Small world, big stories: how to plan and launch cross-border projects

This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. Subscribe here:

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In this increasingly connected world, stories know no frontiers, and your journalism shouldn’t either. Whether you are working on a local beat or reporting on a wider trend, there are multiple opportunities to expand the scope of your reporting and work with colleagues in other countries to deliver richer stories.

From collaborating with multiple newsrooms to tackling language barriers, investigative journalist and co-founder of Investigative Reporting Project Italy Alessia Cerantola knows well how to navigate collaborative endeavors. She was a part of the Pulitzer-Prize winning team responsible for the Panama Papers and currently works at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) where she has taken part in multiple global projects.

Working with another newsroom is “the most exciting but also the most challenging experience you can have as a reporter” she said. Recently, she shared her experience and best practices for collaborations with our Report for the World corps members. For this edition of Navigator, we condensed some of her tips on how to develop and execute a collaboration with another newsroom. Her advice has been edited for length and clarity.

To find a story idea, start local

Although many are, not every cross-border collaboration needs to be an investigation. Some focus on a journey (immigration stories for example;) others describe a process, like stories that follow the supply chain of food or a product and others simply describe the response by a community or individual in another country to an issue that impacts your audience.

Still not sure where to start? To find a story idea, “read local news every day” recommends Cerantola, who reported on her native Italy’s identitarian movement for our global special report “Democracy Undone,” “They are a goldmine of information, local reporters are providing important, relevant information.” Otherwise, you can go the classic route of interviewing sources where you see that there might be a story.  Experts, activists, government officials, and NGOs are all excellent resources for reporters who want to develop a story. Planning a casual conversation with any of these figures, such as getting coffee, in order to build a relationship with them, they will feel more comfortable sharing information with you.

In rare occasions, you might be approached by a whistleblower or receive a data leak. But the vast majority of times, this is not how journalists find stories. In Cerantola’s experience “you only receive a leak if you are a specialist in certain topics, and if you’ve been covering a subject for a while and people see that you’re persistent, then they approach you.”

If you are lucky enough to receive information in this way, Cerantola advises to focus first on the information that is pertinent to your beat and your country/city before even looking at what is happening in other countries. When you have a clear picture, you can start looking for partners.

Choose the right partners

To find partners, look for areas of interest that have links between two or more countries. From there, do research by reading media from that country, and seeing if there are reporters who are already covering the topic or are well versed in the area of interest, Cerantola suggests.

If that does not pan out, “you can find partners by going to conferences where investigative journalists are meeting”, Cerantola says. Conferences such as Investigative Reporters and Editors in the United States, Data Harvest, or Global Investigative Journalism Conference,  or attending industry conferences that other journalists attend. From there, creating connections with people who are researching or reporting on similar topics can be done effectively.

The Global Investigative Journalism Network is another helpful tool for finding a partner. It provides a map that features investigative centers around the world, which can connect journalists with each other for the purpose of collaboration. Cerantola emphasizes the importance of building your story with those who already have knowledge surrounding it. “It is important to reach out to people who are already investigating the topic to people who have the skills to do that [investigative journalism], it’s better to have a person who is working on the same kind of journalism as you, because it will make things easier.”

The collaboration should be beneficial for all parties and you should always treat your collaborators as equals, respecting their expertise and input. Working with a partner doesn’t just require journalistic skills, it requires human skills, says Cerantola.   “Always try to be careful when dealing with a sensitive topic, because oftentimes you will have to deal with a human side more than the journalistic one, so it’s important to be ready”, she added.

Find common ground and communicate constantly

Collaborating on the story with another organization can be beneficial because it allows newsrooms to pool resources together. Cerantola also notes that this inherently “[decides] the agenda about what is important to speak about for your country and other countries, and it’s a way of organizing collaborative projects so they have a larger impact with your reporting.”

However, this also presents some unique challenges, because you’ll likely be working with people from many different cultures and backgrounds, it is essential that you find common ground. Therefore, to maintain a healthy partnership, Cerantola recommends organizing calls “I usually organize weekly or bi-weekly calls, depending on how long the project is. It’s very important, sometimes people have nothing to say but they can be inspired and energized by what other people have to say” she says. This allows for follow up, which is also crucial.

Whether you’re working with one or multiple partners, it’s important to schedule regular calls, create shared platforms, and update and engage the partners. Newsletters are a useful tool for this purpose, Cerantola says.

Establish the rules of the collaboration from the beginning

After you have found someone you feel is well suited for your project, meet with them or have a phone call. At the meeting, inform them of your idea for the investigation “but without giving them too much information in the beginning” advises Cerantola.

Once your relationship with your partner is established, tell your partner who else you’re working with so everyone is in the loop. This is important especially “if you have more partners in the same country. Sometimes you work with two organizations within the same country, like with television and print media”, because those organizations can likewise work together.

When everyone has all the necessary information, the reporting can go forward. You must decide together what you want from each particular partner, and set clear rules for who reports on what and how findings are shared, what technological platforms you will use and what security protocols will be implemented.

There are many kinds of collaborations, from working with freelancers to collaborating with local media, with these kinds of scenarios you can also provide editorial support. Collaborating in how the article is edited can be flexible “you can also decide to publish together in English, and the other in their own language, but both versions have been edited and fact checked by the same source,” says Cerantola.

Shared platforms are useful because partners can upload sensitive information and documents, and create separate chat groups for different parts of the investigation. This way, information is condensed into one area. “Above all, be patient, people will take a while to reply…and it is easy to want to give up”, Cerantola says.

Be mindful of your partners’ publishing needs

Once your story(ies) has been fully written and edited, the next step is publishing. Agreeing on when to publish is one of the hardest steps of the entire process. Different countries have different holidays, election days, and major cultural events that they need to work around.  However, it’s important to ensure that the publication date is as beneficial as it can be for all parties involved, and that the story comes out on the same day as to have the most impact. This can be difficult but through much conversation and open communication, as well as some flexibility, Cerantola says, is completely possible.

While it requires extensive collaboration and open communication between possibly large groups of people, it can be extremely rewarding to partake in cross border collaboration. But the opportunity to have a larger impact as well as wider input of voices in your reporting make it worth trying.