Blog Post: Continuing the Conversation About Collaboration vs. “Ownership”

So, we’re one introduction class and two (official) classes into the semester, and we’ve pretty much established that collaboration is highly encouraged in DH. Not sure if “ownership” is the right word for me to input in the title, but I’ll just go along with it. Feel free to help me find a better term as you read through this post and interpret what I’m trying to get at.

In this week’s class, we discussed what exactly it means to “collaborate” for DH. I brought up my experience at the NYC Media Lab’s 2018 Summit that Anca and I attended, where my group at a particular workshop spent more time educating each other about the intricacies of artificial intelligence (AI) since not many of us were too familiar with AI. Now, thinking about my example in retrospect, that’s great and all from the context of just sharing ideas and helping one another understand different perspectives, but how do we bring that to the context of an actual project?

I thought about this some more after class and realized that collaboration is actually embedded in many fields that involve the use of writing and/or digital media, but the difference here is it’s less recognized as collaboration. Naturally, as a journalist and emerging digital campaigner, the following examples I’ll provide are in those contexts.

A news organization that actually has a newsroom of some sort will likely have a lengthy editorial process for each article prior to publication. The Excelsior, one of Brooklyn College’s student newspapers, looks something like this:

  1. A writer submits his/her article to a section editor.
  2. The section editor edits the article and forwards the article with new edits to a copy editor.
  3. The copy editor edits the article and forwards the article with new edits to the editor-in-chief or managing editor.
  4. The managing editor makes the final edits.

I’m sure even larger organizations like the New York Times would have an even more complex editorial process, but you can see that this — journalism — somewhat involves collaboration. I italicized “somewhat” because if we’re looking at the process from the standpoint of sharing ideas and new perspectives (like in my example from NYC Media Lab ’18), that part is missing unless the writer actually sees each step of the process and is able to learn from the edits made at each step. And, as I hinted at earlier, in the big picture, this isn’t really recognized as collaboration. The writer will get the byline that goes with the article that has all the final edits, and there will be no mention of all the editors involved — aside from their names being listed on the masthead of the publication. Still, I do view journalism as a collaborative field, and l’d argue journalists can’t become better journalists without all of this collaboration.

In terms of digital campaigning, it’s very similar. I intern on the digital team at Everytown for Gun Safety — “Everytown” for short — and occasionally help draft email campaigns. Obviously, as an extremely beginner digital campaigner, I can’t just write something and have it sent out to the masses. There’s a very long approvals process that begins with the campaigner I wrote the draft for, reviewing my work and explaining to me why he/she made the changes he/she did.

I’m often told that this kind of work I do at Everytown will help build my portfolio of email campaigns I’ve written, but sometimes I stop and think: Did I really “write” this? It’s not that the email I draft looks so drastically different after a full-time digital campaigner makes changes, but there are some intricacies and details I may not be familiar with for a particular state or campaign since I’ve only been at Everytown for a few months. My missing familiarity often leads to very specific changes in the copy of the email campaign, and sometimes I think presenting the final email campaign that’s sent out as my own is somewhat misrepresenting what is actually my work. And, as someone in class brought up, it’s not such a simple process of pointing to which paragraphs in the final product were what I wrote… because that’s just not what the collaborative process entailed.

Maybe “ownership” is the right word then, because I’m trying to figure out what exactly I can call as my own.

7 thoughts on “Blog Post: Continuing the Conversation About Collaboration vs. “Ownership”

  1. Hannah House

    Sandy, this is great and opens up interesting lines of inquiry. My musings and a suggestion on how to approach your email campaign portfolio are below.

    To me, the masthead of a news organization in its traditional print media form does not completely contradict the spirit of shared credit. I see this as an information architecture solution to prevent repetition and clarify level of ownership. The contributions of each party are important, but they aren’t equivalent. Editors and such perform the same function across multiple articles regardless of topic, so they are listed upfront en masse, rather than repetitively alongside each individual article. The author of an article is the byline, which clearly indicate that this is the person (or people) who researched and developed the specific content, is the (relative) subject matter expert, and is the appropriate party to whom to address questions or comments.

    In traditional printed media, mastheads are short because they appear upfront and print space is limited, but in the new digital media world where contributions could be listed on their own page without interfering with the reading flow, one could argue for an expanded masthead or an ending credits section that includes all people who contributed to production. Film/TV production follows this model with their very long ending credits (’m totally speculating here, but perhaps this expanded shared credit is due to the influence of unions?). Of course, even with a greatly expanded credits section one will still hit a decision point about whose contributions to include. Should proofreaders be listed? Freelancers? Vendors? Receptionists? Custodians? Accounts payable staff? Office managers? Photography is credited, should retouching be as well? Why or why not?*

    Interestingly, major news organizations seem to be taking the opposite approach on their websites. I checked the homepages and apps for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. There is no clearly visible masthead on any of them, nor link to one, nor clear indication of where one might find the traditional masthead info. Searching for “masthead” only returns a masthead on the New York Times website. The information is most likely somewhere on each site, but I’m surprised it’s not quickly accessible. With the minimization of mastheads, these sites are surprisingly moving away from highlighting collaboration – let alone including any expanded credits section

    Regarding your ownership of your email campaign pieces – putting them in your portfolio does not imply sole authorship. A good hiring manager will understand that you did not work solo in a vacuum and will ask you to describe your role in producing the pieces in your portfolio. A good answer to that hiring manager’s question is to honestly portray that you wrote the initial draft, you received feedback from a more senior member of the team, and (this part is CRITICAL) describe what you learned from that feedback and how it has improved your work. Hope that helps alleviate your concerns with how you represent your authorship.

    *this discussion is making me interested in how journalism credit and attribution were/are handled in communist states

    1. Carolyn A. McDonough

      Sandy and Hannah —

      Great discussion, thank you Sandy for opening this up with from both your professional and personal realms. I wrote a reply yesterday which literally vanished from my screen, unfortunately, but whenever that happens to me online, I defer to the “internet gods”. I can recreate a portion of it here as it relates to Hannah’s musings. (I actually logged in to blog a reply to Hannah about the results of my self-Googling at my local library which I will also post in that thread).

      I totally agree with Hannah that a “good hiring manager will understand that you did not work solo in a vacuum and will ask you to describe your role in producing the pieces in your portfolio.” And I would add the obvious converse, which is, if they don’t understand and/or know this very important aspect, work environment AND ethos of social media activism+digital campaigning, then they’re not a good manager.

      I also agree with Hannah about the difference with online mastheads, which I’ve always found troubling.
      The example I gave in my prior post that disappeared from my screen, was that I have written dozens of touts for major portals (and even have “touting” as a skill on my resume.) I did not own nor receive a byline for such editorial work, or more aptly, “writing labor” because these touts were the intellectual property of the dot coms I wrote them for in my staff positions as writer/editor/producer. They were copy edited by another staffer. But you can bet they’re ALL in my digital portfolio, especially the ones that were elevated to the touts for “Highlights”, “Features” and “Lead”.

      I also hope this helps you claim ownership of your “writing labor” 🙂

      1. Hannah House

        1,000% agree with Carolyn. Job seeking and interviews are 2-way streets. If someone doesn’t understand teamwork or multiple inputs, that’s weird and you should run in the opposite direction.

        (Also, Carolyn: Not to derail comments here, but you and I maxed out replies on the other thread so just letting you know I liked the self-audit update! And I have gotten burned with disappearing comments so many times on so many platforms over the years that nowadays I draft everything in a text editor instead and just copy it into the comment box when I’m done.)

  2. Carolyn A. McDonough

    Hannah —
    Not to tread on Sandy’s thread about ownership at all, may I just say 3 cheers to us for maxing out the replies in the self-Googling audit thread — woohoo + a hearty lol. Great advice/tip on using a text editor, I do the same 99% of the time, which I will commit to bumping up to 100% for this class.

    Sandy —
    I echo Hannah’s “2-way street” esp. in the digitally collaborative work and culture we live in. In my opinion, all the work you do within the current environment garners credit — partial, full or any % you can apply to it.

    1. Sandy Mui (she/her/hers) Post author

      Thanks for such an engaging discussion, Carolyn and Hannah! I can’t believe you guys maxed out replies in a thread haha.

      I have realized that as Hannah pointed out, a good hiring manager would understand that this work I’ve produced is not 100% by myself. As far as I know, all hiring managers I’ve been interviewed by have asked to provide an example of teamwork/collaboration and how I learned or benefitted from it.

      The thoughts about an online masthead were interesting, and I do believe everyone involved in the editorial process and organization deserves to have their name included. The Excelsior includes copy editors, the web manager (me!), business manager, etc. I’m curious about the idea of extending these credits for larger companies in general — like Hannah mentioned, for custodians, receptionists, etc. I’ve never really thought about that, and as we know, oftentimes people who do menial work and/or are paid by the hour, go unrecognized.

      Carolyn brought up that she’s included material she doesn’t have a byline for in her portfolio, which made me think about other work I’ve done that I don’t necessarily have a byline for. That of course would be all the email digital campaigns and petition pages at Everytown, and I hope people don’t think the “signer” of the email campaign is the person who actually wrote it. Sometimes it is, but more often than not, it isn’t. However, I’m bringing this up again because the “digital campaigning” tab of my portfolio also includes email campaigns and petition pages I’ve coded for Everytown, which is of course a different skill to writing them. I do clarify on my portfolio why each email campaign or petition page is on there though — in parentheses next to each one, I clarify whether it’s an email/page I “built” (coded) or “composed” (wrote).

  3. Sabina Pringle (she/ella)

    Hello Sandy, Carolyn and Hannah! This is a great thread that got me musing about the big shifts in academia and publishing brought about by the collaborative nature of Digital Humanities and how these affect professionals in the process of establishing or re-establishing their names or brands in the professional and academic worlds.

    First, regarding mastheads and to respond to Hannah’s question, I’ll say yes we should list proofreaders, freelancers, vendors, receptionists, custodians, accounts payable staff, office managers, photo editors, fact checkers, office cleaning staff, IT technicians and security personnel or list no-one at all. Or should we draw a line between creative contributors and infrastructure contributors? If so, and here’s the rub, where should that line be drawn?

    I followed Hannah’s lead and had a look at the front page of today’s print edition of the New York Times. Interestingly, most of the articles on the front page were written by more than one person:

    Articles by 1 author: 1
    Articles by 2 authors: 3
    Articles by 3 authors: 1
    Articles by 4 authors: 1

    I could have done this much better in Tableau Public  (that square thing was once a smiley) (I made charts in Word and then couldn’t past them here boo hoo). Looked at in another way, there are five times more articles by more than one author than articles by one author on the front page of today’s print edition of the New York Times. I suspect that if we looked at these trends over time, we would see that collaborative authorship has increased in recent decades.

    What interests me right now, however, is the effect that collaborative authorship – including everyone who contributed to making an article as – I argue – should be listed in the article’s masthead – can have on our capitalist system. In academia publishing individually authored work is a requisite for tenure. In publishing and most other fields we are obliged to collect and list and add up our achievements so that we may be measured by these, and then on the basis of how much and where we published (and to some extent, I hope, what we wrote) we hope to get a full time job, or a better job, or a mere job. Collaborative authorship turns the individual merit system on its head, and this in my opinion is a good thing, because while recognition is important and competition can push people to produce good work, competition also alienates humans from one another other and runs against a spirit of collaboration, causing us to miss opportunities to build big things together. As someone who intends to continue to work within CUNY for the foreseeable future I am excited to trust that collaborative spirit of DH is prompting the university to rethink how to evaluate collaborative contributions to teaching and scholarship.

  4. Dax Oliver

    Sandy, I do think most readers believe the signer of an email is the person who wrote it, since signatures indicate the writers of any other emails they receive. In your case, I think they’re correct to consider you the author, since you contributed the vast majority of the text and developed the central theme and structure. In many other cases, it’s not correct, but still assumed. Why else would people adopt the conventions of individual authorship in collaborative projects, unless there was a belief that readers would interpret it that way? I remember my surprise as a journalism intern at the National Education Association to learn that the union president’s signature was the only contribution that he made to his monthly “President’s Letter” in our magazine. Until I got to see behind the scenes in publishing, I took it at face value that the name on the cover of a book was the author, and so did most of my friends. I don’t think we were alone, either, considering that John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize all by himself for “Profiles in Courage,” despite only contributing a few words to it.

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