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Oct. 19, 2010, 9:30 a.m.

The scalability of collaboration: ProPublica partners with five (five!) other outlets for its latest story

Today brings the launch of a blockbuster story: A group of investigative journalists, looking into the financial practices of pharmaceutical companies, found that many doctors — some of whom earn six-figure returns for promoting particular drug brands to their patients — often have no research experience related to the medications they promote. And, often, they push “off-label” uses of the drugs, uses those not approved by U.S. regulators, in exchange for the compensation.

It’s a big, important piece — the kind of anger-inducing, broadly affective narrative that is the bread and butter of investigative journalism. The story told in “Dollars for Docs” — the trusted medical professional, shilling for Big Pharma — is, quite literally, outrageous.

For the project, ProPublica collaborated with other news organizations for purposes of reporting, data collection, and application-building. Which is standard practice for the open-minded news outfit. What isn’t standard, though, is the sheer scale of the collaboration itself: “Dollars for Docs” represents the collective work of six — yes, six — different news organizations: NPR, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, Consumer Reports, PBS’s Nightly Business Report, and ProPublica itself. (So if the whole “exposing affronts to the public interest” thing doesn’t work out for them, the project’s participants can always just form a volleyball team.) Each partner is running its own version of the story based on common data the group has gathered from pharmaceutical companies and elsewhere; some are using ProPublica’s lead piece (written by ProPublica reporters — and 2010 Pulitzer finalists — Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber) in their distribution strategy, while others are focusing on their customized treatments of the data. And all have access — as the rest of us do — to a widget that allows users to search the database the news collective has amassed to determine whether particular doctors have taken pharma funding.

“We haven’t done one like this before,” Tom Detzel, the ProPublica editor who oversaw the endeavor, says of the undertaking. “We haven’t had more partners than this in any collaboration.”

Which raises the question: How? How do you coordinate among all those partners — who are, after all, not only individual reporters, but also representatives of different mediums and outlets, each with its own way of doing things — to create a collaboration that’s productive and immune to the familiar vagaries of design-by-committee? One approach, Detzel says — and perhaps it’s really the approach — is to give everyone involved plenty of freedom to do their own work and adopt their own approaches. “We just decided we were going to loosen the reins and let everyone run free,” he says. In terms of organizational oversight itself, the model “was a hub-and-spoke kind of thing,” he notes; Detzel’s role at the hub, as he saw it, was a to be a facilitator and fosterer of communication. And “it wasn’t as difficult as it sounds,” he notes. “The partners all took initiative to do their own stories. We didn’t try to draw any lines in the sand: ‘Here’s what you can do, and can’t do.’ We just said, ‘Here’s the topic we want to work with, and here’s the data we have. Take it and run with it.'”

That freedom, though, has to be tempered with strategic communication — which, in this case, occurred naturally among the partners, Detzel says. “Once we got started, and the reporters started talking to each other, they were all sharing information tips, sources, ideas — and we all learned from each other during the process.” In fact, “it’s actually quite fun to see how everybody has a slightly different take on this.”

The partnerships themselves came about fairly organically; they started with Dan Nguyen, the ProPublica reporter tasked with developing the data side of the “Dollars and Docs” story, and some offline conversations he was having with fellow hackers. Nightly Business Reports, which had independently embarked on a similar line of investigation, contacted Nguyen about a possible collaboration; that opened the door to the pairing with the Tribune and the Globe: “We’d done some work with Tribune before,” Detzel says, “and we knew Boston would be interested because Charlie [Ornstein] had some contacts up there on the health team — and because it’s such a big medical center.” Then came NPR (“we’d been looking for a good opportunity to work with the health and science team — and they jumped on this one”), and, finally, Consumer Reports, which contacted ProPublica about sharing data for its health provider ratings site.

This could be the moment in the movie when word of the party that was supposed to be an intimate affair has spread to the point of absurdity; ProPublica could easily have become the hapless kid trying to save his mother’s antique vases from the frat guys and their kegs. And, indeed, the mega-teamup begs the question: How scalable is collaboration itself? When it comes to journalistic partnerships, of course, there are logical limits; though there are certainly gains — in exposure and impact, in particular — to be made from collaboration, partnership is a finite resource. And, for Detzel, making it work — throwing the party, making the friends, all while keeping Mom’s china intact — is a matter of good communication. “It takes a little more time to do things,” he notes, “and you’ve got to overcome some of those old habits that are ingrained in all of us” — the impulse, in particular, to beat the competition. Three more ways to scale: (1) Agree to an end goal for a project, but don’t be too hung up on how you’re going to get there; (2) Allow extra time into the process — “because it does take extra time to do the communication and coordination that’s required to pull something like this off”; and (3) “Trust the reporters to find the story, and they will.”

And that may be the biggest, if simplest, takeaway from the mega-teamup: In the end, collaborations are about individuals. (As David Fanning, executive producer of the documentary program Frontline, put it of his own collaboration efforts with Planet Money and the NewsHour: “Co-productions are never between institutions; they’re only really between the people who work together and trust each other.”) Strategic scaling is possible; it just requires that the individuals involved be coordinated in ways that maximize individuality for, yes, the good of the group. “It’s a new world out there,” Detzel says. “And when you’re sharing, you can actually end up with something that’s got a lot more texture and nuance — really, a much better product than you can make on your own.”

POSTED     Oct. 19, 2010, 9:30 a.m.
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