Collaborative reporting

I read Highs and Lows of “Post Mortem” Collaboration Between Frontline, ProPublica, NPR, by Carrie Lozano over on Mediashift with interest, not least because collaboration has been a specialty of mine for many years now. Ever since I first started working with social media over seven years ago I have focused on collaboration, so a project that marries collaboration and journalism is of course going to pique my interest.

This piece, first in a series by Lozano, sets the scene, but doesn’t go into any detail about how journalists from Frontline, ProPublica and NPR actually got down to the day-to-day nitty gritty. That’s what I’m really interested in, because the collaboration tools available today make working together really easy, if – and only if – people are willing to learn and adjust the way that they communicate.

There are basically two types of collaboration.

Asynchronous collaboration:

  • The actions of the collaborators are spread out over time 
  • Materials are gathered or created and made available to the other team members who access them whenever they wish to
  • Collaborators can be spread out over different time zones
  • Conversations can occur slowly as there can be a delay before each participant is able to reply
  • Tools include: wikis, blogs, microconversation tools (i.e. Twitter-like tools), Google Documents, file sharing services like Dropbox

Synchronous (or nearly synchronous) collaboration:

  • The actions of the collaborators are taken in concert
  • Materials are created together, in real time, either by simultaneous editing or by taking turns in a timely fashion
  • Collaborators are usually in overlapping timezones, even if they are not physically in the same location 
  • Conversations happen smoothly as collaborators can response almost instantly
  • Tools include: instant messenger, chat, Google Documents, microconversation tools


The trick is in knowing what kind of collaboration you need and how to swap seamlessly between modes as required. A lot of people who don’t understand collaboration wind up using email as their primary tool, despite email being very badly suited for the work. If you’re going to collaborate with other reporters, you must set up your collaboration systems and ensure that everyone is familiar about what to use, when and how, before your project truly kicks off.

Lozano says:

there’s a learning curve to working this way as basic issues pose challenges, from how to communicate to how to share information to how to simultaneously report for different platforms. Trying to understand how it all works can be confusing, even with a front-row view, so imagine what it’s like when you’re truly in it.

Indeed. You can’t change your workflow in the middle of a big project: trying to do so will cause problems because people are focused on their work, not on their methodology. So you have to sort out ahead of time how people are going to share their research, their notes, their files, their ideas, their rough drafters and their final copy. And you need to make sure people actually use those tools, rather than clinging to familiar ways of working.

“Chaos is the ultimate form of investigative reporting,” Stephen Engelberg, managing editor of ProPublica, told me in the midst of “Post Mortem.” “You have to acknowledge that inefficiency is part of the process.” He was explaining the vicissitudes of an investigative piece, where a story can take unexpected turns all the way down to the wire. Joint reporting is not so different.

Collaboration can cause issues if people are unclear on the tools and how to use them, but social collaboration tools can and do create new efficiencies, despite projects going in unexpected directions. If everyone, for example, shares their research and keeps an eye on what others are finding, then that can save a lot of duplicated effort. Understanding what everyone else in your team is doing and how to reduce duplication is a key part of collaboration. It’s not just about doing your own thing and letting others follow on behind, but about considering how your work fits in with other people’s, and how you can all save each other a bit of time.

You also have to teach people how to work inside the collaboration tools, so that the act of writing/researching/planning becomes a de facto act of collaboration, rather than making collaboration an add-on that people do after they’ve finished their final draft. I have worked on a number of ‘open’ projects, where clients can see my notes, research and drafts in all their states of disrepair, and it’s a very different way of working. Emotionally, it’s quite hard because if you’re used to handing over only your final draft, you can feel quite vulnerable when someone can see your messy first draft, but it’s well worth it as early feedback is easier to incorporate.

At the most basic level, think about the logistics. With “Post Mortem” it was often a struggle to get everyone in the same room. At times, there would be 15 busy, bicoastal people on a conference call. It was always a juggle keeping everyone in the loop, but with that many people, I’m certain there were some who wouldn’t have minded being excluded.

Meetings and conference calls are essential to any collaborative project, but they should be reserved for discussion and decision making, and should not be used for updates. Keeping people in the loop should be done online, via wikis, blogs, and other such tools, all of which can be kept confidential. (Remember: your work blog does not have to be public!)

I have had many clients who have found that using a wiki to give people updates, set the agenda, and disseminate notes from calls and meetings cut the length of those calls and meetings by at least half. And let’s face it, there’s nothing more tedious than sitting on a call waiting for your turn to bore everyone to death with what you’ve achieved that week! But you do have to think about these processes ahead of time and ensure everyone is in the habit of adding their update and reading everyone else’s before the call. Once people realise that doing so cuts down the tedium, however, most are happy with the new process.

I shall be interested to learn more about this journalist collaboration, the tools they used and how they managed the processes of sharing information. But there’s one thing that all journalistic organisations can and must learn right now:

People outside of your organisation and industry already know a lot about collaboration: asking their advice will save you some pain.

I often worry that the industry is so convinced it is special that it needlessly eschews external expertise, instead preferring to reinvent the wheel over and over and over again. You can see this in the continual re-examination of the use of blogs in journalism, despite the fact that we’ve been having that discussion for the best part of the last decade and have pretty much got it figured out. To paraphrase William Gibson, the future is here, it’s just being ignored by half the industry.

Indeed, if there’s one key lesson for journalists to learn about collaboration, it’s to ask the experts who’ve been working in this field for years. Having worked on collaboration projects in many diverse sectors, from investment banking to pharmaceuticals to PR to built environment to science to media, I can promise you that journalists are no different to anyone else. Humans are reassuringly similar no matter what they do, so the lessons learnt about collaboration in pharma are just as applicable to journalism as anything else.

I hope that the exploration of collaborative journalism between Frontline, ProPublica and NPR will throw up some interesting and previously unknown lessons. But I fear that many of their problems will have been be ones they could have avoided with the right preparation. However, we shall have to wait and see!