When Tyrese Coleman set out to report an environmental-justice story about Brown Grove, Virginia, her hometown, she knew she couldn’t do it alone. Activists in the historically Black community were fighting the Wegmans grocery chain’s proposed new distribution center, which threatened the town’s wetlands and the centuries-old unmarked graves that are believed to lie within. Coleman’s great-great-great-grandmother founded the town. Several of her cousins were deeply involved in the effort to stop the new development. And on top of that, Coleman, an author now based in Maryland, didn’t have a ton of experience with journalistic reporting. Her personal ties meant she could draw on important context, expertise, and connections that an outsider wouldn’t have. They also meant she would need help being objective. So she asked Melody Schreiber, a Washington, DC–based independent health and science journalist, to be her co-author. Schreiber and Coleman had known each other since graduate school. But beyond their friendship, Coleman knew that Schreiber’s experience reporting on environmental issues would strengthen the story. The decision “was just really a no-brainer,” Coleman says.
As they got underway, the pair sat in together on nearly every interview, every meeting with their editor, every public hearing. They even worked in the Google Docs versions of their drafts simultaneously, joking around in the comments and fact-checking each other’s sentences in real time. The resulting story ran in The Washington Post Magazine in 2021.
Schreiber was no stranger to sharing a byline. During a previous stint as a staff writer at ArcticToday, she would sometimes report and write sections of a piece and pass them off to an editor who would blend them with bits that other reporters had written, to assemble a complete story. As a freelancer covering the Nepal earthquake in 2015, she sent her editor chunks of text, only to “end up co-bylining with people I’d never heard of.” But the close collaboration with Coleman was a new experience, and Schreiber found it incredibly rewarding. “I love co-bylining,” she says. “It can really expand your perspective.”
Collaborating with others to report or write a story provides numerous advantages. It allows reporters to cast a wider net, or combine different skillsets and expertise to deepen a piece. The addition of an extra interviewer can bring a new set of experiences to the table, leading to a richer interview. But reporting and writing together can be a challenge, as well. Reporters may disagree on story direction, and unchecked egos can lead to hurt feelings. A successful collaboration requires trust, communication, and knowing how to play to your team’s strengths. You have to “look for people who are in tune with you,” says Michelle Buky, a Nairobi-based freelance journalist and media consultant. And, she adds, those people should be in tune with the story you want to tell.
There are three types of stories that lend themselves to multiple bylines, says Lauren Morello, the national issues editor at The Messenger. When big news breaks, she says, throwing two or more reporters on the assignment “is a way to get a story up really quickly. You’ve doubled the amount of people you have making calls.” A team also has a much easier time covering large events than a lone journalist. And pieces that transcend a single beat may need the expertise that multiple reporters can bring.
Investigations, where you “have to be chasing two or three different lines of inquiry,” often benefit from having several bylines, says Maria Carrillo, a consultant and coach who retired from her role as the Tampa Bay Times’ enterprise editor in 2021 after a 36-year career in regional newsrooms. One reporter can chase down leads and track down sources, while another can follow a trail of documents or do archival research. You might have a talented writer who can collect everyone else’s material “and turn it into a really nicely flowing story,” she says. “When I came into the business, everybody expected you to be great at everything or to want to be great at everything. It’s not really realistic.”
The Tampa Bay Times 2021 investigation “Poisoned,” which examined the lasting damages that a lead factory wreaked on a nearby community, started when investigative reporter Corey G. Johnson dug into a tip. As he got deeper, it became clear that “this could be a really big story,” says Carrillo, who helped edit the series. Two other reporters—one with data-wrangling skills and one with excellent writing chops—joined the team. The first piece, “Poisoned—Part 1: The Factory,” was anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2022. The three-part series spun off more than two dozen follow-up stories, and in the wake of the investigation’s publication, state and federal regulators fined the factory—with penalties totaling more than $800,000. The “Poisoned” series illustrates one of the key tenets of co-bylining: Make sure that team members’ skillsets complement one another in ways that enhance the story.
For Christopher Deane, a London-based researcher and journalist, looping in other reporters is vital for another reason: It can provide access to far-off places and bring in country-specific expertise and lived experience to help build local connections. As an intern at Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s investigative outlet, Deane published a quintuple-bylined piece jointly with gal-dem, a now-shuttered magazine that focused on the stories of people of color from marginalized genders. The piece explored the experiences of women in Kenya who have been forced to move due to the ravages of climate change. In lieu of traveling to Kenya himself, Deane relied on two Nairobi-based freelancers—Buky, the media consultant, and Sandra Mutuku, a freelance film producer.
Identifying trustworthy collaborators is crucial, Deane says. Mutuku and Buky were both recommended to them by other, trusted reporters. Both of them had experience telling similar stories and interviewing people in a compassionate way. Without them, “the story could’ve failed,” he says. But they trusted each party to “be as brilliant as we thought they were.”
Knowing Where You’re Going
Once you’ve identified your team and you’re ready to begin reporting, you “want the roadmap to be clear,” Morello says. She suggests that the first step in any collaboration is to set up a shared document and start a list of who is calling whom. Getting this in writing doesn’t mean it can’t change along the way. But it does mean everyone knows the “basic contours” of the piece and each individual’s job. And if you’re “not sure who’s supposed to be doing what, ask,” Morello adds.
When Deane started out on the climate migration piece, he says he didn’t quite know where in Africa to focus the story, or how to find women to interview. Buky adds that she and Mutuku “really did a lot of leg work” in determining which area of Kenya to focus on and identifying the main characters of the story. Together, the two traveled to the northwestern county of Turkana, gathering stories of families forced apart by the ongoing drought and learning how women in that part of the world are adapting and surviving in the face of crisis.
Communication is key during the reporting process. When Buky and Mutuku were in the field, they checked in with the team via Zoom or WhatsApp three times every day—once before setting out for the day, once while out in the field, and once again after returning. Much of this was for safety. But the duo also used the evenings to provide detailed updates on their reporting, allowing everyone to weigh in on the direction of the story. Victor Ombogo, a camera operator, accompanied the pair, filming every interview and even using a drone to capture the dramatic scenery for an accompanying short film. The videos helped “capture the details [and] emotions” that gave texture to the final piece, Mutuku says.
A range of digital tools can help journalists stay organized during the reporting process. Whenever a member of the investigative team at the Tampa Bay Times conducted a new interview or dug up a new document, they would share their findings with the others using tools such as Google Drive. Using online transcription services, such as Otter.ai, is another easy way for reporters to share information and potential quotes from interview transcripts, timestamped to the recording. As a journalist who writes long-form stories at Carbon Brief, I often collaborate with one or more other members of my team. When I’m working on a piece with another reporter, I make sure to highlight sections of a transcript that I plan to use, to make sure that we’re not both building our story around the same material. It’s also a nice courtesy to highlight (in a different color!) parts of the interview that could provide valuable information or a snappy quote for your reporting partner’s sections.
Splitting up interviews can definitely be a source of tension, Morello says. When a big-name source is involved, it’s only natural that multiple reporters want the job. Sometimes it’s best to go with the person who has the right angle or the right expertise. But sometimes it’s a toss-up, and “you just have to pick,” she says. Morello advises that an editor should make the logic of such decisions clear to reporters to ease tensions.
In other cases, it may be appropriate for more than one reporter to sit in on an interview. If the subject belongs to a marginalized community, including a reporter with a similar background can help put them at ease. And having more people in the room brings diverse perspectives, allowing the team to explore deeply and broadly. In Turkana, “having three different curious minds” allowed the team to explore different facets of the story, Mutuku says—from the economic side of things to the cultural aspects. And Deane, as someone from a different country, had questions about customs and culture that the other two wouldn’t think to ask.
Getting Words on the Page
Writing a story is personal and can be a fraught process. Picking the best approach will depend on several factors, including the outlet, the type of story, and the amount of time the reporters have to file.
If time is short, it can make sense to split a story into chunks for different writers, relying on the editor to “surgically stitch” them together once done, Morello says. At Carbon Brief, we rely on this approach for covering big events, such as the United Nation’s major climate or biodiversity summits. Each journalist is responsible for reporting and writing their own sections, then multiple editors look over the final piece to ensure continuity and remove repetition. That step is critical to “make sure that it reads like one story,” Morello says. But she cautions that melding multiple reporters’ writing shouldn’t mean “taking the voice out of it.”
Other times, having one writer can streamline the process. For the Unearthed and gal-dem collaboration, Deane took the lead on writing the first few drafts, circulating each one among the other reporters for input. His Unearthed colleague, Emma Howard, built on this work to develop the “more definitive draft,” Deane says, and then passed it on to the gal-dem side of the team for editing. It was a really “successful collaboration from start to finish,” he adds.
For Schreiber and Coleman, time was less of a concern, which made writing simultaneously a good option. In other pieces she’s co-bylined, deciding who gets to write the top of the story is one of the main sources of friction, Schreiber says. After all, the top sets the story’s tone and direction, and many people don’t read beyond it. It can help to keep what’s best for the reader in mind, she says, and “not having an ego about that is super helpful.” She likes to remind herself: “All of journalism is a team effort.” Behind the bylines on any piece is a whole slew of people, working towards the same goal and working to tell a story in the best way possible. Schreiber adds that the more she does journalistic work, the more she realizes: “I’m just, like, one very small player in this, and what matters is that you have a good story.”
Giuliana Viglione is a Washington, DC–based science and climate journalist. She is currently an editor at Carbon Brief, where she leads the team’s coverage of food, land use, and biodiversity, and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Her work has appeared in Nature, Chemical & Engineering News, Gizmodo, Discover, and other outlets, and she was a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at King 5 News. Giuliana earned her PhD in oceanography at Caltech, where she co-founded the science communication outlet Caltech Letters. She is happiest on a boat or reading a book, and preferably doing both at the same time. Follow her on Twitter @GAViglione.