April 12, 2017

Journalists, as competitive and scoop-seeking as we are, have started doing something uncharacteristic. More and more, we’re working together.

Those partnerships have resulted in big impact and big rewards, including a few Pulitzer Prizes. That happened again in 2017. And this year, one of those collaborations included a local newsroom.

Mike Hudson, senior editor at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, is quick to point out that there are a lot of newsrooms around the world not listed on the Explanatory Reporting win for Public Service that share in the prize. But the Miami Herald is listed alongside ICIJ, which organized and coordinated the newsrooms that worked on the project.

Working as part of the Panama Papers team pushed at the instincts of investigative reporter Nicholas Nehamas and investigations editor Casey Frank. Now, embracing collaboration instead of fearing it is a big lesson for both.

“It’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” Frank said. “I’ve been around newsrooms a long time, and I think there was always a prejudice against collaborating. If we weren’t past that before, we are past that now.”

Nehamas agreed. In the case of the Panama Papers, collaborating was crucial to the work.

The advantages of partnerships aren’t just pooled resources and different perspectives. Publishing together, at the same time, allowed the Panama Papers to make a big splash around the world.

“When you come out simultaneously, you actually grow every audience by creating a sense that this is something worth paying attention to,” Hudson said.

So how can local newsrooms be part of big projects like this? Here are a few lessons from ICIJ and the Herald on how to make partnerships it work.

1. You have to have something to get things started.

It doesn’t have to be a giant leak of records, as with the Panama Papers. But that does help, Hudson said. You do, however, need to have a good idea or some sort of data set that partners will see as valuable.

2. Pick your partners carefully.

Local newsrooms don’t have to start collaborating with big projects. Start small and develop relationships with other newsrooms and journalists. Strong relationships matter not just between institutions, Hudson said, but between people.

What strengths do different partners bring? Will one try to big foot the rest? You can figure that out, Hudson said, by doing a bit of reporting on the people and the newsroom.

“You know if someone is an asshole or if someone is hard to work with,” he said. If you don’t? “You can ask around.”

3. You have to stop being competitive. At least with your collaborators.

“To start with, you have to lose all your hangups about sharing what seems like a really good scoop with a competitor,” Nehamas said. “In the beginning, that was the hardest part.”

One rule of the Panama Papers was that partners couldn’t keep scoops to themselves. But sharing what he found meant that Nehamas was able to get a fuller understanding thanks to what his fellow journalists knew.

“You have to completely commit yourself to the collaboration,” he said.

For the Herald, that didn’t just mean with McClatchy and foreign partners. Fusion and Univision also were part of the Panama Papers team. At first, meeting with competitors in the same town felt like giving things away. Nehamas figures it felt like that to them, too.

But it turned out to be a good partnership, and Nehamas realized Fusion knew things he didn’t. Working together made the work itself better.

“There’s no better motivation than that.”

4. Establish ground rules.

When will you publish? Who will you tell, or not tell, about the project? How will you tell them? What can you tell them?

ICIJ had rules about what partners could say about what they were working on, which helped the keep the scope of the Panama Papers quiet until everyone was ready.

“Every organization played by the rules,” Nehamas said. “We kind of shocked the world when we dropped all those stories on one day at one time.”

5. Be OK with loss of some control.

The Herald could have used a bit more time on their reporting for the Panama Papers, Frank said, but it dropped when it did because they weren’t in charge. It was also tough to coordinate across timezones. You have to be flexible.

6. Share other resources, too.

When you’re working on a project with another newsroom, plan how you’ll share it on social media, too, Nehamas said. Agree on a hashtag and language. Can one partner create graphics, and another a video, to share the work in stead of duplicating it?

7. Don’t let the project be the end of the collaboration.

The Panama Papers came out more than a year ago, but the Herald hasn’t stopped reporting.

“We’re constantly finding new tidbits of information and confirming tips and finding fascinating new stories in that data base,” Frank said, “and some of our very best work was not part of the original planning, it was stuff that came along later.”

View the partnership as a starting point, not an end one, he said. Keep talking to your collaborators, and keep working with them.

“This is a completely globalized world now,” Nehamas said, “and reporters in different countries speaking different languages in different newsrooms are going to have to work together to tell the story of how money crosses borders like they don’t exist.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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