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The end of the line for the Lone Ranger? A how-to guide for narrative collaboration

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When The Roanoke Times “Age of Uncertainty” won Documentary Project of the Year from Pictures of the Year International, it wasn’t the narrative writing or the photography or the Web design they wanted our insights on. They asked us to speak at their 2009 conference about a topic more nuanced and, I would argue, more important than the technicalities of pulling off a six-month, 10-part series: How did our team get along?

Better than we used to. To hear photographers tell it, in the old days reporters routinely barged up to the photo desk and assigned a photo as if they were ordering a hot dog.

Photographer Josh Meltzer and reporter Beth Macy

Photographer Josh Meltzer and reporter Beth Macy

I am guilty as charged. In the old days, the stories were ours to dig up and ours to produce. The photography was an afterthought, albeit an important one.

Individualism was in our journalistic DNA, having been schooled to be Lone Rangers out saving the community’s day with our enterprising ways and insights on the world. Witness Russell Crowe in “State of Play”: driving around in his notebook-strewn car, following leads. His boss has no idea what he’s doing, and the young Web-savvy cub reporter they’ve assigned to help him can write a mean personal blog, but she can’t report her way out of a press conference. Watching that movie, I couldn’t help but wonder:

Where’s the photographer? How about the videographer? Where’s the midnight call from the copy desk wanting to know why the spelling on the print version of the story doesn’t match the one in the audio slideshow?

What I’m here to tell the narrative storytellers out there is this: If your story’s going to get the ride it deserves on the Web and in the newspaper, you have got to learn how to share your toys. And(gulp) even your accolades.

As Charlotte, N.C.-based collaboration consultant Kittie Watson puts it: “Newspaper people are so used to working independently, and they’re also used to getting credit as an individual as opposed to a team.”

Watson, who has trained teams to work collaboratively at newspapers and in other industries, says the most common roadblocks to collaboration are distrust and a lack of appreciation for the work styles of others. Mutual disdain is another unspoken biggie I’ve encountered, especially as it relates to the intra-news divide between print and multimedia people.

By nature, most reporters have a pretty high emotional IQ, able to engender trust from their subjects, though not necessarily their other newsroom colleagues. Some new media people relate to computers but not necessarily people or, for that matter, words—they like to call the newspaper “the dead tree version” of the news (aka, that thing that is, albeit tenuously, still paying their salaries).

“No one will read this; it’s too long,” I remember a multimedia editor at my paper saying, as we put the final touches on a three-part series in 2005 that I had spent eight months reporting—and he hadn’t even bothered to read.

I wish I could say I responded maturely.

“[Expletive] you!” I shouted across the design desk. Had I been holding a stapler, say, instead of a set of page proofs, I would have thrown it at him.

Watson calls this the paradox of team life. “You see the value of working as a team; you’re drawing in people with skill sets you don’t have. But once you’re on the team it drives you crazy.” The more the team leader does upfront to establish goals, deadlines and expectations, the more effective the team will be, she adds.

Below are some project collaboration tips I’ve amassed the hard way, after breaking every rule in the book—but not (yet) my stapler.

Team up as early as possible with a photographer you trust and enjoy scheming with. Photographer Josh Meltzer and I had already worked on three narrative projects together before we began casting our respective nets for subjects who would allow us to show the challenges of caring for our community’s elderly. A few months after each of our earlier projects, we started colluding on what our next one was going to be—and figuring out ways to get our respective editors to assign us together to do them. For the 2008 aging series, between other assignments and often on our own time, Josh started hanging out in churches; I made the rounds to adult care centers and support groups. We identified families as potential subjects before we made our project pitch.  (Hint: If you pitch the story jointly, they’re more likely to let you work together on it.)

Find a partner with a similar work ethic. Bonus points if you both have a shared predilection for dark chocolate, strong coffee, hoppy beer and spouses who don’t freak out that you’re editing video and copy and pictures together in each other’s home offices at all hours of the day and, when it’s crunch time, late at night.

You’re a writer, and you don’t yet have a favorite photog? I suggest glomming onto one. It’s also a good idea to approach collaboration as you would dating: Begin slow, with smaller stories and mini-projects, so you can work out your interpersonal kinks when the stakes aren’t as high. As journalism moves from the print to the Web, mark my words: The smart photographer who can shoot video and do interviews on top of that is going to be the one ordering the hot dogs.

But realize that one of you will soon step on the other one’s feet. Josh and I have an unspoken rule: No more than one come-to-Jesus moment per project. For our last series, it came when we were both trying to be flies on the wall at a subject’s family gathering. Because Josh was shooting video, I was unable to interact with family members without getting in his video. It didn’t help that it was a one-time event or that the house was small. We made a vow later to communicate better beforehand, to plot out how we could both be flies on the wall—without one of us feeling stuck on a fly strip. We also coordinated most of our remaining visits to the subjects separately—spread out so they wouldn’t get interview fatigue—and we constantly shared what we were seeing along the way. An interview wasn’t over until I got home and typed an e-mail to Josh explaining what I’d learned from it.

A little competition is healthy. I sent Josh transcripts of my interviews and alerted him when I thought a photo- or video-worthy event was happening. He invited me to watch hours of the video he’d been shooting and included me in what he was doing by asking for sequencing feedback and text for his videos. It didn’t occur to me how much reporting help I was getting from him until I left his house armed with an entire notebook full of new details about our subjects—and new questions to ask. I had been feeling a kind of competition with him, I realized, born out of my own insecurity. “Imagine if I showed up and suddenly started taking pictures, and maybe even did it better than you,” I finally said.

It helps to have an organized editor who believes in advance planning for multimedia projects and isn’t afraid to call the shots as the disparate pieces of the puzzle begin to come together. We try to meet monthly at first, more often as the publication date draws near. We’ve learned from previous projects that it pays to have one Web-savvy copy editor edit the text for both print and online for consistency’s sake. Our rule is, copy is due one month minimum before publication, which is good because the interactives, graphics, videos and audio slide shows are due soon after that, and those people on the team who seem to have been ignoring you during your months of reporting now need you constantly: Where is the data for that interactive graphic? Can you write the “uber graf” (intro copy) for the Web site’s main page? Will you find the animator a good pull-quote? The marketing department needs a photo for the in-house ad. And we still haven’t settled on a series name. . . .

Step back, put the stapler down—and cool it on the expletives. If a team member persistently refuses to play nice, Watson suggests addressing it privately but head-on, asking: We haven’t worked well together in the last couple of projects; what can we do differently this time? Conversely, it’s good to begin a project by discussing the best practices of past projects: What worked well the last time we collaborated together? “Some people may have never had to work collaboratively on a large team before,” she says.

It’s good to check in along the way with your colleagues—even if you think things are going well. “If you can work through a conflict with a person, that leads to a closer relationship,” Watson says. “All the literature says that relationships, especially during times of turmoil, are the most important things going for people. It’s ironic that reporters want readers to listen and understand, but sometimes they have a hard time doing that with their own coworkers.”

As newsrooms struggle to reinvent themselves, experts believe collaboration will become more important than ever—not just with coworkers but also with readers (and potential content-sharers) and even competitors such as neighboring newspapers and radio and TV stations. (Examples: The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times recently merged their Tallahassee bureaus to save money; PBS’ Frontline now regularly collaborates with The New York Times and The New Yorker.)

Poynter Institute teacher Bill Mitchell, now a fellow with the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, is researching new business models for journalism and sees creative collaborations emerging at the forefront. “In the big picture of the way journalism will unfold,” Mitchell says, “collaboration will be an adjective attached to whatever happens.”




One comment

  1. Brother Macy
    posted December 11, 2009 at 4:27 pm | permalink

    Awh..What wisdom Sis! Great job and as I read your entries I’m just filled with pride and joy for you.

    Being a team player at work (well most of the time) I know first hand the most important rule of all. “Respect for the individual”. It seems simple, but some team members I deal with need respectively reminded.

    Love ya.

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