The Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister publication of the Miami Herald, recently collaborated on an investigation that found Canadians are travelling to Cuba in surprising numbers to sexually exploit young people trapped in the socialist country’s underground sex tourism industry.
Havana’s conspicuous scenes of street-level prostitution are the public face of a hidden, sordid trade in children as young as four. Many prostituted children in Cuba are second- or third-generation, following in the footsteps of sex-worker mothers to earn money for families complicit in their exploitation. Cuban authorities deny the problem. And Canada’s lax oversight suggests any self-proclaimed moral obligation to protect children from abuse stops at our own borders.
The collaboration is the product of a new initiative from the The Star, which is seeking new collaborations for international investigations. As Robert Cribb of the Star explained for The Canadian Journalism Project:
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.