We started researching the global tissue trade in October 2011 - looking at "traditional" tissues such as bone and skin. We read reports and requested data from the U.S. government. We talked to experts: authors, academics, officials, surgeons and even convicted felons.
While we found that no one had comprehensive data on the global trade, we started to identify key countries and reached out to reporting colleagues there. We also sent an open invitation to all members of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists: Anyone interested in joining a team?
We got volunteers from Ukraine, Spain, Bulgaria and the United States. We later expanded our research to Germany and South Korea. Some reporters split their duties to cover other countries.
The story picked up pace in February when the security service in Ukraine discovered body parts crammed in coolers in a white minibus. That event guided our later reporting.
To kick off the collaboration, the team met in Brussels for a two-day work session. Most of our meetings are held over Skype or by phone. But those in-person gatherings are crucial. We can spend hours tossing out ideas and dividing up tasks.
Even more important than the work itself is building trust and friendship among our team. Having solid relationships helps later in the project, when both time and tempers are short. That helps us be more compassionate and patient when confronting differences in languages, reporting or writing styles.
The team shared documents using Box.net, an online content management system that allows us to upload large files. We also used a listserv to share key information or ask questions. And we often picked up the phone or signed onto Skype to process something we've learned or just to catch up.
We did all this on a small budget with some freelance contracts and some volunteer reporting. As our stories went through editing and fact checking, we sent out another email to ICIJ members inviting them to take our content and publish in their newspapers. Many took us up on the offer, from Japan to the Netherlands and Chile.
That's what makes ICIJ and its members so amazing — everyone pitches in with the same ideal: providing this critical public service to our global community.