Secrets of news togethering

Some journalists still think dog-eat-dog is the way to get ahead. But collaborators have the competitive edge.

Geraldine Cremin
Dec 15, 2017 · 5 min read
Graffiti art in Caxinas, Portugal, pays homage to the sea. It reads “Sea, Memory, Identity”. Photo: Catia Bruno.

In March this year, we brought together a group of journalists from across Europe to put collaboration into action. The Agora Project — run by Hostwriter along with a team of young change makers in Armenia and funded by Advocate Europe — invited ten journalists from Croatia, Spain, Greece, Germany, Serbia, Italy, Wales, Austria and Portugal to team up in a temporary newsroom to collaborate on the biggest challenges facing Europe. Over six months, the participants met in Armenia and Sweden and supported each other in a virtual newsroom, offering each other local insights, feedback and editorial tips.

The final articles were published in the journalists’ home countries and in an English language online dossier. Each of our participants praised the collaboration for allowing them to go wider and deeper with their story, and particularly for allowing them to realise cross-border angles. The Agora Project is testament to the value of collaboration. And in case you missed the Panama Papers, let us tell you some other reasons we think collaboration is the way forward.

1. Collaboration and competition can go hand in hand

Collaboration does not mean handing over your rolodex and singing kumbayah. It means working with colleagues and making bigger and better stories. The Panama Papers is a perfect example of a story so big and so powerful that it could only be realised through collaboration.

In 2015, when German journalist Bastian Obermayer was approached by an anonymous source, he quickly realised that he and his paper wouldn‘t be able to handle what would later be called the biggest leak in the history of journalism. Obermayer contacted the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a US-based non-profit group specialising in cross-border investigative journalism. The ICIJ organised teams of journalists from news outlets across the world. The result: more than 4,000 original stories published across the globe that took down presidents and business executives, and won ICIJ the Pulitzer Prize.

We spoke to Obermayer about on cross-border collaboration and he told us, “When we did the Panama Papers we counted the stories that only play (out) in one country and we didn’t find a single one. We need to collaborate in order to do really good journalism.”

2. You’re probably already doing it

Most writers have already collaborated with a photographer and appreciated how liberating it is to work side-by-side — you’re free to focus on interviewing, observing and reporting rather than fumbling with the lens cap.

Collaboration is a broad spectrum. At one end, colleagues can give one-off advice or informal support through newsrooms or industry communities. At the other end, colleagues work closely on the same project, sharing sources, material and ultimately the byline. In the middle there’s shared research that drives completely different stories, or working next to someone who reports through a different medium.

3. You don’t have to be a jack of all trades

A big story may take you off your beat. Then what do you do? You can either skim read a few Wikipedia articles or reach out to a colleague who specialises in the field you find yourself in. The second option will undoubtedly lead to deeper and more insightful reporting.

Or what if you find a story or interview a subject that would be ten times better on film? You could team up with a local videojournalist, work together and pitch the story as a mixed media piece or as two separate stories. Through collaboration you can focus on your expertise and still tell the story the way it deserves to be told, not just the way you can tell it.

4. Be everywhere at once

The news industry is rightly criticised for location bias. Regional outlets have become sparse, meaning there’s more parachute reporting. But major outlets’ budgets have also shrunk, meaning fewer reporting trips to regional and international locations. Collaboration is the solution.

One Agora Project participant, Daniela Sala said, “I think cross-border projects should be the future of journalism, rather than ‘parachute journalism’. Having the chance to work with a colleague who has an invaluable knowledge of the country where he or she is based is key.”

Since it launched in 2014, Hostwriter is now a global community that is more than 3,000 members strong. Hostwriter helps connect journalists with colleagues around the world. The not-for-profit network aims to foster international collaboration by providing a platform for journalists to connect and share advice, bylines or even offer a couch to crash on.

Of course there are some risks and caveats that come with collaborative reporting. Last year Indian journalist Priyanka Borpujari asked ‘Who fixes, who reports?’ on the International Federation of Journalists’ blog, and analysed why she and other local journalists who contribute so much to foreign correspondents’ reportage are kept off the byline.

There are also dangers around story direction and choice of outlet. In our experience, the choppy waters of collaboration can be navigated with clear communication and a willingness to be discuss whether you want watertight or arms-length relationships. For example, if there’s a disagreement about where to follow the story, why not share research, then split?

As with any relationship, it’s good to set expectations from the start — that includes deadlines, input, place of publication, pay and recognition.

The art of collaboration is crucial to making bigger and better stories. And we hope that, as well as giving journalists a competitive edge, it might make them more inclined to help their colleagues in other ways in an industry that is notoriously dog-eat-dog.

Geraldine Cremin and Felix Franz are Hostwriters and the editors-in-chief of the Agora Project. Cremin is an Australian freelance journalist; Franz is based in Berlin.

Agora Project members.

Agora participants share their thoughts

“I think cross-border projects should be the future of journalism, rather than ‘parachute journalism’. Having the chance to work with a colleague who has an invaluable knowledge of the country where he or she is based is key.”
— Daniela Sala

“This type of cooperation helped me not only to explore my topic, but also my own possibilities. A journalist can always reach for Google, but only cooperation with colleagues from abroad allows you to fully understand the context of another country, another society. The Agora project is my most important journalistic experience so far.” — Stefan Janjić

“Stories, like our world, are become more global. Journalism must benefit from cross-border collaboration. Whether it is just about comparing specific situations in two countries or researching global stories with branches in several countries, cross-border collaboration has the potential to produce valuable stories for the informed reader.” — Albert Guasch

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