With a deadline looming, we had a major hole in our report about hunger in Africa.
The missing piece was in Zanzibar, 8,000 miles from my base in Minneapolis. And I was powerless to do anything but worry.
I had recruited five Tanzanian journalists to help cover the stories, and the Des Moines Register was ready to publish our comprehensive report. Everything had to be submitted before mid-October last year when experts from around the world would gather in Des Moines for a dialogue about feeding a growing global population.
But we were missing a video from Josephat Mwanzi, a senior Tanzanian journalist. I had known him for two years and had every reason to trust that he would deliver.
Still, where was the video?
Over coffee in Dar es Salaam in September, Josephat had shown me compelling footage telling the story of Zanzibar’s pathetic rice yields. Farmers, many of them women with children, worked small rice plots by hand only to lose their harvests to drought, worn-out soil and pests. Josephat’s video had captured the farmers’ frustration — their tired voices and worried faces.
Back in Minnesota, I edited other pieces from the Tanzanian journalists.
But where was that video?
Finally, an email from Josephat: “My apologies for my silence. I have been experiencing terrible internet challenges that caused me not to be able to attach and send back an edited copy of the documentary. Yesterday I spent almost the whole day trying to attach it but failed. Today I woke early morning, (and) it took 6 hours to attach successfully.”
Just one of many obstacles
Technical glitches are one of many obstacles hindering journalistic collaboration across national borders and time zones.
Still, global collaboration is more important than ever as news budgets for international reporting shrink at the same time that stories often spill across country lines. Readers, viewers and listeners stand to lose critically important context if journalists cannot find innovative strategies for following far-reaching news.
In Minnesota, news from across the world quickly becomes local – as West African immigrants worry about the spread of Ebola in their homelands, as Ukrainian Americans rally in downtown Minneapolis against Russian aggression, and as conflict in the Middle East stirs mixed emotions in military families.
“Stories these days are increasingly global, and if you want to do the story properly, you can’t just stop at your own border,” said Gerard Ryle, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which links 160 reporters in more than 60 countries.
“With fewer resources the major organizations are going to look to collaborate more – and, as you can prove that this will be successful, it will be repeated,” he predicted.
That is not to say it is easy to reach around the world for partners.
“It’s very, very difficult to do this kind of work, much more difficult than if you were to parachute an American reporter into a foreign country,” Ryle said.
In other words, the collaborative strategy may not be readily available to resource-strapped newsrooms that lack the capability to manage elaborate projects. Like ICIJ, though, organizations are working toward that end. They are experimenting with collaborative models and building international networks – with encouraging results.
Straight talk on ethics
My chance at collaboration came when I agreed last year to help the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting cover food insecurity in Africa, beginning in Tanzania.
In addition to reporting, I was to recruit local journalists – not as fixers or stringers, but as professional partners. Each would contribute pieces adding up to a whole report that would be more ambitious than anything I could do alone.
I turned to journalists I already knew. Much as I respected them, I had to open our partnership on a sensitive note. Journalism ethics differ from country to country, in practice if not in theory. Pulitzer wanted assurances that our team would honor American standards.
In some countries, it is routine for journalists to accept money from sources, often called brown envelope journalism. The controversial practice persists because journalists in many parts of the world work for very low pay.
Nigerian reporter Ameto Akpe, who collaborated on a different Pulitzer project, said she ran a catering business to subsidize her journalism career. Later, as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, Akpe said one of her professional goals is to help “African journalists tell the stories they want to tell without worrying where their next meal would come from.”
Whatever the reason, our project could not compromise on ethics. Each of my partners pledged in phone meetings with Pulitzer and in follow-up correspondence to abide by a set of written standards.
They were good sports about it and also about my fact-checking of their finished stories.
The Tanzanian journalists had videotaped interviews, giving us a reference for checking quotes in their written stories. Most of the stories incorporated elements of agricultural research, and we were able to check our findings against scientific reports. I double-checked some points by contacting sources directly.
The key: trust
Establishing trust is crucial, said journalists on every side of collaborative deals.
At Round Earth Media in Minneapolis, Mary Stucky partners American journalists with others around the world. Their teams have produced major reports for top-tier news outlets — about women’s rights in Morocco, for example, for The New York Times, and about Mexico’s drug wars for NPR’s All Things Considered.
Stucky said she combs target countries for journalists who can be trusted to do the work and do it ethically. She looks for graduates of respected journalism schools and collaborators in other programs. She seeks recommendations from in-country editors and journalism professors.
Recruits who pass that screening also work under the supervision of senior Round Earth editors before their pieces are submitted for publication or broadcast.
Round Earth’s recruits agreed that trust is a key challenge.
Professional reputations are at stake when reporters collaborate with strangers in other parts of the world, said Marlon Bishop, a New York-based freelancer who covers the arts in Latin America.
“If you are taking the other person’s word that they heard and saw something … that they are truthful and honest in their reporting, then you had better believe in that person 100 percent,” Bishop said.
Still, after collaborating for Round Earth with Mexican journalist Javier Risco, Bishop said, “I would jump at the chance to do it again.”
At ICIJ, editors fact-check stories and require transcripts of interviews as well as copies of documents uncovered in the reporting, Ryle said. The stories go through another round of editorial scrutiny at the media houses where they eventually are published or broadcast.
“Trust is actually the biggest challenge to overcome,” Ryle said.
Same story, different frame
One reward for the effort is the deeply informed perspective that local journalists bring to stories.
The Pulitzer Center set out in 2011 to investigate clean water shortages in West Africa. U.N. agencies and other organizations had spent billions to remedy the problems, yet filthy water continued to kill thousands of toddlers. Were aid organizations following through to maintain sanitation systems?
Pulitzer recruited reporters in five West African countries to look into that question in collaboration with American documentary producer Stephen Sapienza.
Akpe, the Nigerian reporter, welcomed the opportunity. But she looked through her local frame for reasons so many were drinking from dirty streams. Even in the modern capital, Abuja, officials had failed to plan for growth, and development projects had proceeded with no connection to clean-water grids.
“I pitched a story that focused more on corruption and the lack of transparency and planning,” Akpe said.
The African journalists were convincing, said Pulitzer’s Peter Sawyer who coordinated the project.
“They didn’t see western NGOs as the ones responsible for bringing water to their communities,” Sawyer said. “That led to a fundamental shift in the way we told the story.”
Goats, seeds and access
My Tanzanian partners also contributed essential local perspectives.
One of our reports focused on Maasai pastoralists whose grazing lands have been shrinking as development claims once-open savanna. It wasn’t a new story. CNN and others had covered it recently.
I turned to Lukas Kariongi Ole Sanango, a Maasai elder who worked as program director and journalist for ORS Community Radio on Tanzania’s northern plain.
I had visited the ORS newsroom two years earlier. It was a long, dusty drive from Arusha through rutted washouts and gangs of roaming baboons.
If anyone had a fresh angle, it should be Lukas. He didn’t disappoint. With Steve Martin Saning’o, another Maasai journalist, Lukas focused on acacia trees, a fixture on Tanzania’s savanna. Maasai families count on seeds from the trees to feed goats during droughts. Goats draw nourishment from the seeds and continue giving meat and milk to the Maasai.
But private development increasingly blocked Maasai herders from the trees. Further, charcoal producers were cutting the trees.
Lukas and Steve pursued this story with access that no outsider could have gained, revealing in vivid detail the lives of the Maasai herders and capturing the cultural value of their animals.
Indeed, they had too much access for some tastes; one video shows Maasai men practicing the ritual drinking of blood from the carcass of a slaughtered goat. I gasped when I saw it.
What’s a vegetable?
The Tanzanian journalists were cooperative collaborators. But we struggled with language. Most journalists there speak Kiswahili or Maa in their daily dealings even while they are fluent in English.
I helped write video script and edit written pieces for U.S. versions of the stories.
When I edited the word “vegetable” into the Maasai story, Lukas and Steve objected.
“The Maasai don’t eat vegetables,” Lukas said.
I dug in: “I’ve seen them eat corn and beans.”
To them, though, the word “vegetable” meant something green like the spinach that is common in many African cuisines.
The word came out of the story.
Other collaborating journalists also encountered language barriers.
Akpe, of Nigeria, said one of her stories referred to “alligator pepper.” To her surprise, American editors had never heard of the prized African spice.
“Everyone in West Africa would know what it was,” she said.
Struggle to publish
More mismatches came in news judgment. Beyond our four-part series in the Des Moines Register, stories from my work in Tanzania were published in The Washington Post, in MinnPost.com, and on Pulitzer’s website.
We had planned for the Tanzanian journalists to publish locally too.
That strategy worked for Samson Kamalamo of Dar es Salaam, who covered attempts to thwart the weevils that routinely destroy half of Tanzania’s bean harvest. Samson published a Kiswahili-language version of his story in Changamoto, a newspaper where he was deputy managing editor.
Other journalists struggled, though, to find local outlets for their stories, as did other non-American journalists on collaborative teams.
“One of the biggest challenges was trying to get the Mexican media interested in the same stories we had planned for an international audience,” said Isabella Cota, who covers Central America and the Caribbean for Bloomberg News. She collaborated with American freelancer Annie Murphy on the Round Earth project covering effects of drug wars in Mexico.
It took months of pushing Mexican connections, Cota said.
In Nigeria, Akpe hit the same resistance to the clean water stories.
“Water and sanitation were not hot topics, so there was a challenge in getting your editor to give the OK,” Akpe said.
Worth the effort?
Still, the journalists said the experience was worth the struggle.
“There are a lot of journalists who want to collaborate on projects like these,” Cota said. “It’s just a matter of finding us. ... I hope this collaboration model takes off.”
For the model to take hold in a broad sense, though, newsrooms across the country would need ready access to networks of proven journalists akin to ICIJ’s network. Beyond sweeping investigative reports, ICIJ members use their network connections informally, Ryle said.
“You will find a reporter from Brazil picking up the phone or emailing someone in Sweden,” he said. “They are using the network for all kinds of smaller projects, not just for the big, cross-border stuff.”
Reports from the Tanzanian project can be seen at the Pulitzer Center's website. Tanzanian journalists who collaborated with the project are featured in the MinnPost videos embedded in this story.