How to collaborate on investigative stories during a pandemic.
By Zahra Salah Uddin
Last month, Hostwriter members Ankita Anand and Stephen Tsoroti had their collaborative investigation titled ‘Small scale miners risk life and limb in Zimbabwe’ published on Toward Freedom. The piece investigates gold mining in Zimbabwe, how it affects the lives of local miners, and the smuggling of gold to India. It is a gripping story that provides readers with detailed insight into the plight of miners in Zimbabwe working in unsafe conditions. The illegal gold mining industry has also led to attacks on miners and disappearances, as well as illicit supply chains and smuggling.
Hostwriter members Ankita and Stephen came together to work on this investigation with the help of Journalismfund.eu’s ‘Money Trail Grants’. When Ankita discovered that Stephen was looking to collaborate with a journalist in Asia, she embraced the opportunity to work on this topic. She could see that this collaboration would be a relationship of trust and equality, which made the decision to work on this project easier.
We reached out to Ankita and Stephen to share some insights and tips on how journalists from different countries can collaborate with each other despite travel restrictions. The authors had to face a number of challenges to work on this story, such as electricity, financial constraints, and limited travels. Ankita and Stephen share how they managed to overcome these challenges and how they felt throughout this collaboration.
Hostwriter: You received a ‘Money Trail Grant’ from Journalismfund.eu. What were your biggest challenges while working on this story during a pandemic?
Stephen: Our biggest challenges in this period were working around the issues of availability of electricity and the internet. Because of a failing economy, political upheavals in Zimbabwe, and measures introduced to counter the spread of the coronavirus, access to the internet was restricted. When it was there, the connection was poor. There were restrictions on movement, making it difficult to verify certain information, especially when it needed a physical presence.
Ankita: Because of the lockdown I had to put on hold some of the additional trips I was going to make for this investigation. It was also a mental struggle to focus on work when my fellow journalists were facing incarceration simply for doing their jobs. Another challenge we had to overcome even before Covid-19 struck had to do with the changing banking rules in Zimbabwe. We received the grant but it took a long time for us to take out the money from our account in Zimbabwe. We used to go and queue up at the bank for hours every day, with no idea about whether and how much money we would get that day because the rules allowed us to withdraw from the bank only a little each day.
Hostwriter: How did you overcome these challenges?
Stephen: Whenever we had an internet connection, we made sure that we communicated as much as possible, answering each other’s questions and discussing information that needed clarification. We also collaborated with other local journalists and sources.
Ankita: It meant a lot that Journalismfund.eu patiently had our back throughout these challenges. The fact that we could use part of the grant to travel to each other’s locations made a world of difference to our reporting. It also made us aware of the social, economic, political, and cultural issues in each other’s local contexts, which had to be tackled before we could begin our investigation. When collaborating virtually, we always checked in with each other, not just about our work but to see how we were doing personally. It strengthened our friendship and made us more understanding of each other as colleagues. When Stephen visited Delhi for the investigation in India, he stayed at my place, which helped us save both money and the time we had lost earlier due to logistical difficulties.
Hostwriter: When it comes to freelancing and collaborative journalism, how has Hostwriter helped you?
Stephen: It has helped me locate journalists with the same interests and expertise, given me tips and links to resources that one should know and revisit when doing investigative journalism.
Ankita: Hostwriter was the first platform I came across where journalists could connect to collaborate with each other. It motivated me to consider collaborations myself. Reading on the platform the works and experiences of other teams informed our Zimbabwe-India collaboration. With Hostwriter’s support, I was able to attend the GIJN Conference in 2019 and it was an eye-opener. I could see the variety of collaborations possible across the world, and the scale and the standards of work that could be achieved. This learning was also something I kept in mind when carrying out our own investigation.
Hostwriter: What is your advice to freelance journalists struggling to work on collaborative stories in light of the pandemic?
Stephen: My advice to freelance journalists working on collaborative stories is: 1) Try as much as possible to understand matters surrounding the investigation you are about to do. 2) Always work as a team and leave no room for prejudices, like gender, race, and personal attitudes. Respect and learn from each other’s experiences. 3) Be open and transparent with one another, guided by journalism ethics.
Ankita: I am currently writing a guide on collaborations for Tactical Tech Collective so I hope that will be useful to anyone looking to collaborate. If you are struggling with the pandemic and can’t travel, you can use the time to do other research, interviews, prepare pitches, and be in regular communication with team members. Before you start working together, or at any stage of your collaboration, if you have a query in mind, ask it. It does not matter if it is about money or sharing of bylines or some other question about your role in the team. It’s on a lot of people’s minds but they don’t like to talk about it. This can lead to miscommunication and resentment, adversely affecting the chances of the team collaborating again. And if a journalist gets offended about someone asking questions, maybe it’s a warning that you should look for other people to team up with!