How to Team Up

By Piotr Drabik.

Cross-border projects require teamwork. How can you set up your own group? In this article, four journalists share their experiences and provide links to get you started.

Irrespective of your experience in cross-border journalism, building a good team is crucial for the success of your project. But how do you go about finding members you value and trust? This article provides some experience from cross-border journalists, and links to platforms on which you can find potential team-members. It also briefly considers different team structures and the advantages and disadvantages of having a big or small team.

How do I find valuable team members?

The first step to building a team is to check your contacts list, and expand it if you can. Wojciech Cieśla, a Polish journalist and member of Investigative Europe (a cross-border investigative project with journalists from 8 European countries), explains her process: “Collecting business cards and contacts can be useful when looking for people to work on a common topic with or apply together for a grant. It works very simply: I know one person from Croatia, she contacts someone in Montenegro, where my project is taking place, and they send me recommendations.” Point being: get in touch with anyone and everyone who could help you find leads or connect you with potential team-members.

Jacopo Pasotti, a multi-award-winning Italian journalist and photographer, concurs: “I have quite a huge list of contacts that I’ve built up through workshops, summer schools, meetings, and conferences. I normally look into this list of contacts when figuring out who to put on my team. Sometimes, I’ve asked contacts for leads to other journalists who might be more suited to the work. It is always a rather direct approach. Most of the time I have already met the people with whom I then build a team.” Of course, it's a little bit harder to meet new journalists at international conferences and events during the like COVID-19 pandemic. But you can still attend webinars and online meetings where you can network.

Second, don't be shy about checking for relevant work experience and asking for references says Jelena Prtoric, a Croatian freelance journalist and a coordinator for The Climate and Energy Network run by the Arena for Journalism in Europe, a foundation that supports cross-border investigative journalism. “Prior to contacting people, I would always check their work and their references. Very often, it is important to check if they are freelancers or staffers, because staffers sometimes will not be able to fully participate in the project. They might lack time or have different editorial constraints with their publications.”

Brigitte Alfter, a Danish journalist and author of the book “Crossborder Collaborative Journalism—a Step-by-Step Guide”, also notes that building a team you trust can take years of working on individual relationships first: “I work with team members on stories that demand a lower level of trust first, in order to build trust over time by doing research together. This can take months or years. I do this because when I have a particularly sensitive story, where I will potentially have to protect a source, I want to trust colleagues before working with them, however well qualified they may be.”

On what platforms can I find other journalists interested in cross-border work?

In the internet era, it is much easier to find people to collaborate with. Below are some platforms that can help you find journalists for your team:

n-ost - This is a Network of over 250 journalists and media activists from all over Europe, but in particular, eastern Europe. There is a search tab on which you can look for journalists by their thematic expertise.

Society of Freelance Journalists Slack channel – This new initiative, set up for cross-border journalists during the COVID-19 pandemic by the European Journalism Centre, focuses on connecting freelance journalists. In this Slack channel, you can find colleagues for cross-border projects or potential publishers for your story.

IJNet Forum - This Facebook group, run by the International Journalists’ Network (IJNet), has more than 5,800 members. You can share offers about teamwork and check new posts from other journalists and researchers.

Solutions Journalism Network Group - This Facebook page is especially for writers and editors interested in solutions-oriented journalism (for more information about the different types of pieces you could write, read this article in the series). More than 4,100 members share their ideas and offer opportunities to collaborate.

Cafébabel Network - This Facebook group is linked to Cafébabel, a multilingual online magazine for European journalists. More than 500 members can exchange ideas, projects, article suggestions, upcoming events and journalism opportunities.

The Are We Europe Collective - This Facebook page is part of Are We Europe, a pan-European media organisation specialising in cross-border reports. The group has nearly 900 members, and journalists can share project opportunities and discuss various topics related to Europe on the page.

Hostwriter and the HostWire forum - Hostwriter is a platform that helps journalists find others who are interested in collaborating on cross-border projects. It has dozens of new proposals for cross-border projects every day, and counts over 5,000 journalists in more than 150 countries as active users. You can also share your own ideas and find people to collaborate with.

The Arena Housing Project - A new initiative directed at investigative journalists. You can sign up to their mailing list and learn about inspiring reports and new opportunities. The project is powered by Arena for Journalism in Europe, which organises Dataharvest, the European Investigative Journalism Conference, every year.

Find a journalist – around the world – This Facebook group was established in 2007 to make it easier for news organizations to find journalists anywhere in the world to seek out and report on stories for them. It now has more than 12,000 members.

Should I make a small or a big team?

Finding suitable people is not the end of the team-building process. You have to decide on what size your team should be, based on the aims and scope of your project. The bigger the team, the harder it can be to agree on certain issues.

“At Investigative Europe, sometimes 15-16 people work on the same topic. For me, this is the limit that allows me to freely communicate and exchange information. Personally, I prefer to work in groups of 5-6 people. Sometimes we break out into smaller groups, which makes it more manageable,” says Wojciech Cieśla.

Some journalists prefer working in small teams, and there are even grants that offer funding for cross-border duets. Small teams can be particularly good if you want to work only with people you know well and trust, or if everyone can set aside time to work on this project exclusively. But you need to spend much more time on research than in bigger teams, which is especially important for investigative projects.

On the other side of the spectrum, some projects can only be accomplished in huge teams. The Panama Papers investigation included more than 350 journalists from 80 countries. Of course that’s an extreme example, but it shows you just how big your cross-border team could be. Big teams are particularly good for pooling skill-sets and painting a global picture of complex phenomena.

Should the team resemble a loose network or should there be close collaboration?

Broadly, cross-border teams are characterised by four different types of relationships:

  • Loose network: ideal for journalists who need contacts in different countries and in similar fields of interest.
  • One-off assistance: based on small services in another country, like one-time translation or verification of facts. These services could help to build trust for future projects.
  • Loose collaboration: exchange information and share common tasks.
  • Close collaboration: journalists working like in a newsroom, closely cooperating and sharing materials whilst adhering to a schedule.

Think about what type of team structure and size would work best for the particular project you are working on. You don’t want to end up giving people too much or too little work. Also remember that if your team becomes too big, you may need to assign or hire a project manager.

Helen Keller, an American author and political activist, once said: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” These words describe the work of cross-border journalists perfectly, where the combined skills of a team are need to produce hard-hitting reports. With these tips and links at your disposal, we hope you can set out to find your team.

About The Author

Piotr Drabik

Click for biography