IJB’s collaboration model supporting groundbreaking journalism with award-winning multi-campus investigation

Brianna Poulous/ NY City News Service

By Maeve Ellis

The Investigative Journalism Bureau’s commitment to building a collaborative model for investigative journalism across North America continues to produce ground-breaking projects.

Dead Wrong, a student-led investigation into corruption in America’s funeral homes industry – fostered by the IJB network – has been recognised by multiple U.S. award committees.

The series won the 2023 Society of Professional Journalists Investigative Reporting award, as well as the Online Journalism Awards’ 2023 award in the Portfolio: Student Team category.

The project was born in an investigative journalism class at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, when student Zoltan Lucas pitched the story after personal experience with the funeral homes industry.

The reporting evolved into the class of dedicated students working under the guidance of professor and senior investigative journalist Andrew Lehren.

When Lehren pitched the project during one of the IJB’s regular story meetings, Mark Horvit, a professor at Missouri University, enlisted two of his students to join the reporting. 

“Because I knew they were working on this, I told Andy Lehren that I’d be…happy to contribute,” Horvit says.

The story was published in the NY City News Service, an outlet run out of the CUNY journalism school, with two Missouri students finishing one of the segments that the CUNY students got started.

“I think this is a real testament to the idea of the IJB and professors talking to one another,” said Lehren. “This just shows the potential and I think it’s only going to grow.”

A collaborative model

The IJB has long championed large-scale journalistic collaborations. The organization’s inaugural project, Generation Distress, brought together more than 70 researchers based in 10 North American universities, to study the youth mental health crisis.

Student reporters from Stanford University, CUNY, Missouri, Syracuse University, Toronto Metropolitan University, UBC, Carleton and King’s College worked collaboratively on the series of more than 20 stories, data visualizations and audio pieces. 

Articles were published in New York City News Service and the Toronto Star, and a podcast project through the TVO.

The series won the Mindset Award for Mental Health Reporting and was nominated for the prestigious Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Jackman Award for Excellence in Journalism. 

Another of the IJB’s collaboration-based project was Invisible Threat which reported on radon, a radioactive gas that is present in many North American homes and estimated to be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths each year.

The IJB worked with researchers at the University of Calgary and the Evict Radon National Study to gather 30,000 test results from across Canada to study this widespread public health issue.

Student journalists in Toronto and Missouri worked together across borders sharing reporting, data and key findings that were published in the Toronto Star and the Columbia Missourian. 

Working in a large team

Horvit says IJB collaborations like this one can help prepare students for an industry where working together is increasingly common.

“Having our students do this work is beneficial for them because collaborating is a skill. Learning how to work with other people is important and sometimes difficult,” he said.

Partners on the projects also said that working with a bigger team forces people to think creatively about collaboration methods.

“Communication is by far the biggest issue when doing projects that are among different schools or different newsrooms, and so it’s really important to build in regular systems of communication,” said Horvit.

Lehren agrees, saying “you just see all these different collaborations just within our profession, which is why I think these are valuable for us to do them in classrooms too.”

Jesús Chapa Malacara, a CUNY student worked on the project, said constant communication through weekly memos was key to playing to each others strengths.

“That was super helpful, not only to keep myself organized, but also to be able to see what everybody else was working on and to be able to identify where we were overlapping, where we might be able to co-interview a source,” he said.

The success of the project is a testament to the power of IJB’s collaborative model, says Chapa Malacara.

“There’s just so much that other people bring, so much in terms of their approach, so much in terms of the little tidbits they might find that you might not find, so much in terms of their skill set.”

More of the IJB’s investigative projects can be found on its website.