Why journalists are going beyond their own newsrooms for investigative stories and what it means for the future
By Brett McGarry
The idea of newsroom collaborations is not a new concept, but the scale in which it is being done today in Canada has begun to usher in a new era of investigative journalism.
This has large implications on the quality, breadth and accessibility of the journalistic work finding it’s way into our homes and our minds. Within the past few years alone, we’ve seen the Paradise Papers, the Panama Papers, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women project and the Price of Oil to name a few.
None of these projects could have come to the public without the countless hours of work from a multitude of journalists pouring over raw data, writing copy and producing video while burning the midnight oil.
When these stories became available to the public, they came with the largest impact modern Canadian journalism has to offer. With the endorsement, branding and audience of multiple news organizations combined, these stories reached the corners of Canada eliciting public change. The content transcended an exclusive scoop from one organization and one journalist and represents a shift in Canadian investigative journalism for producing content truly for the greater good.
The Price of Oil has been a distinctly Canadian exercise in collaborative investigative journalism. Patti Sonntag proposed leading students to investigate Canada’s oil and gas industry and was also awarded Michener-Deacon fellowship for 2016.
The Price of Oil was inaugural project of the National Student Investigative Reporting Network (NSIRN), an effort put forward by Robert Cribb, award winning and veteran journalist for The Toronto Star. Cribb won a Michener-Deacon Fellowship in 2015 for the proposed creation of the NSIRN. The Michener- Deacon Fellowship is a large grant given to experienced journalists leading the way for innovations in Canadian journalism and the continuation of it’s excellence.
“When I was at the Michener awards I realized that Rob Cribb had won the award last year for a similar idea so we talked about it there and within a couple of weeks we joined forces,” Sontagg says.
As the pair realized the similarities in their fellowship, the threads of research and cooperation from universities and newsrooms across the nation started to come together.
It was only a matter of months before Concordia University, Global News, the National Observer, Ryerson University, Toronto Star, University of British Columbia and the University of Regina came on board. Many of those who became involved had already begun working on similar projects, such as Carolyn Jarvis with Global News. Jarvis had already been investigating the implications of resource extraction in Sarnia for over a year.
“It was by word of mouth that investigative journalists were aware that I was doing something in a similar vein in respect to oil and gas and asked if I would come on board with the considerable research and share our findings with the greater collaborative group,” Jarvis says.
“I said absolutely, getting the journalism out to a bigger audience with bigger impact is always a wonderful thing,” he also says.
Mike De Souza, managing editor of the National Observer, brought his intricate network of contacts in oil and gas and experience researching lobbyists after meeting Sonntagg at a conference in 2016. Elizabeth McShefferey of the National Observer, brought a passion for writing stories on the resource extraction sector’s human impact, and lead content for the Observer.
In total more than 60 journalists, students and professionals began the investigating. Over the course of over a year, because the work is still ongoing, dozens of articles for online and print were written in addition to multiple video pieces.
As a whole, this large body of work exposed regulatory infractions and abuses of trust in power on behalf of Canada’s oil and gas industry which lead to very serious and sometimes life threating impacts on often small Canadian communities.
Projects like these are only just becoming a viable model for investigative research globally, but are even newer in Canada. Up until recent years, journalism was a solitary sport. Especially in print, most journalists were mustering up sources and writing to deadlines on their own.
“It was really that old school mentality of ‘we’re all colleagues but also our competitors’ and that’s part of the fun,” David Weisz, data journalist for The Star and journalism professor at Humber College, says.
Journalists then were fighting for what journalists want most, exclusive stories that can would propel their organization and their own career to new heights.
Even in recent media, the film The Post, there was a scene where Ben Bradlee played by Tom Hanks asked a young reporter to travel over to the New York Times to see what they’re working on it. Whether or not the anecdote is factual does not matter, but it certainly encapsulates an attitude that journalists had up until the turn of the century.
“Ten years ago, it was very rare to see collaborations. I think when I started my career in the early 2000s it was highly competitive and there were a lot more journalists and it would have been unheard of to go into another news room and tell them this is what I’m working on,” De Souza says.
The turn of the 21st century saw new challenges in journalism, namely the collapse of old revenue streams that traditional journalism, print, had relied on for so long as the world shifted towards digital platforms. What followed was a dramatic shift in the resources allotted to traditional Canadian newsrooms, budget cuts and eventually the shrinking of staff.
“At a time when resources and newsrooms are shrinking and the old models of revenue are failing, namely from advertising, in the short term we’ll have to realize what our weaknesses are and the limitations of our coverage that we can do independently,” Weisz says.
This presented a large challenge for journalists: how does a journalist produce cutting-edge work in the digital age with so few resources? The answer is they stopped relying only on themselves.
In a Data Driven conference in late 2017 at Humber College, Rob Cribb expressed how vital this new process has become.
“Collaborations are not just an option at this point, they’re mandatory,” Cribb says. “Believe it or not we are in this to tell important stories in the public interest and there’s a point where you actually have to put the story in front of the byline. If we actually think we’re doing this for the right reasons to affect change to educate, enlighten and inform there’s a point which your byline and exclusivity is not the most important thing.”
Journalists reaching out to competing newsrooms and revealing their hand was a new concept for many of the professional journalists who became involved in the project, but the advantages of working in such a manner became abundantly clear. Many of these journalists, and the organizations they worked for, each brought different skill sets to the table.
“Once we were forced to do it, we saw the benefits now this becomes a new kind of incentive, pooling resources together but still maintaining independence and being able to present the news to each of our respective audiences,” De Souza says.
“Everyone has their area of expertise, data journalism certainly is a form of journalism that is emerging that not everyone has the skills to do, one organization can bring that to the mix and another can bring access to sources and/or confidential information, another might be able to bring strong video components, being able to pull all of these resources together,” Mike De Souza says.
Journalists are in agreement that not one newsroom in today’s climate had the staff resources or expertise in all of these areas. It was the leveraging of the talents of each journalists and what Sonntag calls “radical sharing” that fully realized the breadth and scope of the reporting this project could offer. It was the trust these journalists had in each other and the belief that the work they were producing was for a greater public good that smoothed out the road in front them.
“These are marriages these are relationships, they work a lot like marriages, you have to pick the right partner,” Cribb said at the Data Driven conference. “Here’s what I’ve learned, you can’t be an editor at the Star calling the editor at [another organization] and just get two reporters to work together and share. It doesn’t work like that. So it has to be bottom up, it has to be reporters coming together and lifting up their skirts and saying here’s what I got. If you don’t have trust it won’t work. If I am told to work with a reporter who is kind of a dick and I don’t trust, it won’t work.”
Projects of this size are not without complications. The professionals and students involved all attested to how well the project was managed and the selflessness of those involved, but with over 60 spoons in the stew, the smaller details that Jarvis described as “lying on the outset” became more significant as the project progressed.
But it was the realization and belief in the greater good and the production of quality journalism for the public good that had these journalists checking their ego at the door.
In a speech Sonntag gave while receiving the Hillman award she stated “students and professionals, universities and media companies, our goals are the same: to serve the community. Everyone was determined to find ways to tell these people’s stories while protecting them.”
The reality of a project of this size means hours of work but also meticulously trudging through thousands of pages of technical document, incident reports, air quality reports and the like. With shrinking newsrooms, the man power to complete these tasks simply are not there.
“The students were there to support us and do a lot of research and in turn we were there to support them and make sure they were learning from journalists,” Jarvis says. “We were there to give them an original opportunity to have a hands-on role in an important news story and they were there to assist the greater collaboration.”
A lot of what the students did provided the backbone of the findings for The Price of Oil. They were analyzing and cataloging all of that data and identifying patterns and trends and flagging parts that might have been regulatory infractions.
“Through their combing through of that data we were able to identify what looked like problem spots or hot spots and that’s how we were able to target our access to information requests,” McSheffery says. “The student’s role was absolutely essential and many were actually credited.”
If the quality and success of this project has proved anything it’s that large cross news room collaborative projects, and in turn the NSRIN, work. The Price of Oil has authored the blue prints and laid the groundwork for future collaborations.
“Now that we’ve proved that it can work, maybe the news business at large will be more open to these collaborations. There is much to be says that this kind of collaboration is possible,” McShefferey says.
But the future of collaboration may lie with students. Involving universities and students provides future journalists with an opportunity to receive quality mentorship and a taste of real journalism, but it also gives news organization a reason and opportunity to reach across the void and make collaborations happen.
“Having the postsecondary angle gives it a neutral platform where the newsrooms ‘we are doing this together with the students for the students, but also for great journalism’. It’s provides a middle ground, a bridge for newsrooms,” Weisz says.
Over this bridge is crossing information that is becoming surely vital. If the newsroom which first got the leaked data from the Panama Papers had not been sharing across newsrooms, it is unlikely we would have even heard about it. It has been the work of journalists as a collective force for positive change in this country that turned those thousands of documents of leaked data into the stories that are inspiring real change in our nation.