Collaborate, or your competitors will

Here are some pills to cure people who think collaboration in journalism ‘is nice’, but don’t realize its true power

Paradise Papers, the latest investigation of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), included a new partner that learned the importance of collaboration: The New York Times (Photo by ICIJ)

When I published an article about the lack of collaboration among journalists in Brazil two months ago, I received an intriguing WhatsApp message from a colleague.

“Collaboration seems nice, but I cannot see its benefits in the day-to-day work. I’d like to be convinced.”

That’s a fair comment. It is hard to understand concepts we aren’t familiar with. Journalists around the world have not embraced the culture of sharing enough. They admit that partnering is “nice,” but they don’t know how powerful it can be for improving the quality of journalism and reducing its costs. I learned from this message that, after diagnosing the disease, I would have to convince patients to accept the treatment. My research as a John S. Knight (JSK) Journalism Fellow at Stanford, though, has given me strong medicine.

Journalists are programmed to operate mainly in a competitive mode. But, for many reasons, collaboration is flourishing around the world. Journalists have been learning that, although competition is important, there are benefits in collaborating.

In the U.S., small and significant partnerships have been thriving, as examples collected by the Center for Cooperative Media have proven. The center, based in Montclair State University, created a database of collaborative projects, which lists global and local partnerships of the last ten years. The database ranges from the famous Panama Papers to the local CALMatters, a statewide nonprofit organization that produces articles distributed by Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and over 40 digital publications concerned about the future of California. The database has 154 records and counting.

Big media players have also been learning the importance of collaboration.

The New York Times, for example, has been collaborating in different ways. It has partnered for nearly a decade with ProPublica, arguably the best American nonprofit journalism organization. In 2016, the newspaper was not part of the Panama Papers collaboration, and later regretted it. Last November, The Times changed its attitude when the Paradise Papers were published. Michael Forsythe, one of the NYT journalists involved in the project, wrote about that change in a recent Sunday edition.

“Early on, just as the first documents were becoming searchable through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’s (ICIJ) sophisticated in-house system, it became apparent just how much we would have to relearn journalistic habits acquired over decades of reporting. We would have to learn how to share,” wrote Forsyth.

However, collaboration is no panacea. Again, collaboration is no panacea. You do not need to collaborate when you can do everything by yourself. It does not make sense to have partners in stories that you can report alone. You must compete when it makes sense. You should work hard to find scoops and try to go faster and deeper than your competitors.

But what about complex and global stories, that involve countries and sources you cannot reach? What about topics where you don’t have experts in your newsroom? And stories that require high costs you can’t afford? Is it possible to cover climate change, organized crime, immigration and other global topics effectively, just with your team? No, it’s not.

For me, one of the best pills for treating the non-collaborative disease is reading what Heather Bryant has been writing. Heather is the director of Project Facet, an open source web-based platform where newsrooms can manage the collaboration internally and with external partners. Heather was a 2017 JSK Fellow, and she enjoyed her time at Stanford, going deep into the possibilities and advantages of partnering. Since then, Heather has become a kind of collaboration guru, traveling around the United States to preach its benefits, and to train newsrooms to cooperate, focusing on their mission.

CALmatters, a collaboration to distribute news

So, what would Heather reply to my colleague, the one who messaged me saying he could not see the benefits of collaboration “in the day-to-day”?

The first step, says Heather, is not thinking short-term.

“Every newsroom has an incredible amount of work they have to do every day, and if you work one day at a time, you cannot change or improve your newsroom. You have to look beyond day-by-day. Otherwise, you cannot evolve, figure out new technologies, adopt new ways of doing business, plan long coverages. When you look at this big picture beyond one day at a time, and you see the demand on news coverage, you feel that what is required from journalism now cannot be accomplished by an individual newsroom.”

If you don’t focus on the trees, you’ll clearly see the forest of benefits that collaboration brings:

  • Your newsroom magically gets more people.
  • Among these people, you may have experts that you do not have on your staff.
  • You usually reach regions and sources that you cannot reach by yourself.
  • It slashes costs, since you share expenses.
  • More people working at the same time equals less time spent.
  • You improve the level of fact-checking, since more journalists will be part of the story.
  • Stories are more impactful.
  • Powerful people cannot ignore stories published by so many news organizations.
  • You can cover a variety of global topics that require a broader diversity of points of view.

Besides these virtues, there are also some misconceptions that need to be clarified:

  • The quality of your journalism is not at risk. There are rules in all partnerships, and your editorial principles must prevail.
  • You do not need to collaborate forever with the same partner.
  • It is not a monogamous relationship, and you can have many partners at the same time.
  • If you set the rules and responsibilities, the collaboration will not be troublesome.
  • Collaboration shouldn’t just happen with external partners; it starts in your newsroom.
  • You should also consider tech companies, nonprofits, community organizations, and academia as your potential partners. More diversity makes your journalism stronger.

But if you do not open your mind to the world beyond your desk, beyond yourself, do not worry. Ironically, your competitors will probably not miss the opportunity. They will collaborate, and then, you will see how it benefits them.

More: 10 tips for successful collaboration among journalists