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The team behind the world’s biggest journalism collaborations meets in person for the first time

From learning top security tips to reinvigorating a passion for ICIJ’s model for investigating global stories, some of the staff’s newest faces reflect on our news organization’s first face-to-face gathering in three years.

ICIJ has, for years, been one of journalism’s loudest collaboration evangelists.

We are known for bringing together the biggest groups of journalists ever to collectively bear down on some of the biggest global issues facing our planet.

But, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, in recent times we’ve faced challenges convening these collaborations, and, in particular, sparking the kind of magic that often comes of face-to-face gatherings.

Last month, in Tunisia, the ICIJ team and some partners from different corners of the globe finally met for the first time in three years at a small conference hosted by ICIJ and its local Tunisian partner, Inkyfada. It was an illuminating, refreshing and energizing experience.

For many of us, it was the first time meeting colleagues in the flesh, after years of chat messages and video calls. Beyond fortifying friendships forged virtually over timezones, language and distance barriers, the in-person gathering offered a unique opportunity to share knowledge and foster new collaborations within our team.

On a personal level, in addition to seeing other ICIJ team members for the first time, I was also heartened to finally meet the amazing Inkyfada team who have been close collaborators and lead designers on numerous ICIJ investigations over the past six years. In a panel event at the conference, we were able to openly exchange ideas about news design, storytelling and more. Perhaps even more importantly, over meals, drinks and casual conversations, we were able to connect, confirm and reaffirm our shared values and philosophies about investigative journalism, truth-seeking, and the power of the work we do together.

In the interest of seizing the spirit of this event (and, hopefully, distilling it into some tangible actions), we asked some of the newer members of ICIJ’s team to share their key takeaways from the few days of mingling with peers from all around the world:

Nicole Sadek, editorial fellow

I have dreadful cyber health, or at least that’s what I realized after attending a session by my tech colleagues on the topic. Let’s be honest, sometimes it’s easier to save your passwords to your browser. Sometimes you forget (read: ignore) recommendations to set up your multi-factor authentication. Sometimes you need to log into the airport Wi-Fi to send that nagging email before you board your flight. But, during our conference in Tunis, I was reminded that we work daily with journalists around the world who have been the targets of cyber attacks and for whom digital security is not optional. As ICIJ’s systems administrator Jorge González said, a bit of healthy paranoia goes a long way. So here are a few of my practical takeaways: an encrypted disk is a happy one, public Wi-Fi (especially without a VPN) is a no-no and PGP encryption is your best friend. Bonus takeaway: PGP stands for Pretty Good Privacy.

Marie Gillier, software developer

Spencer Woodman’s story on a web of offshore trusts linked to an order of the Catholic Church started with fuzzy searches through the Pandora Papers dataset. To unveil the trafficking of looted Cambodian antiquities, Delphine Reuter had to track the movements of dozens of sculptures from various sources (and sometimes with different names), in close coordination with colleagues and partners.

Being guided through the making of these stories for the first time was the most enlightening part of the conference for me. Although I knew that journalists used the tools (like Datashare) built by ICIJ’s tech team, I was struck by just how powerful the interaction of journalism and technical tools is, from finding to scaling to fact-checking a story – and energized by how many more tools could be invented. I left Tunis with admiration for my colleagues, new inspiration and the enthusiastic feeling of participating in a collective adventure.

Maggie Michael, reporter

For me, meeting people in person was the most pleasant experience I ever had at the ICIJ since I joined in 2021 (during the pandemic). Having days-long conversations about how to improve communication and work conditions were also essential for me as someone working remotely.  A team building session where staffers spoke about their worries and “elephants in the room”  was imperative for healthier and more productive team work.

Emily Spranger, fundraiser

Having never met my ICIJ coworkers, I was excited to finally put faces to names and familiarize myself with my colleagues personally. While I sincerely enjoyed getting to know everyone, and can confidently say every person is friendly and kindhearted, what stuck with me the most was, however different our job descriptions, each person plays an essential role in the success of ICIJ. Since the entire ICIJ team works remotely to some degree, it can be challenging to understand what each person at ICIJ does, especially working across different time zones. But after attending data and tech sessions and hearing firsthand about what my team members do, it became clear how each person is an integral part of the impact that ICIJ has on the world.

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