Beyond journalism: ISO stories of collaboration

It’s ironic that I’ve been assigned to write a story about the subject of collaboration. I’m an impatient person by nature, given to restlessness (and, alas sometimes, bad manners) when placed amid a large working group. I’ve dreaded group projects as far back as Mr. Zook’s sixth-grade science class. One person inevitably ended up doing all the work, or two people jockeyed over the role of leader, while everyone else sat back and doodled on their papers. I didn’t have to be the boss, but I sure as heck wanted someone to be the boss; otherwise, chaos reigned.

Decades later, I still have to fight my unease about group work, especially in journalism — a field where we’re taught to be Lone Rangers out saving the community’s day with our stunning compilation of sources, scoops and insights on the world. Witness Russell Crowe in “State of Play”: He drives around in his notebook-strewn car, following leads. His boss has no idea what he’s doing, and the young Web-savvy cub reporter they’ve assigned to help him can’t report her way out of a press conference. Photographer? What photographer? Where’s the midnight phone call from the copy desk, asking him why the spelling on the print version of the story doesn’t match the one in the online soundslide? Where’s the designer hounding him for those infographic stats?

These days, if you want to survive in journalism’s changing landscape, it’s not simply nice to make nice hands and share your toys. You have to. You also have to share your sources, your interview notes and your ideas — especially your ideas. And you really have to trust and respect one another. And talk things out — a lot. Bye-bye cowboy culture. Control freaks, share your load and spread the love!

I’ve worked on three fairly exhaustive multimedia projects in recent years, each of them larger and more complicated than the last. I’ve worked with coworkers to create podcasts, I’ve learned to write and narrate soundslides, I’ve gathered data for interactive graphics and written text for video. Twenty years ago, it was mainly just me, a photographer and an editor working a story; for my last project, our team included more than a dozen people, many of them working on seven other, unrelated things. (Here’s a recent essay about this collaboration.)

I came to collaboration begrudgingly at first, that old sixth-grade, do-it-myself mentality seeping through. But I finally understood how much better the end product was when I relaxed a little and trusted the process — and my incredibly able colleagues — and let my ego go. I tried to, anyway. It’s like staying home with young children: It sounds ideal and idyllic, but in reality, it’s a whole lot harder to pull off.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be looking for experts to interview on the subject of workplace collaboration and group dynamics. But I’m hoping some of my smart pals out in cyberland, and not just the journos, can help me by sharing some stories of their own. (Thanks to Kurt Navratil, a Virginia software consultant, for agreeing to be my first guinea pig…)

Can you tell me about a time when collaboration enhanced a project you were doing and when it didn’t? And why? Can you describe a time when you worked through a conflict with a co-collaborator? (My husband’s co-producer on the documentary telling him, for instance, that he’d “urinated” on her script — an exchange they laugh about now, with “urinating” becoming their code for “editing.”)

Post here or e-mail me at bmacy@cox.net to continue the conversation. Thanks so much.

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7 Comments

  1. krt

     /  September 23, 2009

    collaboration – big topic in software development and project management everywhere. Software companies coming out with ‘collaboration suites’ – big time buzz in the tech world. And with Twitter, Wiki’s, Facebook, SharePoint, deli.cio.us, iPhone/iTouch apps and any number of other tools – the mechanisms are all the rage. But none of them solve the real issue of getting the people to engage with one another when needed and when required. Easy to hide in the weeds.

    Reply
  2. bethmacy

     /  September 24, 2009

    So, Kurt. . . I’m assuming you’ll tell me some tales. I’m writing for journalists; piece will run on the Nieman Web site. Can we talk on phone sometime in the coming weeks?

    (P.S. I replied to your comment last night from my iphone but apparently the blog post comment didn’t go through. Can you and your tekkie collaborators iron out this bug please?! 🙂

    Reply
  3. Great to see your blog … didn’t know you had one. (I tend to blog on the defensive, mostly visiting the blogs of people who leave comments on mine, unless I have time to explore new ones, which, sadly, isn’t often these days.) Wish I could help you with collaboration stories…. You made some excellent points about journalists/writers being lone rangers. I don’t often work on group projects, though I’m in several professional writers groups and have helped put together writers’ conferences. You’ve got me thinking about stepping out of my very private comfort zone.

    Reply
  4. There was a a piece of human behavior research reported in the latest issue of Utne reader that applies to this. It was a Q&A with a researcher who studies happiness and collaborated with another researcher studying what makes a high-performance work group. Turns out positivity is the key. In observing work groups, researchers found that high-performing groups exhibited a ratio of six positive comments for every negative one. The more the better, but people and groups perform well on positivity ratio of three-to-one or higher, with three to one being the tipping point. Here’s a link to the piece: http://www.utne.com/Spirituality/Finding-Happiness-Cultivating-Positive-Emotions-Psychology.aspx

    Reply
  5. bethmacy

     /  September 25, 2009

    Tonia, that’s great stuff, and i have that issue but hadn’t yet looked at it.
    Happiness? Positivity? In a newsroom?!!!!
    Thanks for your help!

    Reply
  6. Shelly Maycock

     /  October 7, 2009

    I am using collaborative writing in my Business Writing class–Thanks to both you and Tonia for some excellent ideas…My students are now considering the advantages of trying for 5:1 positive to negative ratios, using the unexpected, strategic questioning and looking outside their groups…They are about to write fieldtrip guides for the VT Hahn Hort Garden and an operations manual for the YMCA solar greenhouse. All of this from collaborations with friends, community partners, and former students, whom I asked to suggest future projects.

    Reply
    • bethmacy

       /  October 8, 2009

      Shelly, that’s fantastic! Thanks for letting me know. You’re a great teacher, I can tell!

      Reply

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