OCCRP Editor-in-Chief Miranda Patrucic (right) addresses the audience during a panel on collaborative reporting at GIJC23. Image: Edvin Lundqvist for GIJN
Collaboration has emerged as the killer app for investigative journalism in the past decade.
But experts say these joint projects need to be more efficient, more diverse, more secure, and more numerous to thrive in the next decade — with less task duplication and “less ego.”
The original case for collaboration was that joint projects, and even the “radical sharing” of sources and sensitive leaks, would force multiply skills between under-resourced newsrooms, and also respond to the increasingly digital and global trails left by bad actors.
As this trend has spread, jointly published and broadcast stories have not only had major impact — exposing everything from Pegasus spyware to cross-border money laundering to state capture — they’ve also revealed a cascade of other benefits perfectly timed to answer modern threats.
For example, transnational cooperation can provide security “cover” for journalists in authoritarian countries who don’t dare publish their actual bylines, but who can safely “report on the reporting” to which they secretly contributed. In addition, news collaborations can grow audiences by cross-amplifying partner stories. Their sheer size can also dissuade both nuisance SLAPP legal suits and physical attacks on individual reporters. Perhaps most important: they help restore audience trust in an era of declining faith in media, because it’s hard to argue that several outlets have the same hidden agenda.
So how should this precious new investigative model evolve for the future?
This was the subject of a discussion on “Cross Border Reporting: The Next Steps” at the 13th Global Investigative Journalism Conference (#GIJC23) in Gothenburg, Sweden, where an all-star panel of editors who have led iconic collaborative projects discussed ideas for how these partnerships can survive and thrive in the coming decade.
The session featured Miranda Patrucic, editor-in-chief of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Frederik Obermaier, co-founder of Paper Trail Media, Laurent Richard, founder and executive director of Forbidden Stories, Wahyu Dhyatmika, CEO of Indonesia’s Info Media Digital, the digital arm of Tempo Media Group, and Emilia Díaz-Struck, executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, who was formerly the research editor and Latin American coordinator at the International Consortium of investigative Journalists (ICIJ.)
The panel acknowledged that the subjects that warrant collaborations still need to be carefully identified. As Richard noted: “Not every investigation needs a consortium. They are extremely important for certain issues, but they can also slow down your own processes, and it might be more difficult to keep your source very secure.”
However, the consensus was that a greater volume and a greater diversity of collaborations — including those involving non-media partners — was needed.
But collaborations require special skills. What security measures are needed to share sensitive source material across borders? What do you do when one country partner has privacy laws that would preclude the use of your hidden audio recording? How should a print editor react when a broadcast partner needs to extend a joint deadline for their production phase?
“We are, I think, still in the hundreds of investigative journalists around the world who are regularly doing collaborations — well, we need thousands who can do this work,” declared Díaz-Struck. “And that needs training for the new generation: training for editors, for reporters, so networks have a choice of who to approach in different countries, and we have the diversity we need.”
She added: “A lot is happening around the world as we collectively try to tackle multiple long-term projects with little time — newsrooms have to cover elections going on; they have coups; they have sudden big scandals — so we need thousands who have the skills to investigate collaboratively. No one asks ‘Why should I collaborate?’ anymore, the benefits are clear, and we are stronger together.”
And no one really worries that a collaborative partner — or even a rival member newsroom — might betray your source, or scoop the project, anymore either. Because, remarkably, GIJN has not recorded a single case of broken trust among scores of collaborations in the past decade. Journalists really are all on the same side nowadays.
Here are some collaboration strategies that the panel’s speakers recommended for the future.
Consider Inviting New Members Late in the Investigation
Many smaller newsrooms don’t have the staff resources to commit to a major, six-month-long project. And the large founding members of the project often don’t have the time to chase down leads and victims emerging from data leaks that point to remote countries or cities. In these cases, Patrucic said project editors shouldn’t shy away from reaching out to local outlets, even if it’s just asking if they can spare a reporter to pursue pre-identified leads.
And don’t worry about uneven story credits. “Not everybody has to be in a collaboration from the beginning,” she said. “Let’s actually share the stories we are working on, bring new editors and show them, ‘Hey, here is our draft; we want to publish in a month, and we’d like to see extra reporting in your location.’ What that does is spread the story, includes under-resourced newsrooms, and avoids duplication.”
Obermaier agreed, adding: “We have to think about sustainable models for small outlets. Let’s work with their beat reporter on our subject, like their environment reporter. They don’t have to know about collaborative skills.”
Identify the Local and Global Angles Early On
“Sometimes we see for the same dataset: ‘This is a fascinating story for one country, but not as interesting for my country, yet I am spending equal resources on this angle,’” explained Patrucic. “This is not efficient. There is a real need for us to have much bigger editorial conversations early in the project. ‘What is the big story for us — and for me?’ What chunk can each of us take?”
Richard added: “On large stories, we need to split the tasks: ‘Who is investigating the killing?; Who is taking the lead on this money laundering issue?; Who will tackle the corruption or political side?’”
Partner Up Fact-Checkers and Lawyers
“In many joint investigations, I see reporters working very closely, but the fact-checking teams are not communicating,” Obermaier said. “We need to get the fact-check teams on one loop as well, and avoid duplication — after all, they ask the same questions. The same with lawyers: we all know that lawyers are expensive. Well, let’s team them up!”
Stop Petty Obsessions Over Byline Credit
Obermaier and Richard said squabbles over credit for who-did-what in published investigations or who-was-cited in awards were both unkind and a disincentive for future collaborations.
“Too often, I hear an editor saying: ‘Do we really need the second or third name in the byline from this partner?’” said Obermaier. “We have to get rid of those discussions. We have to teach editors to stop focusing on this bullshit about withholding credit.” Richard went further still: “We need to avoid working with people with too much ego. If you’re not willing to share your work, if you’re not willing to be on stage with others to share your award, then don’t work with a collaborative project.”
While explaining that “there is no blacklist” in the collaborative world, Richard said editors initiating collaborations should feel free to ask established networks, such as ICIJ and OCCRP, about the teamwork reputations of editors who aspire to join projects.
Utilize Creative Commons Licenses to Build Networks — And Then Stick by Them
Dhyatmika said informal collaborative networks can punch above their collective weight on dedicated topics, as demonstrated by the 20-member Environmental Reporting Collective, whose partners include Rappler, The Wire, Mongabay, Malaysiakini, and Tempo. He said the outsized impact from this network’s environmental crimes investigations derived partly from its decision to allow any media to freely republish or adapt its stories under a Creative Commons license.
For instance, this group published major investigations into illegal fishing, sand mining, and pangolin trafficking. Managed by a core team of nine country editors, the Collective found that “journalists work together to fill in gaps in each others’ reporting, especially when tracing environmental crimes across borders.”
However, while investigations themselves are cohesive, Dhyatmika warned that there is a tendency for member newsrooms to drift away from collaborative structures, as trusted individual editors get new jobs, and local crises emerge. “How do we sustain these initiatives after, say, five years? How can they survive brand new relationships?” he asked. “We must recognize that we are not building these projects for one story; we need to be in these projects for the long run — and just having this mindset helps with each investigation. There needs to be a transition from trusted personal relationships to enduring newsroom relationships.”
Collaborations Also Can Be Launched to Address Crises
“When a friend of ours in Kyrgyzstan was arrested, we gathered a team the moment it happened to start investigating what was behind the arrest, and published the story in three weeks,” said Patrucic. “Together with the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and others, we produced a major investigation in a month. As an editor, I am breathless at the moment because, right now, we have four collaborations coming out in the span of six weeks. I look at my team and think: ‘How are we gonna do it?’”
She added: “This intensity is a reality, but short-term projects are possible if everyone focuses on efficiency and precise goals.”
Turn Expert Sources Into Story Partners
Major recent investigations have engaged experts from worlds like architecture, activism, and academic research not only as sources, but as core project partners. Díaz-Struck said non-newsroom partners like these will only grow in importance.
“There are different types of collaborations which we will, and must, move towards,” said Díaz-Struck. “We will have not only have collaborations involving newsrooms to tell stories, but we’ll also have collaborations to find answers to problems – for example, when dealing with millions of records, or with complex security issues. That is about, for instance, developing partnerships with academics, with computer scientists to find answers and understand AI. How do we use AI to actually help investigative reporting? That’s something that we have already started to explore. Those partnerships are going to be central and essential for us to continue thriving as an investigative journalism community.”
Actively Address the Threat of Project Burnout
With multiple partners in different time zones, the Signal app on a collaboration member’s phone can chime constantly through the night with questions for the group, according to Obermaier. “I love Signal, but I also hate Signal!” he joked. “It’s amazing security to celebrate, but it can be a pain if you don’t manage its demands – if you want to relax with your family and recover your body. Ask: ‘What am I doing to recover with this very stressful work?’ Is it sports? Is it travel? Is it going to parties?’ Let’s speak about burnout more in these projects.”
Díaz-Struck added that collaborations need open communication about stress and rest, as well as practical strategies for digital security, as online campaigns to discredit journalists can accelerate burnout.
Train More Editors in Project Management — and Push for Tougher Standards
“What we’re missing are those really skilled editors who can tell: ‘This is what we need; this is what will push the story; this evidence is not enough,’” Patrucic explained. “I think sometimes we editors are often not good at telling the full truth to reporters, or other editors. We’ll say ‘Oh wonderful work,’ when the story is crap.”
Patrucic issued a challenge to Díaz-Struck, who — at the time of the panel — was just 10 hours into her new role as GIJN executive director: “Emilia at GIJN is gonna take on the big task of training editors in project management.” Session moderator Margo Smit chimed in: “GIJN has guides on lots of really good tools and techniques. I see a GIJN guide coming up, called ‘Project Management’.” Díaz-Struck responded: “We do need better management and coordination, and… yes, GIJN will continue to help with the training!”