It’s about people, not only algorithms
How I changed the way I approached the challenge of fostering collaboration among investigative journalists
Many journalists arrive at Stanford with ideas for magical solutions for the complex problems that inspired them to be part of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships. That was me, ten months ago. I thought that a new social network was the best way to foster collaboration among investigative journalists. It would be a kind of Facebook or LinkedIn for reporters, a platform where you could type in the name of the person or company you’re investigating, and find potential partners around the world who are doing the same. Magically, this would make new cross-border initiatives flourish, and I was prepared to spend a year building that platform. So naive…
This is Stanford, and the prototype was ready in ten weeks. However, the prototype showed me that many journalists wouldn’t even spend time registering on such a platform. Basically, because they didn’t understand its benefits. They needed to be convinced about benefits of collaboration and how it can improve their work. The prototype showed me that algorithms can’t solve the behavioural problems journalists have, so I realized I needed to research deeper.
The prototype was created by a team made up of my JSK fellow, Xin Feng, and two computational scientists, Kristy Duong and Po Tsui. We were taking a class organized by the Stanford Journalism Program, the JSK Fellowships and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation (Stanford/ Columbia University), and this project itself taught me my first lesson about collaborative journalism.
I had to collaborate with team members with diverse backgrounds to make the prototype, using design-thinking and user-centered innovation. The greatest benefit to practicing what the Stanford d.school calls “radical collaboration,” or bringing together people from different backgrounds and disciplines to solve a problem, is that you are looking at the issue from multiple, diverse perspectives. This is particularly effective when addressing complex problems or trying to create new, breakthrough solutions. A multidisciplinary team can be beneficial in all the design-thinking phases. It’s especially valuable for everyone to be involved in the empathy and definition stages, to understand the user perspective fully and effectively frame the problem.
This experience showed me that I could make my exploration broader, and include many perspectives, and maybe try to become a kind of expert in this field. So, I looked at four scales of collaboration:
- Within teams, especially investigative teams.
- Within newsrooms, within different departments and within cross-functional teams.
- Among newsrooms of the same country.
- Across borders.
And I had four angles in my research: behavior, gender, geography and technology, using these four angles as parameters to map all the difficulties we journalists face in collaborating on the four scales.
I interviewed 47 journalists and scholars to reflect on the challenges journalists have in cooperating, and, instead of focusing on a technological solution, I identified multiple ways to foster the culture of collaboration in journalism. My challenge, therefore, was to change mindsets. People, not machines. The number of questions started growing, but, fortunately, with them, I had some conclusions.
We need to hold down our egos and learn from women how to collaborate
The first was that the main obstacle journalists have when collaborating is their egos. Some of us know how to manage them better than others. The problem with egocentric people is that they have difficulty seeing the world beyond themselves. It’s the same in journalism. To collaborate successfully, you need to hold down your ego. Your work is about your mission as a journalist, and not about bylines, awards or spotlights. The more you understand that your journalism is not about you, the more collaborative you can be as a journalist.
The gender perspective showed me that we, men, have to learn from women. They definitely collaborate better. Maybe because women manage their egos better, perhaps because their traditional roles required them to make everybody collaborate, they usually keep this collaborative attitude also in their workplaces. Male journalists should be inspired by their women colleagues’ behavior. Men, just pay attention and try to learn what they do differently from you when they are in groups.
The geographic angle inspired me to start creating a map of topics that each country could collaborate on. For example, there is a need for Chinese and American reporters to work together, to try to find corrupt Chinese officials who have escaped from China. On the other hand, Americans need Chinese journalists to cover American companies, like Apple, in China. This is an example of mutual dependence that can foster cooperation. Deep mutual understanding is crucial to match up the interests of potential partners. The flow of people and money in an increasingly globalized economy makes this matching of interests between potential partners much easier.
Finally, the technological perspective showed me which platforms are still missing, in order to collaborate better. HackPack.press and Hostwriter are good ways to connect freelancers with the industry. Heather Bryant’s Project Facet will help interaction among newsrooms. People interested in data journalism should pay attention to projects like The Den, from the Global Editors Network. However, I believe that there is still space for a platform to connect the investigative journalism community, as I imagined back when I arrived at Stanford. It’s something that will be possible in near future, after more and more journalists understand the importance of collaboration.
We should train journalists how to collaborate
This is a field that is still in its infancy. We really must spend time preaching the benefits of collaboration and inviting people to experience it. At Stanford, I designed the Collaborative Cross-border Journalism Workshop, a training that teaches any reporter from any part of the world to create their network of journalists to get more story leads, more skills and more impact. I organized the workshop twice, once at Stanford, in April, and also at Montclair University, in May, of two different lengths, one hour, and three hours. The longer version assembled five instructors, and was able to go deeper into most aspects of cross-border collaboration. But, even in the shorter workshop, it was possible to learn:
- How to find partners and match interests using existing methods.
- How to adopt a collaborative attitude at different scales of collaboration.
- How to deal with your editor during the project
- How to monetize cross-border collaborations.
- How to conduct safe communication with your partners.
Attendees said that the workshop helped them to understand that collaboration is useful and possible for different kinds of reporting and not only for investigating corruption in existing consortiums such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). After the New Jersey edition, two participants started cross-border collaborative stories, from ideas they brainstormed in the workshop.
My Stanford journey strengthened a belief that the collaborative perspective is critical to hold the powerful accountable. The flow of illegal money and wrondoing is increasingly becoming global, and we journalists need to innovate and go beyond our borders and common resources when it’s needed. Technology can play significant role in this sense, but innovation is fundamentally about people. We need to change our newsrooms culture, we need to reshape mindsets and have more reporters and editors experiencing the power of collaboration. Journalism needs that.
Because it is impossible to hold the powerful accountable alone.