Sharing to Survive

November 26, 2013

I know how hard it is to share. I’m a first child. I am hard-wired to want to be the first in everything: the best, the brightest, the most loved.

Not only that, but I was born and bred to be a journalist. I grew up outside of Washington, DC, the daughter of a journalist, and came to age on my college daily during Watergate. I know that to be a journalist means wanting to be first, wanting to be best, and wanting to utterly throttle your competition.

So I know it is not easy for news people in New Jersey to buy what I’m selling as director of the NJ News Commons. Because what I’m selling is a kumbaya message that might seem more suited for a Girl Scout campfire than for a newsroom. What I’m selling is the idea of sharing.

Mind you, I’m not pushing this out of some high-minded notion of goodness. I’m pushing it because the news business has been utterly disrupted by the internet. Newsrooms have been decimated. Veteran journalists find themselves being pushed out the door. With one million apps available in the iPhone store, news itself now competes against every form of entertainment from Netflix to Angry Birds.

In the words of my former business partner Liz George, it’s not about working harder. It’s time to work smarter.

And working smarter means that we can’t continue to send mobs of reporters to cover Alec Baldwin’s stalker trial while leaving the basic unit of our democracy — the town council meeting — uncovered.

That’s the reason why NJ News Commons, in conjunction with the San Francisco technology company, has created something we call the Story Exchange. allows news sites to embed each other’s stories free of charge, as easily as embedding a YouTube video.

As of today, we have 31 partners who contribute content. We’re not just asking them to do it out of the goodness of their hearts. They can send an ad with their stories. They get credit for the views on other people’s news sites. Most importantly, having their stories appear on other news sites is like placing an ad on somebody else’s front page. It’s a great way to pick up new audience.

For those who embed, there’s an equally compelling proposition. It’s free content.

And though we’re specializing in New Jersey content on our Story Exchange page, the platform is international, and searchable. If you absolutely had to have the story about Baldwin’s stalker trial, you could have it, as reported by AFP, and embed it right on your site. And leave your own reporter home to investigate city hall.

Now, one year since we started this experiment, we have some truly remarkable numbers to report. Some 13,086 distinct articles offered by our news partners in New Jersey have been embedded on 1,481 different domains, resulting in 1.8 million page views.

But that is not the only sharing going on.

In addition to content sharing, news organizations throughout New Jersey — especially the small and new ones — are sharing best practices. In September, we awarded seven microgrants to news startups in the state. These grantees are now meeting monthly to discuss their challenges, share their experiences and offer their advice.

Bill Bowman of Franklin Reporter & Advocate is trying something rare among hyperlocals: He’s planning to erect a paywall for his fledgling news site in December. If he is successful, we’ll have a case study to share with independent online news sites throughout the country.

Another grant winner, Muckgers, run by two Rutgers students and a recent Rutgers alumn, demonstrates daily how visually compelling a news site can be. They not only have agreed to run a training to spread these skills to other news sites, but they’re exploring creating something like the NJ News Commons in New Brunswick to unite news organizations there.

On election night, we tried another experiment in sharing: when students at Montclair State worked with NJ Spotlight to produce an interactive map of legislative races. Patch sites throughout New Jersey embedded the map.

And NJ Spotlight and NJPR have just launched their second experiment in sharing a news reporter. Since this summer, they’ve been sharing reporter Scott Gurian to cover Superstorm Sandy aftermath. Now, they’re sharing the services of Christie watcher Matt Katz.

Ants working together to form a bridge

We know that there are limits to sharing, and that news people will always be hard-wired to want to scoop their competition.

But it behooves us all to learn what evolutionary biologists are now discovering: that cooperation, as opposed to Darwinian ruthlessness, may turn out to be the likeliest path to survival.

Debbie Galant is director of the NJ News Commons, a project of the School of the Communication and Media at Montclair State University. It resides within the Center for Cooperative Media and is funded, in part, by contributions of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Photo of journalists collaborating provided by Mary Mann
Photo of ant bridge via Wikipedia