How to develop a cross-border idea

By Anne Sofie Hoffmann Schrøder.

You are now embarking on a journey into cross-border journalism. But how do you initiate the brainstorm? And what challenges might you encounter? In these videos, editors and cross-border journalists share tips on how to develop your storyline.

Choosing your story

You have to actively look for ways of making your story relevant across borders, says Brigitte Alfter, director of the Arena for Journalism in Europe, a foundation that organises the annual European Investigative Journalism Conference, also known as Dataharvest. Alfter has authored numerous books and articles on the subject of cross-border collaboration, including a step-by-step Routledge guide with tips on how to search for and find stories with angles that are relevant to your audience. She suggests approaching your story in one of two ways: either by taking a local or domestic angle and linking it to broader, international themes; or by starting with a transnational topic but focusing on its local effects in a variety of countries. You can use categories such as:

STORIES OF GENERAL INTEREST: Look at the cross-border implications of current events

CHAIN STORIES: These focus on investigating supply chains and transnational crime.

COMPARATIVE STORIES: Pick a theme or emerging trend, such as youth unemployment, education reform, or pollution, and compare it across different countries: is one country facing problems that another has already solved?

Look for the big reveal

What is the big reveal of the story, and why does it matter? Too many journalists pitch transnational themes rather than cross-border stories, says Timothy Large, coordinator of IJ4EU, a fund set up by the International Press Institute to support cross-border journalism in Europe. If you pick a broad transnational theme such as climate change, organised crime, tax evasion, trafficking, or pandemics, always ask yourself: “What am I revealing, and why does it matter?” Don’t get lost in the broader theme.

Work for the public interest in your own country

When you brainstorm with your team-members, make sure that the primary aim is the public interest in everyone’s own country, says Paul Radu, co-founder and executive director of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). That way, team members will feel more engaged. Also, remember that communication is key in team-work: every member should have access to the different parts of the project, and you should never assume that people think like you, but their different expertise and experiences should enrich the project.

The cross-border element must be integral from the start

The best cross-border stories are the ones where the cross-border element forms an integral part of the story itself, explains Neil Arun, editor of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). A quick test is to ask: “What is the point this story is making?” If that point can be made without the cross-border element, then there is a problem, and the cross-border element will look like it was only added because there was money for it in the reporting grant.

The story should be relevant to all team-member’s countries

Choose colleagues based on how relevant your story idea is in their countries as well, says Elisa Simantke, editorial director of Investigate Europe. A story that you find interesting may be overreported in another country or not be relevant there. So in order to pitch your idea to international colleagues, you need to consider how research from your country can be of interest to them, and vice versa.

Designate a devil’s advocate

Journalists are sensitive to criticism, so it helps to designate a devil's advocate in the team, says Nico Schmidt, journalist and author at Investigate Europe. The devil’s advocate can openly ask difficult and critical questions while brainstorming and discussing new ideas, without feeling insulted or insulting others.


Here are some examples of how other journalists developed their cross-border ideas.


Staffan Dahllöf’s story about the Farmsubsidy project 15 years ago laid the ground for the EIJC’s Dataharvest conferences and had legal and political impacts in the years that followed.

Farmsubsidy: Big landowners get the most
Authors: An international team of journalists, coders and activists, initiated by Nils Mulvad and Kjeld Hansen in 2003, coordinated and developed by Nils Mulvad, Brigitte Alfter, & Jack Thurston from 2004, with the involvement of many others until 2013.

The official story is available at, plus interviews with Nils Mulvad.

What is this project/story about?

Our story looked at the individual farmers and landowners who receive subsidies from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the largest single spending area in the EU budget. The aim was to put names and faces to the main beneficiaries of European taxes.

How did the initial idea come up, and how did it develop during the brainstorm?

Nils Mulvad, a journalist specialized in data, and Kjeld Hansen, a part time farmer with an interest in sustainable farming, decided to file freedom of information requests on who receives farm subsidies in Denmark. They succeeded. In 2004 the two could show how large landowners and agribusinesses—with names and addresses—were the biggest beneficiaries of such subsidies. This finding ran contrary to the common belief, backed by multiple political statements, that farm subsidies were primarily doled out to small and poorer farmers.

Brigitte Alfter, at the time a correspondent in Brussels for the Danish daily Information, was inspired by this report and made a similar request on an EU-level to the Commission. Shortly after, Jack Thurston, a UK researcher and campaigner, made use of the newly introduced freedom of information act in the UK. He demonstrated how the royal family and British nobility, as big landowners, got millions of euros from Brussels every year.

Mulvad, Alfter and Thurston got together and formed the network and invited colleagues from other EU member states to join. This was the start of many long-lasting legal battles with EU and national authorities, of dozens of FOI requests in member states, of scraping for data from available databases, and not least, of coordinating and collecting (“harvesting”) the data from all our efforts on different levels.

Members of the network started to meet annually in May 2009 following the latest release of subsidy figures by member countries in April. This was how the Dataharvest/European Investigative Journalism conferences took off in Brussels. The conferences have since been developed by Brigitte Alfter and others into an annual meeting point in Mechelen and an inspirational center for all kinds of investigative cross-border journalism.

What challenges did you have in the brainstorming phase?

The obvious challenges were how to get hold of the relevant data in the first place, and all the legal issues that that entailed. The Commission had all the data from the member countries but refused to share them, claiming that the member countries were the owners of the names of the beneficiaries and had sole access to the amount the beneficiaries received.

The Estonian EU commissioner Siim Kallas, at the time responsible for transparency in the Commission, took our side and put a link to the project on his official webpage. Also, the EU Ombudsman stated that holding back the requested data was an example of maladministration.

In 2009 the rules were changed, making it compulsory for member countries to publish names of the beneficiaries of subsidies, and the amount of money they received. These rules were challenged in the European Court of Justice for infringement of privacy. The court deemed them to be un-proportional, forcing the natural persons’ names to be redacted. Finally, new rules were introduced in 2013, with an obligation to publish names and amounts but with a threshold for subsidies of less than €1,250 /year, to be decided nationally. (For details scroll down to article 111 in Regulation 1306/2013. A webpage run by the Commission 2020

links to the national data sources, each in their own language). But after 16 years, there is still no pan-EU compilation of who gets what today.

A more significant challenge was how to combine and coordinate the work of journalists, scholars, NGOs and political activists who all contributed to finding the facts and raising awareness about the findings. We did this by limiting our aims, so that our primary goal was to promote transparency of subsidies, and not to become a platform for opinions about the CAP or the EU as such.

Can you share any tips on how to develop a cross-border idea based on your story example?

The project benefitted from sharing knowledge and experiences between journalists and non-journalists, ranging from coders to environmental groups and political lobbyists. This advantage could have been turned into a conflict of interest. We like to believe that it was handled correctly, avoiding biased reporting and giving non-journalists a fair share of the work involved.

A positive experience was how legal battles and good FOI-practices in some member states inspired others to submit FOIs. Besides adding to farm policy discussions, the initiative fueled a general interest in access to government documents. In 2006 the troika Mulvad, Alfter and Thurston got the Freedom of Information Award by American IRE, (Investigative Reporters and Editors) and Nils Mulvad was awarded European journalist of the year by the magazine European Voice (now transformed into The interest was also mirrored in the now closed-down website which for a couple of years covered FOI-related topics in Europe. Different aspects of FOI have since been a recurring topic at the Dataharvest conferences.

In the end, an initiative that started on a national level had an impact on EU-legislation. There is still no pan-European portal with the names of those who receive farm subsidies from the EU and how much they get. On the other hand, member states have been obliged to make national data public. Although the project didn’t reach transparency to the full extent that the initiators hoped for, it definitely took it an important step forward.


The MEPs Project: The Ghost Offices of MEPs
Authors: an international team of journalists coordinated by Anuška Delić

Anuška Delić is a Slovenian investigative and data journalist. In 2018 she joined The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) as a regional editor for the Balkans. She is an investigative reporter and founder of Oštro, the first investigative journalism center focusing on the Adriatic Region. Her work on The MEPs Project prompted Politico Europe to rank Anuška 6th among 28 people “shaping, shaking and stirring Europe.” (Source: OCCRP)

The project sheds light on how Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) spend the general expenses payments they receive every month to fund offices in their constituencies (worth €4,342 per MEP). Reporters located in every EU member state requested information from all MEPs and analysed documents from the European Parliament, land registries and other sources. The investigation found that 249 MEPs apparently do not even have offices, while in at least 42 cases MEPs funnelled the payments to political parties or their own bank accounts.The investigation is available here.

How did the initial idea come up, and how did it develop during the brainstorm?

Anuška Delić: I was talking to my colleague, Nils Mulvad, about the fact that I had been refused access to information on how Slovenian MEPs spend their personal allowances. I found this outrageous because in Slovenia, the freedom of information law explicitly states that all data around public expenses is public information. It was ridiculous that I couldn’t get access to it at the EU level. During our conversation, I proposed an idea: “Why don't I get journalists from all EU member states to request the same thing?” That's basically how our investigation started. This was in February 2015, and in June, most of the group was already put together and then we filed the requests.

What challenges did you have at the beginning?

A.D.: Like with any investigation, you first think of something, go for it because you think it's worthwhile, and eventually challenges emerge.

The first difference between our expectations and reality came when the European Parliament said they had no data on how the general expenditure allowance is spent. That is crazy: more than 4,000 euros are spent by every member of the European Parliament each month, and yet there is no oversight on where that money goes.

The European Court of Justice basically sided with the European Parliament and iterated that professional expenditure is basically personal data, which I find oxymoronic.

The investigative team wasn't that large in the beginning, but by the time we were trying to find the national offices for each MEP, we numbered more than 40 people. I was coordinating with the people that were representing each country. And they also had colleagues working on it. But it was also the first collaboration that I had ever led, so for me this was a novel experience.

Can you share any tips on how to develop a cross-border idea based on this story?

A.D.: Don't over-prepare. Be flexible, because situations can change. They can do inside the team (people can drop out, or it may be difficult to coordinate an editorial team across different locations and time-zones) and outside (you may hit a road-block in your investigation). You need to have an open attitude.

For me, the best way to think about doing a collaborative investigation is to think about it as if you were doing an investigation by yourself. You only need to multiply your efforts by the number of members. So try not to think of it as a group of people, but as several limbs of an investigation.

For our investigation, we were primarily gathering data. The trickiest part was building the data set. And this is where I definitely made a few rookie mistakes: we group edited the data in a huge Google sheet, and it got too complicated. It was a pain to keep an overview of the connections, mistakes, etc. in the data set. In these situations, you really need to set the workflow in advance and assign someone to manage the data set. We eventually overcame our original mistakes and were able to analyse the data, but if we had been clearer from the start, it would have made our lives easier.

Also, keeping track of fact-checking when you have people gathering documents, data, information and statements (including off the record conversations), becomes harder the more people are involved in the project, and if the plan is to have one, overarching story. If your plan is to have a project where everyone does their own thing, that's a different type of collaboration.

We used Slack and Google Drive to keep in touch. I don't like Slack, and wouldn’t recommend it. Not enough people regularly use it. I'm also not sure about how secure it is. I decided after this project that I would never use it on an investigation again. Everybody can make accounts on Slack, it's no problem, but if checking the app is not part of people’s work routine, it will be very hard to get the team onboard. It's usually better to use a communication tool that everyone uses regularly. For most people this is a combination of encrypted mail, Signal, and other apps, depending on the sensitivity of the investigation.


The European Investment Bank: Africa’s Discreet Financier
Authors: Adriana Homolova, David Tarazona, Laurence Soustras, John-Allan Namu, Aboubakar Mounchili, Riana Raymonde Randrianarisoa

The European Investment Bank (EIB) has financed projects in several African countries which have caused discontent among locals. The institution’s guidelines on how such projects deal with environmental and social issues are not always implemented. We looked into the disconnect between the bank’s stated aims and the results of their projects on the ground. The investigation is available here.

How did the initial idea come up, and how did it develop during the brainstorm?

Adriana Homolova: The idea was actually inspired by an early investigation by the ICIJ into World Bank investments, which found that the institution has regularly failed to live up to its own policies for protecting people harmed by projects that it finances. My colleague looked at whether there is a similar institution in Europe, and decided to look into the EIB. That was all the brainstorming we did.

Laurence Soustras: I was invited to investigate the topic with the rest of the European team (which was mainly composed of data journalists), and to be the main writer.

What challenges did you have in the brainstorming phase?

The story was initially conceived as a data journalism exploration of the EIB projects vault, with a video documentary about an EIB project in Kenya as a case study. But it quickly grew as we decided to focus on two or three more cases so that the whole project would be more comprehensive and reflect the many aspects of the EIB Africa investment/development story. There were not many challenges in this brainstorming phase as we agreed quickly on what we wanted to produce.

The main challenges came directly after: first, we obtained disappointing data that was incomplete or inconclusive; second, it was very difficult to arrange interviews with staff at the EIB in order to clear with them what we couldn't find in the data. This was one of the reasons that led us to broaden the investigation and rely more on local African journalists to help us cover the story locally.

Can you share any tips on how to develop a cross-border idea based on your story example?

Laurence Soustras: Have a good project manager with good budget management skills (this was the case in our investigation); get a very early assessment of the data sets you want to base the story on (are they reliable? what is the story they provide?) and of the access you are going to have to interviewees on both sides of the story; assemble a comprehensive team (journalists, data journalists, designers, local reporters).

About The Author

Anne Sofie Hoffmann Schrøder

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