My first professional job out of college was surprisingly relevant to what I’ve been doing of late. I started as a program analyst at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General in the Office of Evaluation and Inspections. In federal government parlance, that would be the OEI in the OIG at DHHS.
Our mandate was to identify “fraud, waste and abuse” within the department’s programs. With unfettered access to vast data sets, we conducted national studies to evaluate various regulations and the ways they were being applied. We were data reporters without my knowing what a data reporter was. It was a lot like investigative journalism, but with bigger budgets and a dress code. It was also a lot like identifying best practices for collaborative investigative reporting.
“Best practices” is a highfalutin’ term we used in our proposal to the Knight Foundation just as our office, the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism (IRP), was about to launch into “Post Mortem,” a collaboration about death investigation in America with PBS Frontline, ProPublica and NPR. In retrospect, “blueprint” would have been a better term to use than “best practices,” since we all know that there’s rarely one draft of a blueprint.
When “Post Mortem” launched in the spring of 2010, the combination of partners — national public television, national public radio and a nonprofit digital publication — was a first, to the best of my knowledge, and we guessed we’d learn much from this ambitious undertaking. When I’ve described the project to other editors and reporters over the last year, some have voiced skepticism about how “Post Mortem” reflects other collaborations cropping up around the country. Of course Frontline, NPR and ProPublica can pull off a collaboration like “Post Mortem,” the skeptics have said, but how does that experience relate to media organizations collaborating at the state or local level?
The answer is that while investigative collaborations vary, a number of decisions and sticking points remain constant, regardless of the organizations involved.
We learned, for example, that collaboration impacts each phase of the reporting process — from planning and reporting to publication; sometimes the impact of collaboration is obvious, sometimes not. Our Knight Foundation funding provided for an embedded reporter (me) to cover the collaboration; this was an evaluator’s dream, giving us the ability to document the process as it unfolded. After all, if you’re a journalist in the midst of a collaboration, your goal is not to understand or refine the process of collaborating — it’s to report and publish or broadcast your story. (Though, based on my experience with “Post Mortem,” I’d recommend that those spearheading journalistic collaborations do take the time to document the process to some extent, because the unexpected always happens, and there are good lessons in the unexpected.)
Lessons in the Unexpected
In “Post Mortem” there were plenty of revelations. Everyone involved in the project had a basic understanding of television, radio and the web. But when you report for multiple platforms simultaneously, each medium’s differences rise to the surface. It was challenging, for example, to get the project’s television correspondent to ask questions of subjects that would evoke answers that translated well for both television and radio.
Other challenges were fairly straightforward, like figuring out how to describe the collaboration within the PBS Frontline documentary. NPR and ProPublica reporters weren’t on camera, so how could we introduce them in a visual medium? We also couldn’t anticipate the possibility that an event like the Arab Spring would bump an NPR “Post Mortem” story for good.
The best practices (PDF) that we at the IRP have drafted are drawn from our own lessons learned, as well as input from others in the field who’ve tackled collaborative work. Many of the document’s observations come straight from the mouths of the “Post Mortem” collaborators, whom I interviewed during and after the project. It’s all good stuff, but the ultimate value of these best practices will be if we view them as a collaborative, open-source document: a starting point for more formalized and smoother collaborating.
Here are a few of the lessons included in our best practices that I think are especially worthy of emphasis:
- Plan, plan, plan. You can read my recent post about planning on Collaboration Central. I’ll say it again. Plan.
- Take the time to understand your partner’s requirements: What do they need to produce the best possible stories for their media? Where might there be conflicting needs, and how can those conflicts be addressed?
- Understand your partners’ organizational culture and structure. This will help throughout the process and at least offer some insight into burning questions like: Why can’t they commit to a publication date? Can we get something in writing? And how much time do we need for the editorial process?
- Finally, whether you’re collaborating with other media outfits or working within your own newsroom, a focus on teamwork and leadership skills is imperative to fostering a culture that can sustain collaborative work; without it, people will burn out and collaboration will falter. Journalism professors Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown-Smith wrote in a recent Neiman Journalism Lab article: “Changing a culture is not a top-down or bottom-up proposition: It’s a dance between leaders and their organizations.” I couldn’t agree more. Let’s dance.
Take a look at the best practices (PDF) we wrote and share your tips, thoughts and ideas about working collectively.
Carrie Lozano is a Bay-Area based journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is currently the project director for “Collective Work” a Knight-funded project about collaborative, multiplatform investigative reporting at the Investigative Reporting Program, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also directing and producing a documentary film with Charlotte Lagarde about jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch. You can follow her at @carrielozano or reach her at clozano at berkeley.edu.
“Collective Work” is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Copyright 2012, The University of California at Berkeley.