Common Language Project’s Sarah Stuteville on Collaboration

March 17, 2011 in Blog, Community, Interview

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville

An Interview with Common Language Project’s Sarah Stuteville by JA’s  Caitlin Giddings

Millions of dollars have been spent mapping out, dedicating conferences to, or just plain fretting about the future of journalism. Meanwhile, the Common Language Project has been quietly covering under-reported stories in the Northwest and abroad, publishing their work through The Seattle Times, regional news portal Next Door Media and other major outlets. The multimedia nonprofit seems to have hit on a functional model for the future.

Can journalism be saved through these kinds of collaborations?

Sarah Stuteville, head of Educational Programming at the Common Language Project, was happy to talk about the nonprofit’s entrepreneurial journalism class, in which students were able to publish multimedia pieces through collaborations with other news outlets. As in any relationship, she says transparency and communication of needs are the keys to strong collaboration.

“In the case of Next Door Media, they cover specific neighborhoods with a hyperlocal focus and a lot of on-the-spot regularly updated content,” Stuteville says. “They don’t have a system in place for doing multimedia and more in-depth features, but they really like the idea of being able to add that layer onto their website. We had a bunch of students who were looking for opportunities to publish in multimedia and also to earn their chops doing some hyperlocal reporting. So I guess that’s a good example of just aligning resources and needs in a way that really works for everyone and allows that relationship to grow successfully.”

The Common Language Project has also worked with the Seattle Times to fill gaps in the paper’s international reporting, producing work from the Middle East that keeps a Seattle audience in mind. As international coverage becomes more and more slim at many news outlets, these kinds of collaborations could become increasingly prevalent. Stuteville has some ideas about why the Northwest seems to be leading the charge in this area.

“I think a big piece of why that’s happening here, and why it’s been so successful, is the sense of constantly building community and this idea that we’re all in this together and we want to share resources and help each other as much as we can,” she says. “I think that really runs counter to a lot of what journalism culture has been in the past. It was far more proprietary, competitive and lone-wolf or secretive, but I think things have really opened up to challenge that culture, and I think old media and new media alike have really embraced that. There’s just this sense that the times have changed to resource sharing and collaboration instead of competition.”

Although it’s an exciting time to be at the epicenter of journalism change, Stuteville admits frustration with the conversation around the future of journalism. Despite its many successes, the Common Language Project is in its fifth year and continues to scrape by with funding.

“We’ve always been patching things together where we could, and we are approached often, like ‘What a great example of entrepreneurial journalism or new journalism or collaboration—Come speak at our big conference!” Stuteville says. “But yet somehow we’re never approached by people who have resources who are like ‘We’d like to help support this work so that it can grow.’ And I know a lot of other new journalists and entrepreneurial journalism outfits share that same frustration. Clearly there’s a sense that this work is important and there’s a lot of funding to talk about how this work is important, but not always funding to help make the work happen.”

So, while the rest of us might be asking, “How do we find the model that saves journalism? How can we make journalism sustainable in the old sense of our understanding of sustainable journalism?” the Common Language Project has been out there, spending their own money and doing fundraisers to keep the work coming. Perhaps the magic-bullet approach to revenue and sustainability is being misframed, Stuteville suggests. “I think there might be something to be said about re-envisioning what we think of as sustainable,” she says.

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