Dean Baquet, managing editor of the New York Times, helped kick off the recent Logan Symposium with what’s become the event’s signature flair: You never know what’s going to fly out of someone’s mouth.
There were a few surprising moments in Baquet’s opening night Q&A with investigative reporter Lowell Bergman (my boss), but the topper for me and others in the audience was when Baquet candidly explained why the Times doesn’t collaborate much post-WikiLeaks. According to Baquet, the Times “needs it less” and “it’s a pain in the ass.”
“It” being collaboration. Media analyst Ken Doctor questions whether the Times will continue to need it less in the future.
But what struck me is that Baquet’s comment failed to recognize that collaboration isn’t always about whether or not we the media “need” it, but about what’s in the best interest of the story and the public in a networked world.
David Barstow’s recent New York Times piece about Walmart’s business practices in Mexico, for example, would’ve been a great collaboration. Since Walmart is the world’s largest company and the focus was corruption in Mexico, one can assume that there are a lot of stakeholders in that story who probably don’t read the New York Times. Wouldn’t a partnership have created even more waves?
But in fairness, Baquet has a point. Collaboration can be a pain in the ass, as can reporting; and working with your editor; and managing a staff; and trying to claw your way out of a failing business model. I think, if I may be so bold, that what he meant was: It’s an additional pain in the ass, one that requires more time, effort, communication and less control (not to mention shared glory).
FOCUS ON STANDARDS
For some, there’s a perception that less control can result in lower journalistic standards. That was made clear at a closed-door collaboration roundtable we held at Logan with nearly 30 investigative editors and reporters from a variety of media organizations, some collaborative, some not.
While we had planned to address a range of collaboration sticking points — vexing multi-platform issues in particular — and set the stage with an inspiring collaboration out of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, the conversation kept reverting to questions of reliability, quality and liability. Legitimate concerns were raised (several, incidentally, that we pointed out in our best practices):
- How do you maintain a shared set of facts and document the source material?
- How do you fact-check prior to publication across organizations and stories?
- How do you conduct a timely and efficient legal review?
- How do you vet the standards and practices of partner organizations?
- And the great unknown: What happens if there’s a lawsuit?
There were more questions than answers. And at times, the flavor of the conversation was full-bodied pessimism with hints of arrogance. For those who had attended Collab/Space, it was an unexpected contrast to the energy and enthusiasm we had experienced two days prior. Why?
All the collaborative events we hosted — Collab/Space, a breakout session at TechRaking, and the closed-door roundtable and collaboration roundup at the Logan Symposium — were reminders of how new this way of working is and how infrequently we have an opportunity to gather specifically to discuss it.
The roundtable included a lot of decision makers and people carrying the bag — the worriers and the lawyers. Collab/Space had some of those folks, too, but it was largely focused on people involved in day-to-day collaborative work — people who already drank the Kool-Aid. I found each event refreshing in its own way. If we’re going to improve the process, we need to listen to things we don’t want to hear and don’t agree with.
SHARING SPARKS LEARNING
All told, we spent hours and days talking about collaboration! Given my focus on “Collective Work” during the last two years, and the number of times people have shared collaborative insights with me, off the record, any level of genuine discussion and reflection felt like a victory. In those four sessions, we shared a lot. We learned about tools, successes, obstacles and ambivalence. And from the breakout sessions at Collab/Space there emerged visions for how to engage with each other, the public, underrepresented communities, and other disciplines. Below are my top takeaways from our collaboration marathon:
- We need to come up with useful cost-benefit analyses of collaboration. Not every story or outreach campaign should be collaborative. Not every partnership is a good match. Refining our understanding of when it makes sense to collaborate and with whom will come through more honest exchanges about our experiences — good and bad — and will help us all make better decisions.
- Partners need to have a shared vision and goal for their collaborative work. Collaborations aren’t created equal, and motivations for doing them won’t be constant, but each time you engage in a partnership you should be on the same page about the big picture. “It’s like marriage,” one attendee pointed out. Yep. And a shared vision and goal will help ride through the rough patches.
- Collaboration is a pain in the ass (thanks, Mr. Baquet). Embrace it. Be honest with your staff about it, and provide the leadership that creates a culture of collaboration. Invest the thought, time and energy to find solutions and processes that reduce the pain. More and more, there will be increased collaboration within the newsroom if not without.
Finally, for inspiration, let’s adopt as our collaborative motto what Booker T. Washington once said: “Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.” Or if that’s too Berkeley for you, adopt the credo that investigative reporter Ricardo Sandoval shared about how drug cartels manage cooperation: “Mi casa es su casa. Now get the hell out.”
Carrie Lozano is a Bay-Area based journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is currently the project director for “Collective Work” a 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.
Collective Work is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Copyright 2012, The University of California at Berkeley.