants] had was radio and telephone. So we realized that we had to use what they used if we really wanted to tell their stories,” Maria Ignacio Court said in a 2016 interview. In the end, Lerner and Court devised a system that blended low-tech phone technology for recording, and a high-tech digital interface for the user experience. They equipped some women as story hunters to seek the widest possible group of participants. Later, VoIP technology would allow participants of the project to listen back to all the messages, and be notified when a listener had responded. It was hoped that this process would help build a broader mutual support network for these survivors. Hearing others’ stories offered the women a way to “break through the isolation and stigmatization they had faced in the past,” according to the team an i-Docs interview. The anonymity of the phone-recording process was crucial to protect the survivors in a still-dangerous context.
With the executive producer Sebastián Melo, and creative technologist, Ewan Cass-Kavanagh (with whom they created Chaka Studio), the Quipu documentarists sorted testimonies about the sterilization program into different classifications. These were stories about the actual operations; life afterwards; and survivors’ and activists’ search for justice. The web documentary launched as a pilot project at the 2014 i-Docs conference, was exhibited at the 2015 IDFA Doclab, and won awards from documentary funders such as TriBeca and Hot Docs. With funding raised via crowdsourcing, the project later expanded to include a linear 20-minute documentary on The Guardian website in 2016.
“We didn’t want to tell a story about those affected,” Lerner told Rose:
We wanted to tell a story with them … where people could share their own stories in their own voices, but they could also experience the interactive documentary and become its first audience.
For the survivors, sharing their stories functioned as a type of rehearsal for potential court testimony, another manner in which co-creative media making could serve as an agent “in the fight for justice.”5
by Sara Rafsky
“How do you know when you become a man?” is a daunting question asked by eight-year old Josiah Yoba, but one that adult Gavin Armour attempts to tackle. “You don’t wake up one morning and become a man,” Armour answers. “It’s your experiences and how you react to them.” The exchange is poignant, but neither Yoba nor Armour are talking directly to each other, rather, they are speaking to cameras. The way their filmed comments interact is at the crux of Question Bridge, an ambitious, multi-year transmedia project about Black male identity. Question Bridge, according to its mission statement, “facilitates a dialogue between a critical mass of Black men from diverse and contending backgrounds and creates a platform for them to represent and redefine Black male identity in America.”
This is how the project developed: Black men were recorded asking questions they would like to pose to other Black men. The footage was then played to other Black men who were filmed responding and asking their own questions, and the chain continued. The participants were diverse — young, old, professionals, prisoners, celebrities — and the questions ranged from sweet (“How do you know she’s the one?”), to political (discussions around the use of the “n”-word), to existential (“I wonder, Black man, are you really ready for freedom?”). The result is a co-created mosaic portrait that defies any one narrative of Black male identity.
Question Bridge originated as a project by artist Chris Johnson, who in 1996 used the same technique to record the multi-class and multi-generational African American community in San Diego. The piece was reborn over a decade later when artist Hank Willis Thomas suggested to Johnson that they revisit the project, this time focusing specifically on Black males. Johnson and Thomas joined forces with artists Kamal Sinclair and Bayeté Ross Smith and traveled to nine cities across America, where they recorded over 160 men asking and responding to more than 1,600 questions. As Sinclair told us in our interview:
There is no monolithic Black male identity. By inviting people that identify as Black and male to participate in a dialogue and to define themselves in their own terms, you break open the constraints on Black male identity and expose an incredible diversity of thought. People feel liberated from these limiting ideas of what it means to be Black and male.
Encouraging the participants to craft their own questions enabled participants’ agency over the process and resulted in them breaking from “traditional anthropological frameworks,” according to one review of the project. The indirect nature of the filmed and assembled dialogue was critical, the creators wrote on the project’s website, to reduce the “stress of normal face-to-face conversations and makes people feel more comfortable with expressing their deeply held feelings on topics that divide, unite and puzzle.” As a second layer, the creators hoped that by exposing viewers to the multi-faceted thoughts and opinions of Black men, that stereotypes would be deconstructed, and the project would enable viewers to overcome negative bias towards “arguably, the most opaque and feared demographic in America”—Black males.
The five-channel video installation launched at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and went on to tour more than 60 festivals, museums, and institutions. After a 2013 Kickstarter campaign that raised USD 75,000, the project expanded to include a website and mobile app for users that enabled the addition of more content. The program also developed into a high-school curriculum and an Aperture photography book, according to a case study published by Media Impact Funders. The organizers hosted more than a dozen Blueprint Roundtables —multi-generational, community-engagement events that seek to identify “roadmaps to success” for Black men and boys. In 2015, Question Bridge was the recipient of the International Center for Photography’s Infinity Award in the New Media category. A year later, a three-and-a half-hour video from the project was added to the permanent collection of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Not too long ago the term, collaboration, was something of a dirty word in newsrooms. Steeped in an economic and cultural model that for a century had rewarded scoops and exclusives, journalists and editors thrived on competition, while established ethical standards kept them at a remove from their subjects. Yet in recent years, as changes in technology and the marketplace have upended the news industry, this and many other journalism edicts have been challenged. Media outlets have experimented with new journalistic forms ranging from big data dives and visualizations, to games, and interactive documentaries. Many of these practices, as well as more traditional reporting, have been supported by co-creative methods. Of course, traditions of attribution, reputation, credibility, professionalism, and credentials are important in journalism, and also demonstrate the advantages of authorship. But perhaps there is no need for a binary opposition between these values, perhaps there is a third way.
“The essence of the current infrastructure for journalism is that it's built on collaboration. Even if that collaboration is implicit,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, the program director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and author of a 2018 report on collaborative journalism published by the Tow Center, Collaboration and the creation of a new journalism commons. (For a primer on how journalists collaborate, see Spotlight on Collaborative Journalism in this section). Martinez de la Serna adds: “We might not even be realizing the full extent of the role of collaboration, but it's there. It's about the networked world we live in.”
Martinez de la Serna argues that human-centered design snuck in the back door of journalism, through the ways that infrastructures and interfaces are built. For over century, in print, radio, and TV, design was mostly thought of as graphic design, he stated; but today’s journalism is based on digital platforms, that are in turn created with human-centered design. He continued:
We are seeing people building interfaces for news and testing those interfaces with users and incorporating their feedback, and they cannot think of other ways of working. So we are seeing co-creation happen in journalism. Again it's not explicit. Maybe we're not even realizing it's happening. But it's happening.
The role of community in journalism is not new, according to Martinez de la Serna, who credits the first conversations on the subject through the rise of the “Public School of Journalism” in the 1980s. Jessica Clark, director of the Philadelphia-based Dot Connector Studio, recalled those efforts in our interview:
It [was] the precursor to all this online stuff. Failed. It was an idea advanced by very well-meaning academics and funders over the course of a decade or so, and of course the big newspapers never really picked it up, because they didn't have to, right?
Today, many media organizations are embracing what Andrew DeVigal, the Chair in Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement at the journalism school at the University of Oregon, has dubbed a “continuum of engagement.” This concept moves beyond the social-media outreach that most media outlets do in order to get their public to see and share content, or “transactional” engagement, as defined by DeVigal. Instead, they embrace a more “relational” approach. Projects range from opening up the process of receiving story ideas, to participatory reporting, to joint authorship with subjects.
Clark suggested that in this environment, a new brand of journalism, engaged journalism, is emerging. She has been involved in aggregating engagement case-studies for DeVigal and the University of Oregon's Agora Journalism Center's new platform called Gather, funded by the Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund, and other backers. Analogous to documentary, engaged journalism practices range from the participatory to the interventionist.
At The New York Times, Malachy Browne (formerly of Storyful) has been crowd-sourcing to push the bounds of what is possible with co-created, investigative journalism, in a team called Visual Forensics. For instance, Browne draws on vast sources of eyewitness video, tweets, and social-media data to piece together complex events such as shootings or climate disasters. Browne calls this forensic journalism, a methodology with which his team might pull together the meta-data for social video, photos, and text in order to piece together the scene of a mass shooting, as in his award-winning, 10 Minutes. 12 Gunfire Bursts. 30 Videos: Mapping the Las Vegas Massacre (2018). When the team finds a civilian phone-camera panning across a wall, they will enhance the clock on the wall to secure a time reference. They can sync 30 videos by using the sounds of the gunshot blasts to place the data, collected from multiple sources, in a coherent timeline.
Browne furthers his co-creative approach as he develops relationships with phone- and camera-wielding civilians on the ground in quickly evolving situations; this helps him coordinate livestreams, the collection of evidence, and interviews. In Houston, during the flooding after Hurricane Harvey (2017), for example, he teamed up with Mattress Mack, a local who opened up his warehouse and lined the floor with mattresses to welcome people in need of shelter. Mack helped facilitate live FaceTime interviews with his guests, with direction from the team from The New York Times. This echoes Sam Gregory's Witness organization and Michael Premo and Rachel Falcone’s Sandy Storyline, but from across the journalistic divide.
Before he joined the New York Times, Browne unleashed a complex investigation using his social networks, including Human Rights Watch, when he received a tip about bombs built in Italy being smuggled through Saudi Arabia to be dropped on Yemen. Together, a networked community traced the routes the bombs were taken on, photographing ships and planes, documenting shipping logs, and communicating live over Twitter. Once the story went viral and politicians began discussing the issue in the Italian Parliament, another part of the network would translate live from Italian to English. Browne explained in our interview:
The community emerges and we all work together and bring our own strengths to it, and actually get inside something like that. […] That was very much co-creative, collaborative, very transparent and very much in the public sphere. We would be chatting privately but we would be posting what we're seeing onto Twitter and sharing it to different threads.
“The real value and the strength of social networks is in hard-to-reach places, or places where there is breakdown of the media, independent media,” said Browne. He gave examples of remarkable social media and blogging efforts such as SOS Media Burundi, and Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, both of which leveraged the live and decentralized nature of the web to keep the eyes of the world watching and holding aggressors accountable.
Local, co-creative journalism is important not only at the frontlines of war and violence. Arguably, local journalism everywhere has been co-creative and community-based since the first edition. Sam Ford, director of Cultural Intelligence at Simon and Schuster, looks back to his beginnings in community-based journalism, growing up in Ohio County, Kentucky:
There’s been a long-standing tradition of deep audience participation in creating the news. I got my start in journalism at twelve writing a society column that runs on the women’s-features page in these rural newspapers. Every rural community of 150, 200, 300, 400, 500 people had their own. McHenry News was the name of mine. There was the Rosine Happenings. There was the No Creek News. Every town had their own column. You had a curator … who gathered the information, but those columns were a communal space.
The same has often held true of African-American community newspapers and many ethnic or linguistically-specific publications.
Even today, Ford takes issue with the claim that a dearth of reliable journalism outside of major urban areas makes “news deserts” of large regions the U.S. “There are a lot of news organizations already at work at the hyper-local level in these places,” he said.
These include the Solutions Journalism Network, a network with a methodology that is often one of conventional reporting, yet its fundamental approach is based on the co-creative principle that answers are found within communities. The network trains journalists to cover how people on the ground are responding to problems, and collaborates with hundreds of news organizations to pursue solutions-oriented projects. Al Jazeera’s The Stream, alternately, is a broadcast and internet program that uses information extracted from hashtag activist movements, disseminates call-outs and augments unfolding news through social media, talk-show formats, interviews with experts, and includes news segments produced by citizens and activists.
Journalists are also finding ways of working with communities beyond the digital divide. Julia Kumari Drapkin, the founder of ISeeChange, makes efforts to co-create with the most vulnerable people affected by climate change, although this means crossing the lines of conventional journalism. She explained in our interview:
Reaching people who aren't necessarily online, how do you do that? Working with community partners. That is one of the first taboos we have broken for traditional journalism. […] Partnering with the community suddenly lands you in a place where you’re an advocate … People look at us and they say ‘oh, they’re advocates,’ and we’re like, “Actually, we’re just 21 st -century journalism, and this is 21 st -century science.
For a project on urban heat, ISeeChange partnered with community groups to place heat sensors in 30 public housing households in Harlem. The data generated, along with the stories told by community members, helped to create a much more reliable picture of the trapped urban heat that residents endure in the summer in Harlem. The city credits the project for changes in policies around cooling centers and public heat advisories.
“We need a different framework,” Martinez de la Serna said in our interview, then continued:
The commons give us a different way of understanding … journalistic relations. The commons are, fundamentally, based on co-creation. There's no commons if we are not equals, even if we have different roles. But we own this space. We co-own this space.
The commons is key to co-creative journalism, and can help relieve the tension between authorship and co-creation. Nothing is cut and dried, yet in the digital age, there is an increasingly evident direction and a redefinition of the journalistic commons, connecting it to other forms of commons and community-based methods, with governance as a key part.
by Sara Rafsky
The most wide-reaching, well-developed, and common form of collaborative journalism to date is collaboration between newsrooms. When The New York Times and ProPublica started collaborating on investigations and sharing bylines nearly a decade ago, it signaled a major cultural shift for the United States’ most prominent news outlets. Now these kinds of investigations are myriad and include some of the most celebrated reporting of recent years such as the famous “Panama Papers” and “Paradise Papers,” exposés of tax havens.
Recognizing its significance, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University has been compiling a comprehensive database of collaborative journalism projects from around the world. Their research has identified six distinct models of collaborative journalism that “span from hyperlocal to international collaborations and are based on how long organizations worked together, and how they integrated their work and workflows.”
This model of collaboration has included partnering between newsrooms seeking to cover broad, overarching issues, as with the Electionland project that covers voter-access and suppression issues, as well as examples of national news outlets seeking to amplify the work of local reporting, like ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. It has even bridged the divide between media forms, resulting in joint reporting efforts between print, radio, television and online outlets. Post Mortem, a year-long exploration of death investigations in America, for example, aired as a multipart radio series on NPR, an hour-long Frontline documentary on PBS, and as a detailed report on ProPublica.org.
As the practice has spread more widely, new infrastructure is being developed to facilitate the process. The open-source Project Facet, for example, helps newsrooms manage planning, organizing, storage, and communication needs across different platforms.
Legacy media institutions have also reached across lines in co-creative ways in the last decade to pool resources, reach wider audiences, and invent new strategic transmedia spaces. This cross-collaboration is evidenced in MIT Open Documentary Lab’s Report on Mapping the Intersection of Two Cultures: Interactive Documentary and Journalism. As Sarah Wolozin and William Uricchio wrote:
The current transition, for all of its disruptions, offers ways to make fuller use of journalistic archives, audiences as partners, and new and immersive story techniques. Embracing change is rarely easy, but the stakes for informed civic participation are too important for business-as-usual, and the potential rewards are too ripe to ignore.
Detailed case studies in the report outline a variety of collaborations between newspapers, digital publications, broadcast television, and film producers.
An early example came during Cynthia Lopez’s time as commissioner at PBS’s POV, where she led a partnership between public television, Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios, and ABC’s Ted Koppel for Two Towns of Jasper (2002). The film was made through two perspectives, one White and one Black, to document the 1998 lynching of James Byrd in East Texas. It resulted in a week of “Race in America” programming that reached an estimated 60 million people across the country, according to Lopez. “[We] brought together community groups, journalists, independent filmmakers, and educators to be part of the conversation.”
Since then, short-term, project-based co-creative experiments across legacy institutions have become not only feasible, but even routine. This year, for example, PBS, under the guidance of Opeyemi Olukemi, VP digital, is collaborating with Teen Vogue, Instagram and the National Film Board of Canada on experimental projects.
Collaborative journalism can also include partnerships between journalists and experts working in other fields. While the media have always sought out these groups as sources for their reporting, under this model, reporters and experts from other disciplines work together to define reporting priorities. These methodologies and research protocols are less developed, but much of this collaboration has happened at the academic level.
Between 2014 and 2016, for example, The Chicago Tribune worked with data scientists, pharmacologists, and cellular researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center to identify prescription drug combinations that can lead to potentially fatal heart conditions. The results were published in news stories by the Tribune and academic papers by the scientists. In an article about the process, Tribune reporter Sam Roe recommended that journalists seeking to experiment with similar efforts should choose partners with a “similar commitment to objectivity and truth,” set standards for successful outcomes and maintain open and ongoing dialogue with all participants.
At the Global Reporting Centre at the University of British Columbia, academic researchers have been brought into the newsroom as ad-hoc editors, helping journalists report more accurately on the researchers’ areas of expertise. Reveal, the website, podcast and social-media platform for the Center for Investigative Reporting, organized a Mind to Mind symposium with Stanford University to bring journalists and academics together to discuss new ways to partner and “fill the gap or to look at under-researched areas.” Columbia University held a workshop in which journalism students and Environmental Science graduate students examined the current landscape of reporting on climate change and worked together on pitches for stories.
Outside of academia, there is growing collaboration between media outlets and the tech sector. In addition to instructing and informing journalists about these areas, people in tech and computer science have worked with journalists to create tools to facilitate the reporting process, often in the form of hackathons for professionals or specially designed student courses. (For more, see Part 3, on transdisciplinary co-creation.)
Finally, there is collaboration between journalists and the communities they cover, sometimes known as “engagement journalism.” This is perhaps the most complex and thorniest area of collaboration, as it must contend with obstacles ranging from matters of editorial ownership and control to deeply held conventions and ethical principles about “objectivity” and the necessary separation between journalists, their sources, and their audiences.
Nevertheless, examples of participatory reporting at the national and international level include several high-profile projects from The Guardian. For The Counted, for example, Guardian journalists combined their own reporting with verified crowdsourced information about people killed in the U.S. by the police in order to create a more comprehensive database.
Further along the “continuum of engagement” identified by DeVigal are media outlets that seek to integrate the expertise and priorities of the communities they serve more directly into story generating and reporting, putting reporters and their subjects on a more equal footing.
Projects like the Sandy Storyline, 18 Days in Egypt, and 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film have explored the form of crowdsourced documentaries. In addition to creating an interactive web documentary about a rural community in West Virginia, the creators of Hollow helped set up a community newspaper/blog with residents. The Seattle Times Education Lab has held community brainstorming sessions with parents, students, teachers and education advocates and experimented with new ways to feature community voices, including live chats, reader questionnaires and regular guest columns. And Chicago-based public radio station WBEZ created Curious City, a crowdsourced news platform where listeners suggested and voted on ideas story ideas and sometimes contributed to the reporting itself. Curious City was part of Localore, a co-creative initiative run by AIR across a cohort of public stations to spark community-first, cross-platform storytelling.6
As with collaborations across newsrooms, new infrastructure is emerging to facilitate community engagement journalism. Hearken builds on the success of Curious City and offers a customized platform and editorial framework that enables journalists to better partner with the public for each step of the reporting process. The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Secure Drop project provides a means for whistleblowers to leak documents to the press anonymously, and to increase accountability while reducing fear of reprisals. And in October 2017, DeVigal and his team at the Agora Journalism Project at the University of Oregon launched Gather, a platform that brings together those working in the field and shares resources, case studies, and best practices.
Co-creative community-based practices center on the people most affected, whether they are users of a tool, the readers of a non-linear, interactive online story, the participants in a story-world, or people living on the front lines of complex problems. Practical approaches vary substantially, from those of non-hierarchical art collectives to more interventionist strategies to co-design change. New projects combining community-based practices with emerging technologies confront the legacy dilemmas of representation along with new challenges of accessibility, literacy, and distribution. In journalism, notions of community and co-design have been both forced and enabled by the profound and sweeping implications of digital platforms, but nuanced, with an eye to maintaining reliability and credibility. All of these types of journalism are built on the concept of the commons, and ask how we can share and govern the planet in the 21st century. Community-based values and practices live at the core of co-creation, and are intertwined with the types of co-creation that we examine next.