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Inside FRONTLINE The Need for Collaborative Storytelling

June 13, 2010

"To continue to have an impact, we at NPR have, frankly, had to learn how to get over ourselves and collaborate in a new way."
-NPR president Vivian Schiller, in her IRE keynote address

Given that journalists introduced the concept of getting "scooped" by a competitor, it should come as no surprise that news organizations have historically resisted working together. Today, however, collaborations are arguably far more important to journalism's future than the increasingly irrelevant struggle to break the news first. This transition was a major theme of this year's IRE conference.

"The concept of competition has completely evaporated," Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), said during a panel discussion yesterday. "We're really in a transformational moment."

To a large extent, this is driven by necessity. As budgets for newsrooms are slashed, journalists are finding that they must look outside their walls to find the resources for ambitious, investigative work. At the same time, the increasing array of information sources enabled by the Internet is breaking us into smaller and more specialized audiences, which incentivizes media entities to expand their distribution network.

But while the Internet's made it necessary for journalists to collaborate, it's also made it much easier for them to do so. Traditionally, journalists were defined as much by what platform they worked with -- print, broadcast, radio -- as the beats they covered. While the forms of media -- text, video, audio -- still matter, the Web brings them all together, enabling the creation of uniquely engaging experiences. One interesting example of these trends is the FRONTLINE/ProPublica/Times-Picayune collaboration Law & Disorder, an investigation into questionable shootings by the New Orleans police in the wake of Katrina.

During a panel session yesterday, FRONTLINE senior producer Raney Aronson-Rath recalled the idea to get involved: "We said, 'This is an amazing story. We're not necessarily sure if we'll be making it a documentary, but it's important for us to help get it out there.'"

FRONTLINE assigned a video journalist to embed in the newsroom with the reporters working on the case. The Law & Disorder site combines text, photos, audio and video to tell the ongoing story of the investigation. The site also includes a number of ways for people to help, including a tip line to call and flyers to post that encourage potential witnesses to come forward.

For all its value, there are risks to collaborating.

ProPublica reporter T. Christian Miller, as part of Friday's IRE panel on anonymous sources, noted that each additional partner on an investigation often represents another person who needs to know a source's identity. It can be hard enough to convince a source to trust one reporter, never mind three or four.

Also, when mistakes happen, as they inevitably do, they can be much harder to control across multiple distribution points. CIR's Robert Rosenthal recalled an incident in which CIR's California Watch team found a small potential issue in a story set to run the next day in a range of partner publications. Rosenthal decided to inform each paper of the issue.

"That is not a call you want to have make to any newspaper," he said. "We had to make it to 14."

Perhaps the most likely source of problems is that journalists tend to be skeptical of each other. News organizations are still competitive.

Stephen Engelberg, managing editor of ProPublica put it another way at yesterday's panel on collaboration: "If the quintessential narrative formula for a non-action, non-horror Hollywood movie is 'Boy meets girl. Boy pursues girl. Boy and girl fall in love,' then in the world of collaborations its 'Boy meets girl. Boy is skeptical of girl. Boy mistrusts girl. Things work out."

Engelberg suggested a deceptively straightforward method to head off this risk: "Direct and honest communication." He recommends meeting in person when possible, and making sure to address tough questions early and often: "What story do we think we're doing? Who is doing what?"

As for the risk of getting scooped by bringing your idea to someone else? -- "After 75 collaborative projects I have yet to see that happen," said Engelberg.

Those concerns aside, there's no shortage of recent examples that demonstrate the value of collaborations:

NPR and ProPublica collaborated on an investigation showing that the military is failing to diagnose and treat soldiers' traumatic brain injuries. The story was on NPR -- broadcast and site -- and on ProPublica's site, where you can find video and pictures of injured veterans, a timeline of the issue, and a large selection of documents from the investigation. This partnership reporting has already lead to an expanded Senate scrutiny of the issue.

The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, ProPublica and ABC News investigated the U.S. government's treatment of civilian contractors. Their exhaustive investigation, "Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan," exposed the suffering of contractors injured or killed abroad, and the woefully substandard treatment many received when they returned home.

The Center for Public Integrity, NPR and five regional investigative journalism centers investigated the handling of sexual assault cases at colleges across the country. They created a comprehensive account of lax enforcement, light sanctions and inconsistent reporting by college administrators.

As collaborative projects like these continue to develop, perhaps the most important unanswered question, CIR'S Rosenthal said, is: "How to sustain them? How do you keep these going?" After all, many of the issues being investigated should always be investigated.

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