What's more important: exclusivity or a great story? A new model of cooperative journalism being developed at the Toronto Star is helping to break news, and the traditional practice of keeping information from competitors. Here in J-source, Star investigative reporter Robert Cribb explains how sharing resources led to better journalism in a series on underage Cuban sex workers.

What's more important: exclusivity or a great story? A new model of cooperative journalism being developed at the Toronto Star is helping to break news, and the traditional practice of keeping information from competitors. Here in J-source, Star investigative reporter Robert Cribb explains how sharing resources led to better journalism in a series on Canadian child sex tourists.

When the Toronto Star’s recent investigative series into Canadian child sex tourists hit the front pages, there was more than the typical pile of journalistic research behind the words.

All images courtesy of Toronto Star

The series was among the first major examples of a new model for international co-productions the Star is developing through a small team of reporters dedicated to investigating big-picture issues that cross provincial and national borders. Against all journalistic instincts, the Star’s “enterprise team” – comprised of Julian Sher, Jennifer Quinn and myself – seek out journalists at other outlets who have unique expertise, resources and knowledge.

Then, we strike a deal: To work together, share everything and take important stories to a higher level than either of us could alone.

In this case, we crafted a unique international partnership with the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language daily newspaper, El Nuevo Herald. In the closing weeks of the investigation, we also shared our documents and findings with CTV’s W5 which produced a documentary mirroring the Star/Herald stories.

After weeks of grindstone work gathering court records and photographs of convicted sex tourists, conducting on-the-ground reporting in Cuba and police interviews in Toronto and fighting for access-to-information documents from the RCMP, we handed them over to organizations that would be considered competitors by traditional standards.

At times, we did so with trembling hands.

It requires a vast leap of faith to break ancient competitive habits that have become codified in our journalistic DNA.

But here’s the thing: While exclusivity is still a key for fostering aggressive news coverage and building brand, there’s a statute of limitations on the usefulness of shutting out the other guy at all costs. And those limitations are becoming clearer to many journalists.

For some stories – such as investigations with sweeping geographical complexities, language issues and complex indigenous legal or policy questions – a strict DIY mentality can both undermine the scope and quality of the reporting and the interests of readers. Fact is, sometimes we can’t do it all quickly and comprehensively in a way that best serves the story. And trying is needlessly self-defeating and, on occasion, dumb.

In this case, the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald connection brought tremendous insights, understanding and practical knowledge that smoothed a difficult foreign reporting journey and brought context and hard evidence that would have been missing in our stories otherwise.

Any successful co-production, we’re learning, is the result of unconditional trust between journalists. Finding honour among thieves isn’t always easy. But it’s there if you’re willing to play ball, we’re finding.  

I called Manny Garcia, El Nuevo Herald’s executive editor, because he is a journalist of the highest calling with whom I’ve served on the board of Investigative Reporters and Editors (ire.org) for several years. More to the point, I knew he and his reporters know Cuba better than we could ever hope to on deadline.

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We needed that kind of Cuban knowledge since the key figure in our story – a convicted child pornographer now facing sex tourism charges in Canada – committed his troubling list of proven and alleged crimes against Cuban girls as young as 4 during dozens of trips to the island nation over the past two decades. We knew we had to go to Cuba illegally to report the story under the radar of police. And we knew we needed help navigating the authorities, the language and sources.

Once the partnership was sealed, El Nuevo sent reporter Juan Tamayo to Toronto for a few days in February to work with us in the Star newsroom. We shared our pile of documents with him and laid out a skeleton draft with proposed publication dates.

Back in Miami, he dug deep into his contacts in the Cuban community and tapped his law enforcement sources to get insights and context that would have been far more elusive for us. We worked the Canadian angles including building paper trails on a list of child sex tourists and examining loopholes in Canada’s enforcement system for catching traveling sex offenders.

Then, together with an El Nuevo photographer/translator with lots of Cuban experience, I travelled to Havana and Varadero for an intense week of undercover reporting featuring hidden cameras, late nights on the prostitution strips and lots of looking over our shoulders.

The results were powerful, triggering an immediate promise in the House from federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to fill the cracks through which Canadian child sex offenders have been easily passing to abuse children abroad.

The stories ran front page in the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald for three days running and spread quickly and widely in both Spanish and English social media.

A maturing co-production model in the U.S. has led to innovative and powerful journalism even amid dramatic cuts to investigative units there. Increasingly, these co-pro investigations are resulting in some of the most ambitious and decorated reporting in the U.S.

It’s clear to me now why that is. There’s no real financial impact. It’s really about doing more comprehensive journalism with wider reach and scope.

The child sex tourism series is our third co-production since the team launched in October (including a series with CBC Radio-Canada’s Enquette examining Ontario’s Italian mafia presence and stories with Washington D.C. based Center for Public Integrity on international research into breast cancer rates among women working in Windsor auto plants). In each case, the stories benefited from the authority that comes with shared documents and data, enhanced multi-media web features through shared video and audio and, in the end, more pieces of a story’s puzzle laid out before the reader.

We can all get along when we need to. When we do, our respective audiences are the beneficiaries.

Robert Cribb is an award-winning investigative reporter at the Toronto Star. He has been honoured in numerous national journalism award competitions. In 2012, he was the recipient of both the Massey Journalism Fellowship and the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy Reporting. Cribb is past president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, current president of the CAJ’s Educational Foundation and the only non-U.S. board member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He is co-author of Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporters Research Guide (Oxford University Press) and a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Munk School for Global Affairs and Ryerson University's School of Journalism.

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