I'm spending the next couple of days at a symposium here at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, on the various collaborative Innocence/Wrongful Conviction Projects that combine the efforts of students, faculty, and staff at Law Schools and Journalism Schools. There are several around the country, and we're working on starting a similar collaborative effort here (the Law School here has one, and approached the School of Journalism about working together to expand their efforts).
Other than bragging, the purpose of this post is to talk about such projects as examples of what's called collaborative journalism - where reporters collaborate with other reporters or outside experts, who may be able to bring particular expertise and/or resources to the investigation of stories, and/or citizen journalism, where investigations and stories are produced by "non-professionals". There's a number of other good examples of collaborative journalism, although traditionally the collaboration was limited to a small group of reporters from different beats working together on a story, or a reporter relying on some outside expert to help understand what information an investigation revealed. Collaboration was primarily limited and short-term, and citizen journalism was largely discounted as being non-professional, and thus of no value.
Today, the rise of the Internet, with its ability to facilitate communication, and services that make true collaboration easier (for example, Wikis), is making it easier to develop larger and more permanent collaborative efforts. At the same time, academia has been increasingly emphasizing collaborative efforts, and recognizing that different fields can bring different expertise and skill sets to investigations. Particularly when the subject is inherently interdisciplinary, as is the case with the idea of looking into potentially wrongful convictions. The Web also has enabled citizen journalism, not only by facilitating access to sources and materials, but by providing a venue to report and share results.
Still, there's not been a high degree of collaborative journalism being done by "professional" journalists in traditional media - the few joint Law School/ Journalism School projects rely on students, overseen by faculty (some of whom are former professionals). Yet these "citizen journalists" have often out-reported the local professionals, and had a larger impact on communities and individual's lives. One would think that "professional journalism" - reporters and news organizations - would be better served to embrace collaborative and citizen journalism, if only that it's taking advantage of free labor, and to save themselves from the potential embarrassment of being scooped. The kind of projects we're hearing about today at this symposium would seem to be a very good place to start. These projects have an enviable track record and reputation, on issues of clear relevance and importance to the communities news organizations serve. As news organizations continue shrinking their own investigative units, support of, and collaboration with, these projects would be a good investment.