The peer learning grants from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University are disarming in their simplicity. They exist to do nothing more than help us humans get out of our day-to-day routines and connect with one another.
The Center says it offers the grants because “it believes strongly in collaboration and knowledge-sharing.” In my experience, as founder and editor of Food Bank News, a nonprofit publication, the peer learning grant handily achieved those goals.
In normal times, the Center offers grants of $500 to $1,000 to enable working journalists to travel to and visit with publications that they admire or would like to emulate in some way. In Covid times, the in-person visits became zoom calls, supported by $500 grants to help create the time, mental space and motivation for all parties to hop on yet another zoom.
Nicolas Rios, audience editor of Documented, surely would have spoken with me without the incentive of a grant. But I was happy to be able to offer him half of the grant money — $250 — to make an hour-long zoom call worth his while.
The idea of the grant forces you to really consider which publications out there are doing things you could learn from, and the grant money provides the extra nudge to put in the effort to make it all happen. Without those incentives, it’s safe to say the connection between our two publications likely would not have come to fruition.
Documented is devoted to covering immigrants of New York City and the policies that affect them, while Food Bank News exists to share best practices about how to solve hunger. There would not seem to be many through lines between our publications, but in fact I learned a lot from Nicholas.
It turns out there’s something at New York University called the Studio 20 Digital First Innovation Lab. I had never heard of it. The students there work in partnership with actual media companies to develop solutions for real-life problems.
In the case of Documented, Studio 20 has helped it execute a number of projects, including surveying its audience in advance of launching new services and creating evergreen content to drive more consistent engagement with its site.
As a result of working with Studio 20, Documented discovered its readers would rather have access to events versus exclusive content as a perk of membership. The Studio 20 partnership has also resulted in a project to create guides — i.e. the top 10 immigration lawyers of the year — which will reside permanently on the Documented site, helping to drive traffic.
Nicolas emphasized the value of working with university students or highly skilled volunteers to accomplish big projects that have the potential to change the trajectory of our news site. My mind is brimming with ideas I hope to be able to put into practice, and I have the peer learning grant to thank for helping me to discover new resources that I hope will enable those ideas to blossom.
Chris Costanzo is the founder and editor of Food Bank News.