A style guide for collaborative journalism: what I’ve learned from the first weeks of Help Me Investigate: Networks

Collaborative journalism as relay race?

Collaborative journalism as relay race? Image by Phil Roeder

 

It’s a few weeks into the Help Me Investigate: Networks project and I’ve been learning a lot about how community management and investigative journalism can support each other.

Some of this is building on experiences on the original Help Me Investigate, but one thing in particular is emerging from this project. It’s about how you should write when your intention is to make it easy for others to get involved – a different approach to traditional newswriting, but not too different to good blogging practice.

It’s a style guide, of sorts. And so far I’ve identified 3 key qualities:

1. Write ‘news that I can use’

Pull out the practical aspects of what you’re writing about. Even if your post is just a link to an article elsewhere, pull out the most useful quote: the facts, the legalities, the implications. If you’re writing about an investigation, tell us about the process; link to the full data; translate relevant documents and reports.

Make it useful, because users can build on that to help you in return.

2. End your posts with a baton that others can pick up

If it’s a work-in-progress, outline what questions you need to answer next. This will also help keep your own planning on track. If you’re linking to something else, highlight the gaps that need filling – what information is missing?

Already on Help Me Investigate Welfare, for example, one investigation has moved from one user’s initial blog post, to my setting up the site, to a third person supplying extra contextual data, and a fourth contributor mapping the results. That wouldn’t have been possible if the first person had waited and waited until they felt that they were ‘finished’. Online, it’s the unfinished article that is easier to help with.

3. Create momentum by posting small things, often, as you move towards your target

Rather than waiting for things to be perfect, publish as you go. This provides multiple opportunities for others to discover your work, and multiple ways in which to enter it (one post may talk about documents that someone has expertise on; another may profile a particular individual, and so on).

It also makes it clear that the investigation is going somewhere, and the user may be more inclined to help it get there as a result.

Interestingly, one of the journalists on National Public Radio in the US talks of a similar approach:

“[Rina Palta] became a leading reporter on the story, not by writing one big investigative piece but by filing frequent, incremental updates, [NPR’s Matt] Thompson said. (Even Stephen Colbert cited her work.) Thompson calls it the quest: The body of work makes a bigger impact than any single post.”

So there are editorial benefits too.

This style guide works in tandem with a wider content strategy which I’ll blog about at some point.

Meanwhile, what other points would you add to a style guide for collaborative journalism? (Better still, why not join the project and find out for yourself)

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