Tips for collaborating with other journalists Date: 08/11/22
By Barbara Mantel
I collaborated with another reporter only once in my career, way back in the beginning. We were all about to be let go from a television program that was closing shop, and I wanted to expand my work experience into print to flesh out my resume. My colleague and friend Katie had contacts with editors, and she generously offered to collaborate on a story so I could get a print byline.
As a freelancer for many years, I have thought back on that collaborative experience and wondered if I should try it again to address the isolation of freelancing and to share reporting and writing on larger stories. But I haven’t been sure about how to go about it. Several other freelancers have told me they are also curious about collaboration.
In this “How We Did It,” AHCJ members and freelance journalists Laura Beil, Fran Kritz and Tara Haelle discuss their experiences working with others on stories and offer tips for fellow independent journalists.
Laura is currently collaborating with a ProPublica staff reporter on an investigative story about a physician that will air as a Wondery podcast in 2023 and run as a shorter ProPublica article. Fran worked with another freelancer to write a story for the Jerusalem Post about an organization that provides disability services, and Tara teamed up with a freelancer and a staff writer at HuffPost for a story about domestic abuse in the military. (The following Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
Why did you choose to collaborate rather than write the story yourself?
Tara: I had written a story about a woman and her kids who were being abused. And a reporter reached out to me to ask if this is something I would be interested in collaborating on. She had been writing about women who are abused in relationships in the military. And so, we decided that we would try and pitch a story looking for a grant, where I would focus on the kids, and she would focus on the spouse. In order to apply for different grants, we had to find a publication that would take the story. And so, we wrote a pitch together and reached out to a half dozen publications, and HuffPost was interested in the story. But they had another reporter who already worked on domestic abuse issues, so they wanted to turn it into a three-person project. And we worked together for a year on the story.
Fran: My friend and colleague had the contact at the Jerusalem Post. So, when we were talking, I said I'd like to write something for them, and she suggested that we write a story together.
Laura: I reached out to ProPublica to see if they would be interested in this. And as it happened, they had a young reporter who also had an interest in the story. And so, they just asked if I would be interested in teaming with her to work on the project, and I said yes because it is a pretty extensive thing.
Why should freelancers consider collaborating with another journalist?
Tara: When you team up with other journalists, you are able to split the workload and take on bigger projects. You can edit each other's work, share resources and you can get a second opinion on things.
Fran: The key reason to do it is that when reporting on a heavy story, you can share the load and either get it done faster or be able to lessen your load while still writing an excellent story.
Laura: ProPublica has a great research department, and not being a staff member, I couldn't access that. But since it is a staff story as well for ProPublica, she can have the research department help. And there is a great ProPublica editor on the project. As freelancers, we do have input from editors all the time, but I'm not sure if it wasn't a collaboration with a staff writer that it would be quite as intense as it is.
Is there a downside to collaborating?
Tara: You do give up some control. So, when you are a freelancer, you have total control over what you want to work on, to the extent that you are working within the parameters of whatever your editors want. When you are collaborating, there is more compromise and give and take. Maybe you want to go in a certain direction with a story, but the others don't think it's viable. Or maybe, you wanted to interview that one source, but it works better for the particular aspect of the project that the other person is working on.
Fran: Unless you really work in sync, and lots of people do, there may very well be somebody who is doing more of the share of the work. For example, when we said we would write the story together for the Jerusalem Post, I never thought about the close. She was off on assignment in another country when it closed, so I needed to look at all the drafts, write the captions for the photo and cut some lines. And although we had agreed that we would share the money, I ended up with easily 70% of the work.
Laura: Not that I have discovered so far. One thing that she [the journalist I'm collaborating with] has done that has been really helpful is kind of a new way of looking at information; she put together spreadsheets comparing the information we have got to similar cases, and that is really illuminating. I’m not sure I would think to do that.
Who should write the pitch letter?
Tara: I think one of us drafted it and then sent it to the other on Google Docs. Google Docs is wonderful for this kind of work. I went in and tweaked things or added stuff, and then she approved it and we sent it off.
Fran: I think the person with the closest contact with the editor should pitch it. I've done that myself with the Washington Post, where I've said, 'Hey, I'd like to do this with a colleague. This is why my colleague has the credentials and skill to be working with me on it.’ Maybe don’t cc it to the other reporter because the editor may respond by saying, 'Yeah, I've read their stuff, I don't like it' or 'I don't want to have another writer.'
How do you divide the fee from the media outlet, and is it larger because there is more than one writer?
Tara: I think it is okay to ask for more money because they are paying for the work that goes into it. I don't like per-word payment because the word count doesn't tell me how much work goes into it. The [HuffPost] editor offered us a fee, and we had a little bit of scope creep, so the fee went up, but we both felt it was fair. HuffPost signed a contract with each of us separately, but it was the same contract.
Fran: You should not expect a larger fee. It has never been my experience. In this case, the editor gave the fee, but it didn't account for more people. And my colleague immediately said, 'Let's split it.' I thought there was a possibility that the work would not be split evenly, but I got something out of it in addition to money, which was a connection to the paper that I didn't have before. I would recommend that people ask if they can each send an invoice separately to the publication.
Laura: Wondery is paying my fee for the podcast and that's the bulk of the income for this. But I do have a contract with ProPublica, and they pay me a small fee as a freelancer for the written article.
How did you divide the reporting and the writing?
Tara: Because it was a package, it was a little easier. The HuffPost writer wrote the overarching, sort of big story that took one character to flesh out the bigger issue. And then Amanda and I, the two who had brought the story to HuffPost, each took on a big feature. We all had the opportunity to provide feedback on each other's articles. In some cases, an interview that I had done worked well for the main story.
Fran: In our case, I laid out the story so that she would see what the elements were, and she told me what elements she would like to do. Ours was very neat, and I didn't need to know who she was going to interview or when. She didn't need my help in arranging those. On the other hand, there was one public relations director, and we did all our calls with her together because we didn't want to tire the PR person.
Laura: We haven’t done the writing yet, but the reporting responsibilities kind of naturally fall into place. We have a giant spreadsheet, and I'll just say, 'Okay, I'm going to work on this today.' There's no formal division. Sometimes if we really need to get someone's attention, like to approach a source, I've actually had her be the lead email on it because an email from ProPublica is going to get attention in certain circles a lot more than just me as a freelancer.
Is it best to co-write the whole article or have sections you're each responsible for that you review?
Tara: More often than not, I think it's probably easier to split it into sections. You do want to make sure your styles match. That's one of the reasons you look over their work because you might tweak little syntactical things. That is also why you choose someone initially whose style fits with your style of writing. I don't know how it would work without doing sections. I guess one person would have to write the initial draft, and then the other would have to go in there, but then one person is doing more of the work.
Should collaborators have their own written agreement about the division of labor and the fee separate from the contract with the editor?
Tara: I don't know how formal it needs to be, but there needs to be a very clear and transparent discussion of the division of labor. You are trusting that that person is going to interview the people who need to be interviewed on the deadlines that you both have, so you do have to work with someone you trust. One of the things where it gets dicey is bylines, something as simple as whose byline comes first. Make sure you have that discussion so that there are no surprises later.
Fran: It's not something that I've done, but the truth is, why not have that because it is going to save relationships and save work. Among the things I would put into that agreement is who has the contact with the editor, what your notation system for editing will be, whether one of you wants to take the lead on the edit or share with the other, and what the fee will be, and maybe even saying to the best of our ability that we both will hand it in on the right date.