Latin American investigative conference keen on collaborations

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In only its second run, the Latin American Conference on Investigative Journalism – held last weekend in Buenos Aires – has become one of the most important events on calendars of reporters from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego.

A myriad of workshops and seminars on reporting methods, access to information, computer-assisted reporting and problem-solving practices drew 200 journalists from across Latin America. Joining them were speakers, moderators, and trainers not just from the region but from Europe and the U.S. Among the Americans represented, along with ICIJ: IRE, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Nation magazine, Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, and ProPublica.

Reporters around the region showed how Latin American journalists are getting it done, despite numerous obstacles: Martín Orquiz of El Diario in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, laid out in chilling detail what it’s like to report on crime amid car bombs and threats from drug traffickers; from El Salvador, El Faro.net’s Carlos Dada recounted what it took to chase down a Cold War assassin and listen to his confession; and Mónica Gonzales showed how Chile’s non-profit Investigación e Información Periodística used public records to demonstrate inattention to crime by police in some neighborhoods.

But there was a strong undercurrent in the conference: more journalists – even traditionally solitary lone wolves who resist working with others – are convinced that collaborations can help sustain the future of investigative reporting.

An army of solitary investigative reporters taking a year or two to dig out government scandals is mostly wishful thinking, given the industry’s financial trend lines. It makes economic and journalistic sense, in many cases, to set aside competitive urges and pool investigative skills. To be sure, the individual scoops or the lone wolves hunting down exclusive stories won’t soon disappear. It’s in our professional DNA. But the new reality is that as budgets shrink, journalists are more willing to smash together ideas and skills in pursuit of cross-border, multi-platform investigations.

This is, practically, more possible than ever because the collaborative tools are inexpensive, easy to use and can be made secure. There’s Box.net for file and document sharing. And, who doesn’t Skype these days? Cloud documentation and real-time, online editing facilitate exchanges of ideas and information at speeds we once only dreamed of.

This prospect of a collaborative future is why a brief web tour of the Chauncey Bailey Project – the award-winning collaborative by outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area – had reporters in the Buenos Aires audience scribbling notes. It is why many at the conference directed a weekend’s worth of questions to U.S. colleagues, asking how Latin American journalists might employ non-profit and collaborative models.

Manny Garcia, editor of McClatchy’s El Nuevo Herald in Miami, in the weekend’s final panel discussion, cautioned that collaborations can’t happen without abundant and rigorous preparation, negotiation, patience – and then more preparation. Despite the challenges, avoiding collaboration may no longer be an option. Many major projects, Garcia said, may not get done anymore without collaborative efforts.

At ICIJ, we wholeheartedly agree.

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