Q& A: How collaboration fosters impactful local and global connections

Editor’s note: Recently, the Center for Cooperative Media sat with Report for the World Global Director Preethi Nallu to discuss her first months at the helm of our global program, her roadmap for expansion and the role that collaboration plays in all of our initiatives. We reproduce the conversation here and you can find the original version here

Preethi Nallu is the global director at Report for the World, a GroundTruth Project initiative that matches local newsrooms with journalists to report on undercovered issues worldwide.

Nallu started as global director in July to help Report for the World massively expand their efforts. We caught up with Nallu to hear more about this unique local-global collaboration and how it works.

WF: How did you get into journalism? What led you to this point?

PN: There have been two dominant developments that shaped my life and my work.

First, I am a migrant, albeit a privileged one. I have been able to cross borders throughout my life — from Iran, where I was born, to India, my home country, to the US for my studies, and onward to 14 countries across the globe. I have been able to carve out my life and career in these diverse contexts. Without this freedom of movement, I would not be able to arrive at my current position.

I am acutely aware of the levels of access and opportunities I have experienced in my life and deeply cognizant of the social and political systems that inhibit a majority from experiencing the same. Those influences steered me first towards development focused research and soon after to journalism. I wanted to relay the diverse motivations, experiences, and outcomes of human movement across the globe.

As I worked on migration and displacement narratives, I met many journalists and freedom of press advocates that were fleeing persecution by their states. From the 88 generation journalists of Myanmar to independent media founders from Afghanistan, I witnessed how my peers became targets for simply trying to practice their professions. So, I gradually shifted to the field of media development to work directly with independent media and journalists in countries where press freedom is an evolving, and at times regressing feature of societies.

When I came across the global director post at Report for the World, I felt it was the perfect culmination of my journalism, documentary, advocacy, and media development experiences. And that feeling was reciprocated by my colleagues at the GroundTruth Project.

WF: What is the importance of collaboration in your work? How do you think about and practice collaborative journalism, and what does it mean to you?

PN: I believe that for journalism to become instrumental in the transformation of societies, the sector must transform its own approaches. We need to increase our connectivity and cooperation in presenting the larger picture. Amid shrinking newsroom budgets and collapsing revenue models, collaborative journalism is the only tenable way forward.

I have seen that when media of different sizes, geographies, audiences and specializations collaborate, they produce connected, solutions-oriented stories that resonate at local, regional and international levels. This is where local media efforts that help create global connections play a vital role.

Newsrooms across the globe are shuttering amid economic crisis and collapsing revenue models. Report for the World is a bold, scalable response from the team at GroundTruth that fosters local, service minded journalism that allows reporters to present the social, political, economic realities in their communities.

The program enables journalists and newsrooms to report with depth and reach about critical areas such as the environment, criminal justice, gender rights, education, corruption, social protection and more, while providing support through technical training and editorial expertise. Our ultimate goal is to help newsrooms achieve new standards of public interest journalism, while assessing the overall impact of hundreds of such partnerships in terms of the quality and diversity of reporting in the different beats.

As the program grows, we will connect corps members (as we call our reporters) and newsrooms working on similar topics across countries and help them reach larger audiences and new revenue streams. Our dream scenario is for these journalists and editors to organically collaborate through our editorial hub to deepen the local-global connections on the world’s most pressing issues.

WF: As global director, what are your plans for the Report for the World? What are you most excited about?

PN: My immediate task at hand at Report for the World is to help scale the program, doubling the number of corps members from 15 to 30 this year thanks to support from the MacArthur Foundation, Google News Initiative and Microsoft. We just announced partner newsrooms in Mexico, Peru, Hungary, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Nigeria and India, which will host our corps members, along with the critical beats that will be covered.

Report for the World will then advertise a call for corps members, based on the newsrooms’ specific requirements, so we may help them find the best possible local talent.

Continuing along these lines, we aim to double our corps again in 2023, while adding new countries and deepening the ecosystem of support and mentorship.

To achieve this ambitious mandate, I am working with a diverse team of journalists, editors, and program specialists that are part of The GroundTruth Project. I am in great company, with Charles Sennott, our founder and Editor-in-Chief,  Kevin Grant, co-founder and Chief Partnerships Officer, Wilson Liévano, Managing Editor, Lison Joseph, Senior Editor, and Letícia Duarte, Program Manager, who are part of the core team.

We also have a blueprint, thanks to the success of our sister program, Report for America, that has placed more than 300 corps members in at least 211 media outlets across all the states of the US. While the needs of Report for the World will be markedly different due to the diversity of the contexts in which we operate, I am relying on the wisdom of my colleagues to understand the opportunities, the constraints, and most importantly the human dimensions of such a mammoth program.

My specific role is to ensure that while we expand the size, geography, critical areas, and formats of reporting, we remain bespoke in meeting the needs of each of our newsrooms and corps members. Helping each journalist-newsroom pair achieve its objectives is what I am most excited about.

WF: What are some of the projects you’re most proud of in your career? Did these involve collaboration and how did they work?

PN: My proudest moments have been out in the field, when I have been able to steer journalists, advocates, and humanitarian workers in a direction that advances the welfare of their communities. When I see these protagonists achieve their goals — whether relaying lifesaving information, initiating new discourses or simply helping those in urgent need — it is a satisfying end to a workday.

I have worked in many such contexts over the past 15 years — women-led newsrooms in Myanmar and Afghanistan, environmental reporting in rural Colombia, community journalism in the Palestinian camps, Syrian newsrooms in exile, cross-border outlets along the US-Mexico border and migration focused publications in Europe.

The pandemic period put a magnifying lens to all of these issues. As I worked alongside local media during the peak of the COVID crisis, I saw a paradoxical situation emerge. At a time when border restrictions between the global north and south were at their most restrictive, we were drawn closer by similar quests for change, regardless of our political systems and economic outlooks. Despite the pandemic protocols easing in most countries, these intersecting interests have remained. In fact, they have grown. To be able to help capture this zeitgeist reverberating across the world has been a deeply rewarding experience.

Plugging into these local-global networks, helping amplify their voices and facilitating connections between them — it is the type of work I will continue via Report for the World.

WF: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career, and how have you worked through them?

PN: I would like to focus on the challenges facing journalism at large, as it inevitably affects my situation as a professional working in the sector.

Over the past decade, I have seen a bewildering regression in safety of journalists and media freedoms across the globe, and not just in conflict-strained Afghanistan and impunity riddled Mexico that are vying for the top seat as the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. In countries of the global north that birthed the modern press, propagandists are gaining ground, while police violence against journalists is rising.

To add to this, the pandemic period unleashed an economic crisis that unraveled entire economic systems across the globe. As a direct result, newsrooms running on advertising revenues are collapsing. While legacy media will survive the losses, independent media are hanging by a thin thread, especially in countries where subscriptions and audience driven revenue models are limited.

The same media that are facing existential crises are also performing essential and at times lifesaving work. This is especially true for conflict riddled countries, where access to information can be a matter of life or death for citizens.

WF: What have been the most important lessons you’ve learned in your work?

PN: Over the past years, as I worked with independent media in different countries in the global south and north, I have seen that without representation, journalism cannot be truly public interest in nature. By representation I mean the people who are working as journalists, the places that are reported about, and the themes that are covered. I have also realized that the very concept of representation is context specific. So, those of us working in media development ought to better acquaint ourselves with these diverse contexts — firstly in our own organizational set ups, and vis-à-vis the newsrooms and journalists that we are supporting. At Report for the World, we are heavily focused on representation and diversity as we initiate new partnerships across the globe.

I have been fortunate to work with media that have been raising the bar for representation and diversity. Amid multiple global crises, these independent newsrooms and journalists have been innovating solutions, transforming their agendas, and establishing new modes of operation. I have also had the privilege of witnessing their transformation from traditional office setups to nimble digital spaces that relay varied views and draw diverse audiences.

As these media confront their governments, freedom of expression is their greatest ally and independent media their most powerful tool. We must create stronger eco-systems that sustain their representation on the global agenda.

As an independent journalist, freedom of expression advocate and a media development worker, I am part of the calls for action — and the responses. It is therefore a significant shift in my own trajectory that I join Report for the World at this crucial point, when political strife and disparities in northern countries share the travails of those in the global south.