At the beginning of the year, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work. Thoughtful, challenging questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of columns. In this dispatch, ProPublica Illinois news applications developer David Eads answers a question about whether news organizations share their reporting.
To what extent do journalists from various newsgathering organizations share their efforts BEFORE PUBLISHING? I know all media outlets are “friendly competitors” but the “media” are our eyes and ears and if they are chasing the same leads, they are duplicating efforts that would be better spent chasing different leads. —Mel Miller
Thinking about competition and collaboration in journalism conjures up images of the great newspaper rivalries. The Washington Post and The New York Times competed during the 1970s covering the Pentagon Papers, and the Post, Times and others battled over the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton administration.
Now, the Post and Times are at it again with story after story on the administration of President Donald Trump. In fact, in over a week-and-a-half in May 2017, the Times and the Post published a series of investigative stories that magazines called the “last great newspaper war” and the “10 best days in journalism.”
Among the scoops: the Times reporting that, before he was fired, FBI Director James Comey had asked for more prosecutors and other personnel for the Russia investigation, and the Post revealing that Trump had disclosed highly classified information to top Russian officials in a meeting at the White House.
Journalism juggernauts vying to beat each other by writing smart stories, digging up scoops and cultivating important, inside sources hasn’t abated. It’s good for journalism and it can serve readers.
Over the past decade or so, however, the need for collaboration has grown as well. Staffs at many legacy publications have shrunk, forcing news organizations to decide what’s essential to their mission. Not that newsrooms agree formally or informally to cede stories to competitors, but they increasingly make choices about how to allocate limited resources.
Some stories are so complex, or involve datasets and coverage beyond what even the largest newsrooms can reasonably tackle, that collaboration is key. In other cases, small newsrooms find that by working together they bring different strengths, skills and audiences to a story that ultimately allows it to be told in a richer way and reach different groups of people.
Projects like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers, ProPublica’s own Electionland and Documenting Hate, and regional initiatives like the Ohio Valley ReSource are just a few examples of this kind of collaboration. For the Panama Papers, close to 400 reporters from roughly 100 media outlets in some 80 countries sifted through an enormous body of data to show how the rich and powerful avoid taxes and hide their financial activities without breaking the law. (Full disclosure: My wife worked on this project.)
Partnerships are central to the ProPublica model. Some develop intentionally, when we seek out a publishing partner. Others are more serendipitous. ProPublica and This American Life joined with The Marshall Project on 2015’s “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” after reporters discovered they were working on the same story. Instead of rushing competing stories into publication, they decided to combine their efforts.
The result: a Pulitzer Prize.
The rise of technology and open source culture — the practice of freely sharing and collaborating on software development — also has fostered collaboration across organizations and industries. Elex, a project to ease working with election data that I helped develop, started as a partnership between The New York Times and NPR and includes contributions from the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune and more. It’s used by dozens of media organizations to deliver election results to their audiences.
Competition remains in many markets, though it can shift from day to day. In Chicago, for instance, many news outlets, including the two major newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, vie for your attention. At the same time, they also work together. At ProPublica Illinois, we’ve collaborated with both papers, as well as other local outlets, and other media organizations have also worked together. Some recent examples: WBEZ and the Better Government Association collaborated to investigate broken elevators in public housing, City Bureau and Curious City have worked together to tackle topics like segregation in Chicago, and the Chicago Data Collaborative brings together multiple organizations from media and beyond to go deeper on criminal justice data.
Both competition and collaboration are important parts of the journalism ecosystem. The most important question is whether a story and its audience will benefit from competition or collaboration.
In the case of the great rivalry between the Post and the Times, competition can spur deeper reporting. Audiences win. In the case of giant leaks or fundamental data like election results, collaboration may create broader accountability and best serves audiences.