by Stephen Stock, Investigative Reporter, NBC Bay Area (KNTV) San Jose, California
Whether we like it or not, collaboration between various media partners is fast becoming the way many big journalism projects get done. In fact, a vast majority of the Peabody, IRE, DuPont and other big award winners recently have been the result of collaborations between different media outlets. As ProPublica reporter Jeff Gerth told me at a recent symposium in Berkeley, “Collaborations are the new reality, whether we like it or not. Like most hybrids, they have costs and benefits.”
Over my career I’ve been a team member in more than a dozen different collaborations with newspapers, a public radio station, network programs like 60 Minutes, and centers for investigative reporting in California and Florida.
Some worked. Some didn’t.
I’m not going to lie, sometimes joining forces with newsrooms and cultures that are alien to you and your newsroom can be very difficult. Sometimes it is darn near impossible. There are costs. But there can also be huge benefits.
I think anyone who looks out at the journalism landscape sees fewer and fewer resources to devote to large, complicated, time-consuming projects. There is real value and, in fact, necessity to learn to collaborate.
Combined staff and resources can tackle complex issues. More minds can make for a richer and more diverse perspective on those issues. And one of the benefits of a collaborative project is the ability to “divide and conquer,” as my colleague Liz Wagner puts it. By allowing several reporters and newsrooms to take different tasks, larger projects get done faster and more thoroughly.
For example, when we tackled the Mortgage Mess in California, there were millions of records and dozens of sources to pre-interview and to chase down. Using our combined resources of computer database experts, reporters and videojournalists at NBC Bay Area and the Center for Investigative Reporting, we were able to piece together a narrative from a complicated and opaque subject over the course of 9 months. Without that collaboration the project might have taken three times as long or might not have been completed at all.
Successful collaborations play off the strengths of each media partner. One team might be really good at data collecting and analysis. Another team might know how to shoot amazing video and pictures. Another team might be strong at researching thousands or millions of documents and finding the nugget within while another partner might have sources that help tell a narrative that ties all that data together into a compelling story. “These projects can be enriching, learning about other news cultures, meeting new colleagues,” Gerth says.
The critical piece to any successful collaborative project is trust. You and your team must trust the “other guys.” If you don’t it won’t work.
Trust must be built not just between editors from different newsrooms, but also at the grass roots level. Reporters who will be working together must be willing to “let go” and allow someone else to do some of the heavy lifting. When WESH-TV teamed with The Orlando Sentinel in our 21-part series Building Homes Building Problems, we first set up meetings to meet and get to know the street reporters who would be doing most of the shoe leather work. I believe the trust I gained with Sentinel reporter Dan Tracy was critical to that successful collaboration. Had I not trusted Dan and had he not trusted me there was no way that series would have ever come together.
My advice for anyone contemplating this kind of collaboration is for the reporters involved to go have a lunch together, get to know one another, and learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Find common ground. Learn what drives each other. “Go have a beer or two together,” says Matt Drange, one of my collaborative partners from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
If, after those get-to-know-you sessions, there isn’t trust in each other than don’t try to collaborate.
Build on strengths
Acknowledge the differences in your two (or three or four) newsrooms and cultures from the beginning. Think about how to take advantage of those differences rather than see them as roadblocks to getting the job done.
For example, television must have video. That affects interviews, storytelling and even approaches to topics. Print often needs narratives that take way too long to develop in a television story but are absolutely necessary to a compelling newspaper or magazine or Web project. Internet tools can enhance TV, radio and print stories as long as the ideas are thought out ahead of time and the strength of medium is exploited.
To succeed projects should be discussed in depth from the beginning, with editors, middle managers, street level reporters and even attorneys. Discuss the vision for how the project will turn out. Discuss the strengths each media partner brings to the project and how those will best be utilized. Discuss approach and what each hopes to accomplish. Discuss how the end project will “look” on each media platform. Discuss timing. When will you publish? Who “goes first?” How will it be promoted? Even something as mundane as how you’ll enter awards (if the project is that good) might be something to discuss from the beginning. This might all change by the end but if those issues are part of the conversation from the beginning the chances of success rise considerably.
Case in point: NBC Bay Area’s collaboration with Lowell Bergman’s Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley exposing the real costs of Division I athletics and their impact on Cal Berkeley’s bottom line. Before we began our intensive reporting we met four different times with managers, editors, reporters, photographers and producers to outline our goals, our focus, what we envisioned the final project looking like and how we would accomplish our tasks. This input helped us narrowly focus in on the goals of the story while cutting through what could have been extraneous distractions.
Some other tips:
- Practice going into the “field” together on a smaller, less significant venture before you actually start working on the big project.
- Learn something about the “other guy’s” culture and newsroom that you don’t see in your own newsroom experience.
- Be open and transparent about deadlines and expectations from the beginning but also be willing to be flexible and compromise.
- Try to manage expectations across different newsrooms and at every level from reporters on up to managers.
In almost all of my collaborations, I try to go out and shoot my interviews with my partners tagging along. That means some of the interviews go much longer than they normally would in TV. That means sometimes cramming four or five people into a room (or more) and in front of an interview subject rather than just me and a photographer. Collaboration means sometimes being patient when one of my partners goes off on a line of questioning that might never see the light of day in a 4- or 5-minute long TV story. But the pay-off is huge.
Multi-media ventures can be time consuming. You have to coordinate different teams and different schedules. Sometimes one team is ready to move forward while the other team needs to plot their next move or review their approach or look over the data or the evidence again.
There are some who tell me they’ve done months or years of the heavy lifting and come to a media partner near the end. But I find those collaborations to be less useful. They don’t end up with as strong a story or end content. One partner inevitably feels the other is just piggybacking on their hard work and benefiting from the finished project without contributing meaningful work throughout.
Collaboration from the start will make your project that much better for your audience. You may be doing a story that would not be told without collaboration. You might be breaking down a complex and complicated issue that would never be examined without your teamwork with another media partner. And you might not get your story on another platform without this effort to join forces.
The collaborative mindset that takes hold when you’re all “on the same page” makes for a richer, more meaningful story. A story that will, by its very nature be more powerful and reach more people when it’s told on several different media platforms.
All to better serve our viewers and readers. Isn’t that the entire point of what we do?
Newsroom photo via Flickr user Cronkite School
As a member of NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit, Stephen Stock has collaborated with several different outlets including the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and KQED radio.
As a reporter at WESH-TV, the NBC affiliate in Orlando, he teamed with The Orlando Sentinel to investigate police shootings and to uncover construction industry fraud in a 21-part series called Building Homes Building Problems, a project that won a George Foster Peabody Award in 2003.
As an investigative reporter at CBS4 in Miami, he did collaborations with CBS’ 60 Minutes, The Miami Herald and Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR).