Take the work seriously, not yourself, and other lessons from Pulitzer-winning collaborations

April 20, 2016

A lot went down in South Florida during the first week of Michael LaForgia’s career as a journalist.

Rep. Mark Foley’s congressional page scandal hit the news at the same time as two Catholic priests were accused of stealing more than $8 million from their Florida church.

“When crazy stuff like that starts breaking, everyone just collaborates,” said LaForgia, who was then on the night cops beat at the Palm Beach Post.

Working with other journalists has been part of his career from the start. He’s now won two Pulitzer Prizes in the last three years as an investigative reporter at the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times. With both, LaForgia was awarded for work with other journalists. And since that first crazy week 10 years ago, he’s learned a few ways to make collaborations work.

Here are four of them:

Know what you can do well (and what you can’t do well, at least right now)

LaForgia’s investigative work at the Post was mostly solo ​to start, probably because he was young and the veteran investigative reporters didn’t have much interest in the smaller projects he was working on. Once he had some success and built up trust with editors, he started keeping an eye on stories from other parts of the paper that might lend themselves to an investigation.

Then, he approached the reporters who wrote them.

“It’s a matter of getting comfortable with yourself, basically, as a reporter, and knowing what you can bring to the table,” he said.

Yes, you probably could understand everything about another reporter’s beat if you took the time to build up that knowledge. But when you work with that reporter, you get the instant download of their earned expertise.

LaForgia started working at the Times in 2012, and he won his first Pulitzer along with Will Hobson for work started that year.

“I wouldn’t have been able to just walk into a new job and approach a story as complex without drawing on someone’s expertise,” he said.

And he needed that expertise both with the story and with navigating the newsroom.

Communicate with the editors involved

There are clear advantages to working with another person (or a team) on investigations. You can cover more ground, both physically and with paper. You can keep each other going.

But not every newsroom has an investigative team. When you want to work with someone from another part of the newsroom, you have to communicate well with their editors.

It’s asking a lot to get high-producing reporters removed from daily work to have time for bigger stories, LaForgia said. You have to make the case and have some credit of trust in the newsroom

“It isn’t like we’re wearing down the hesitation you get from the daily editor,” he said, “but it is like we are convincing them that it’s gonna be OK if this reporter goes dark for awhile.”

Take advantage of people’s strengths, but give them room to grow

For “Failure Factories,” LaForgia worked with two education reporters. Early in the process of reporting, the Times’ Lisa Gartner showed her strength in getting into a community, finding families and getting them talking.

It needs to be clear that you appreciate your collaborator’s subject-matter expertise and skills, LaForgia said, but you also can’t limit them to just those things. Collaborations can be an opportunity to build new skills that people involved will get to use long after the project’s over.

Take the work seriously, not yourself

Cara Fitzpatrick is the third member of this year’s winning team from the Times and an education beat reporter. She’s also married to LaForgia.

He thinks this may be the first time they’ve shared a byline.

“Working with your spouse is just the same as anyone else, it’s just magnified,” he said.

With any collaborative relationship, you can’t assume the other person has the same background as you. You have to communicate. And you can’t take stuff personally.

“The thing you need to understand about collaborating is everyone gets pissed off at some given point, and the more people you have collaborating, the more people you have to get pissed off.”

LaForgia likes something John Ullmann, an author and investigative reporter, wrote about investigative projects. To paraphrase: Most investigative projects fail because the reporters take themselves too seriously and the project not seriously enough.