A phrase often heard at journalism conferences is 'if content is king, then collaboration is queen'.
The importance of collaboration across news outlets, regions and nations was highlighted again today at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia by a panel who shared examples of collaborative projects, and the lessons they learnt while doing so.
The panel was part of the School of Data Journalism at the festival. The School is run by the European Journalism Centre and the Open Knowledge Foundation.
There can be various reasons for collaborating, from sharing the impact on time and resources, to seeking out specific expertise. For some projects, the act of working across countries mirrors the story they are trying to uncover.
For example, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) is all about "following the money" across the world, in order to uncover organised crime as it travels from one country to another.
"In order to investigate their moves, the money they make, the impact they have, you have to kind of be like them. You have to be very flexible, able to move across borders, share information easily and it all has to be very very fast," Paul Radu, executive director of the OCCRP, told the conference.
One of the keys to the project is tapping into local expertise to find the stories which require a research layer on top of the data.
Radu said as well as working with experts such as hackers and "visual artists", "what makes the difference is people on the ground".
The Guardian, which runs a datablog and datastore, regularly collaborates in its data journalism projects, sharing its workings online for others to learn from and explore, and often teaming up with other organisations to delve into data.
James Ball, who is to take over editorship of the datablog and datastore when current editor Simon Rogers leaves next month, spoke at the conference about the necessity of collaboration.You've got to have collaboration – you can't afford not toJames Ball, Guardian
"You are going to have to collaborate to do bigger investigations," he said.
Using the example of work the Guardian did on offshore data, taken from company data platform Duedil, Ball said the investigation was carried out by 40 news outlets worldwide.
"Big data is happening. Rather than little leaks you've got to see big leaks in the future. You've got to have collaboration – you can't afford not to."
Pointers for successful collaboration
Ball shared some advice on collaboration best practice – and how to avoid too many arguments over the use of the data.
"The key thing is minimal ground rules," he said, covering issues such as a publishing date, how to present the data later on and whether this will entail an interface of some sort.
After those are set it is important to let each news outlet and their staff get on with the data analysis.
"Why are you building in different teams, experts and data rock stars if you don't let them do their thing?" He added that the fewer rules there are, "the easier they are to agree".
"The key thing is working out what's at the core," he said, advising journalists working on such projects to just "take a deep breath", ensure there is "give and take" and "save fights for when it matters to you".
One of the arguments for collaboration is to share resources, and the costs involved with long data investigations. But even sharing the workload does not eradicate the financial impact.
The panel represented a number of different funding models for their work, from a traditional newsroom to a website funded originally by a US foundation.
The latter was for FarmSubsidy.org, which acts as a resource to help people discover how farm subsidies are distributed by the European Union.
Co-founder Jack Thurston said his job of liaising between the foundation and the investigative journalists who wanted to remain independent could be an "uneasy relationship" at times.I don't think that any journalistic organisation would have been able to muster the resources to do what we didJack Thurston, FarmSubsidy.org
But he added: "I don't think that any journalistic organisation would have been able to muster the resources to do what we did".
Now "that funding stream has ended", the organisation is "in a slightly more dicey situation in terms of funding". In terms of the website, however, this is now being hosted by the Open Knowledge Foundation, enabling the team to focus on their reporting and arranging cross-border meetups.
"Let the experts in platforms help you with the platform and you do the things you're good at as journalists," he advised.
Another panel member, Friedrich Lindenberg of the Open Knowledge Foundation, also an OpenNews fellow at Spiegel Online, discussed the idea of data actually being "part of the solution".
Effectively, a news organisation can "give out the news and then, on a commercial basis, allow people access to underlying data", he said.
Asked for an example, he said that having worked on UK expenditure data, which brought together data released on a government department level, this could have potentially been of interest to the UK government itself, to help it keep track of purchases via a "central database".
For example, he said, if one department bought a licence for some software which could actually be used by other departments, then having that information stored centrally could help prevent other departments unknowingly buy the same licence again.
Thurston added that FarmSubsidy.org has previously "sold analysis of data", usually to "NGO campaigning groups interested in farm subsidies", highlighting the potential revenue stream in "bespoke analysis".
In the case of the work of the OCCRP, Radu said there "is potential to make money", but that in their case it would be considered "a huge conflict of interest so we just don't go there".
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