Designing the Collaborative Story Workshop

Cohesion can be difficult in any project — but it’s especially challenging in long-distance collaborations among newsrooms, the kind of journalism the Investigative News Network tries to foster among our growing consortium of 62 members. How do you get a group of journalists scattered around the country to coalesce around an idea?

There are many different approaches, but one we’ve taken recently is running story workshops at journalism conferences. We first tried this approach in April, at the Collab/Space event the day before the Logan Symposium.

Borrowing from recent computer developer “hack-a-thons,” we brought together experts and editors and reporters from member newsrooms to discuss ideas. The goal was to walk out with a defined story project and a defined deadline.

At the Logan event, we walked away with not one, but two stories the organizations were committed to working on. The first is set to publish in the fall. One of the newsrooms even beat the deadline — and published early.

One reason we were successful is that INN members believe in the power of working together on stories to magnify their impact. The creation of the job of Editorial Director shows the network’s commitment to encourage this kind of sharing.

We also planned well and made some good choices. If you’re thinking of running a collaborative story workshop, here are a few things that worked for us that you may want to try:

1. We picked the right topic.

For the Collab/Space event, we chose to work on the upcoming elections for two reasons. The first is relevance. A good percentage of our newsrooms would be covering them. The second is access. Among INN members are renowned non-profit organizations that collect and analyze campaign contributions — the National Institute on Money in State Politics and the Center for Responsive Politics.

We have been looking for a way to capitalize on those relationships for some time and, fortunately, they agreed to dive in.

2. We picked an unmovable deadline.

Project reporters are notorious for stretching out deadlines again and again as stories become more complicated or records take longer to get or the story just gets bigger and better. The more newsrooms are involved, the more complicated.

Picking an unmovable deadline — an anniversary, a trial, or, as in our case, the presidential elections — will get the stories done on time, even if it means leaving some of the work for the follow-ups.

Missouri’s August primary gave INN member the St. Louis Beacon an incentive to go even earlier — it published stories July 9 and 10 on the state’s Top 10 donors, based on data crunched for the project.

3. We started talking before.

There’s no question about the value of face-to-face conversation. The stories really coalesced when we sat around a table in Berkeley. But you have to use that time wisely.

Unlike a 24-hour hack-a-thon, we only had two hours to come up with a project, so we didn’t want to start from scratch and spend two hours on brainstorming, only to have everyone return to their newsrooms to figure out if the story is possible.

To make sure we came out with something solid, we invited those who were attending Logan to submit story ideas around election coverage weeks in advance. We then held a conference call to whittle down the list to a handful for further discussion in Berkeley.

This allowed us to spend face time focusing on the nuts and bolts: How would we execute these stories? How long would they take? Which would give us the biggest payoff from our limited resources? Which would serve our readers best?

Having data experts Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics ( and Edwin Bender of the Institute for Money in State Politics ( on hand meant we could figure out on the spot what stories were possible. It also meant we could commit to the best story.

4. We kept talking after.

Back in Los Angeles, we alerted the rest of INN’s members to the project. The result? More newsrooms joined in — and not just in the reporting.

The Center for Investigative Reporting had been working for months on a donor story for California and was finishing up a terrific news application that made the data accessible and appealing. Its tech team offered to adjust the app for our project. Two newsrooms have already agreed to use it in the presentation of their stories, even though it requires a little more work — the Beacon used it this week.

Perhaps the most valuable suggestion I can make is to put someone in charge of keeping the story going — even if you don’t have anyone with the official title. Any project can suffer from shifting priorities, overburdened staffs and scheduling conflicts. Shepherding a project takes patience, dedication, persistence and time.

But don’t take my word for it.

“The coordination is difficult,” Margaret Freivogel, editor of the St. Louis Beacon and an INN board member, told me when we debriefed this week. “A lot of us were in and out of it. To have a central person who keeps the ball rolling is really helpful.”