“Collaboration” is a hot concept among journalism and issue-focused funders. Linking together like-minded outlets, the thinking goes, will allow smaller projects to pool resources with larger ones, and turn up the volume on key topics.
To test this proposition, The Media Consortium (TMC) has embarked on an ambitious series of experiments with Harvard University Professor Gary King. The initiative is supported by the Voqal Fund. Led by long-time educational and community broadcasting entrepreneur John Schwartz, Voqal supports nonprofits and individuals using technology and media to advance social equity.
A network of media organizations spanning print, web, radio, TV and digital, TMC members share a commitment to progressive journalism. They include such leading independent publishers and outlets as Mother Jones, The Nation, Ms., Link TV, AlterNet, The New Press, Democracy Now!and others.
Fiercely independent, members first needed to find a way to collaborate without compromising their own coverage or promising to speak in lockstep. For this project, they decided to coordinate the timing of coverage around issues that generate significant debate among conservative and progressive commentators—among them, immigration, fracking, Obamacare and reproductive health.
The Web as Lab
King directs Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and is a co-founder of Crimson Hexagon, a social media analysis and monitoring platform that tracks billions of online conversations in order to surface insights about consumer sentiments. He worked with TMC to hone in on Twitter as the space to track influence of member collaborations on national online conversations, and to set up processes for monitoring the full “Twitter firehose,” along with relevant FB and blog posts.
This method, King says, “surfaces the hallway conversations that have been going on for millennia,” and makes them available in unprecedented ways. Researchers have been studying questions of media influence “for 100 years” he says, “and no one has been able to do a project like this.”
Setting the stage for a rigorous experimental protocol meant proceeding in a series of careful phases. First, TMC and King worked to set a baseline, collating content and metrics from members and a comparable set of conservative outlets, and establishing the number of articles and twitter posts per day on the hot-button topics they’d selected.
In the next phase, they moved to observation, monitoring opinions on the key topics expressed in social media and outlets. They saw that high-profile news events generated discrete spikes of coverage and commentary in the different opinion spheres. For example, while the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade kicked up coverage and opinion on both sides of the debate, conservative outlets and social media commenters mentioned the 40 Days for Life protest extensively, while progressive outlets and social media remained relatively silent on it.
On to the Experiments…
Observing these dynamics provided enough context to allow this collaborative team to move on to the experimental phase, which King describes as “investigator-controlled intervention.”
TMC Executive Director Jo Ellen Green Kaiser worked with members to develop a collaborative site, Where is Your Plan B?, in conjunction with the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN). Developed with support from the Quixote Foundation, this hub features stories and tweets on the availability of Plan B One-Step in the wake of the FDA’s ruling that the emergency contraceptive could be offered over the counter. A related crowdsourcing campaign asked audience members to check if the drug was available at local pharmacies and report back. Nine outlets participated, running stories on their own site, and then sharing them to the joint site.
In order to gauge the impact of this coordinated reporting push, King’s team created a prediction about the amount of social media opinion surrounding reproductive health issues on an average day, and then measured the bounce that happened on the day the site launched and was promoted. They found a small but noticeable jump in Twitter conversation expressing positive opinions about reproductive rights. Intriguingly, negative opinions also went down. Kaiser speculates that dip might have been due to aggressive monitoring by TMC partner Media Matters for America of related misinformation spread by conservative bloggers.
While small, this experiment offers “an interesting clue,” says King. “If we did this ten times and it was positive most of those times, that would be compelling.”
To test the theory further, King and TMC are now working to create a series of quicker, more automated experiments over the next six months. By aggregating existing content on particular topics from TMC members and rolling out hub sites as often as weekly, they hope to surface replicable results.
Want to find out what happens? Check back here in our AIM section for further updates.