Journalists, by nature, tend to be fiercely competitive, racing to break the news before their rivals. Given that tendency, anyone who’s engaged in a journalism collaboration knows that it’s an extraordinary endeavor. That’s why it’s worth stepping back and identifying what we really mean when we say we’re collaborating.

At the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, we’ve spent the last 18 months focused on that very question in our project Collective Work, which is developing best practices and other resources to help support and encourage collaborative investigative reporting.

When we began the project, little had been written about the subject (there’s been much more attention since), so we began interviewing multiplatform editors, reporters and educators about the fast-emerging trend. To date, we’ve talked to more than 50 industry professionals who’ve made clear that collaboration means different things to different organizations and experts. Often, what’s dubbed collaboration is actually something else, like crowdsourcing, syndication, aggregation or even sharing.

Collaboration as a category of convenience is notable, even in the realm of media jargon. But it’s understandable. Unlike more abstract terms — synergy, convergence, transmedia — it conveys something new, positive, concrete and universally understood. As the antithesis of competition, it’s a not so subtle way of saying: “We’re doing something new!”

But from the perspective of building strong business models and infrastructures that support collaborative endeavors, making a distinction matters.

Towards a standard definition

So what does collaboration really mean?

The definition that my colleagues and I have adopted emerged from Collective Work’s primary case study: the Investigative Reporting Program’s collaboration with PBS Frontline, ProPublica and NPR for the series “Post Mortem,” an ongoing in-depth look at death investigation in America, which I described in an earlier post. Based on that experience and our previous partnerships, we are focusing on projects where reporters, editors and producers from different news organizations work as a team to produce and publish original, in-depth, multiplatform stories.

This definition reflects what we think is truly groundbreaking about collaborative efforts and points to an area of reporting that has both untapped potential and plenty of kinks to work out. While collaboration itself doesn’t solve the question of how to pay for the reporting, it does put more resources toward a story, resulting in more (often better) coverage that reaches wider audiences than one organization could manage on its own.

Focus on the fundamentals

The benefits may be obvious, but there’s a lot to learn about this new way of working. The reality is that the evolving media landscape, limited resources and fast-breaking nature of news don’t always allow for methodical planning, processes, training or staffing. Collaboration, in particular, doesn’t operate with the same workflow efficiencies that are the hallmark of getting daily newspapers on the newsstand.

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Ulrich Nettesheim

Not to mention that transitioning from a competition-based, solitary work culture to a more open and team-oriented one doesn’t happen with ease, which is why we sought the insight of Ulrich Nettesheim, an organizational psychologist, executive consultant and lecturer on leadership and high-performance teams at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

According to Nettesheim, we journalists are not alone in the march toward collaborative work. Technical disciplines, such as business, science and journalism, are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and a premium is placed on teamwork.

“Part of the world of work means that you have to be able to be a member of and lead teams,” explained Nettesheim. “That’s a skill set that’s no longer optional or nice to do. It’s a requirement.”

Like assumptions about collaboration, understanding the concept of “team” seems a no-brainer. But from an organizational perspective, Nettesheim emphasized that teamwork has a specific meaning: It requires shared goals, high interdependency of tasks, and strong relationships.

Hearing this gave me a framework for understanding the breakdowns in collaboration that I had both witnessed and heard about. It also clarified why collaboration is not an accurate description for many media partnerships.

Nettesheim helped me discern that what journalists often refer to as collaborations are actually transactions. Transactions between media organizations don’t require the same relationships or interdependency that collaborations do.

i-6d2328744b5f55dd888c6b056214d414-ca-watch.jpgTo understand the distinction, California Watch is a good case study. Associate editor Denise Zapata explained that part of its model is to allow partners to regionalize statewide stories, either by mining data that California Watch provides or reframing a story with a localized angle. While the process may require some back-and-forth, it’s largely a systematized transaction. But when California Watch recently pooled money with partners to send a reporter to Spain for a story that they all shared, that was a collaboration.

Given the industry’s quest for sustainability, and the desire among forward-thinking journalists to institutionalize collaboration, correctly identifying and naming transactions would be a helpful business strategy. After all, transactions are potential revenue streams, which makes them easy to justify.

Leadership is needed

With an understanding of what it entails, what can we do to ensure that collaboration survives? Nettesheim emphasized the importance of things like team charters, acknowledging strengths and weaknesses (at the individual and organizational level) and making a commitment to give and receive feedback.

It was heartening to hear. It confirmed that if we look beyond our own industry for collaborative modeling, there are promising solutions to what can make the process inefficient, frustrating and an easy target for editors who haven’t quite bought in.

But all of this will only happen with strong, vocal leaders who are open to reflection and understanding the dynamics of teamwork. With all the hats that editors and news executives currently wear, it seems like a difficult, if not impossible, task. So when I asked Nettesheim how media organizations could develop and nurture leadership skills, I was relieved that he hedged on a precise formula and instead gave a digestible example.

“The single best definition of leadership I learned from coach Jack Clark,” he explained, referring to UC Berkeley’s rugby coach whose team has won 22 championships since 1984.

“It’s simple and powerful. ‘Make those around you better.’”

As journalists try to make journalism better, Collaboration Central wants to hear from you. How do you define collaboration?

Carrie Lozano is a Bay-Area based journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is currently the project director for “Collective Work” a Knight-funded project about collaborative, multiplatform investigative reporting at the Investigative Reporting Program, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also directing and producing a documentary film with Charlotte Lagarde about jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch.

Collective Work is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Copyright 2012, The University of California at Berkeley.