The Digital Journalist


The Power of Collaboration
April 2006

by John Temple

A single Marine might be able to fold a flag for the widow of a fallen brother. But it wouldn't have the perfect feel the job demands.

The same might be said of the story Final Salute by photographer Todd Heisler and reporter Jim Sheeler of the Rocky Mountain News. Of course, Todd's photographs stand on their own. As do Jim's words. Separately, they were recognized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors as the best examples of photojournalism and non-deadline writing in 2005. But together, these two talented journalists created something more complete and more powerful than either could have done alone.

Marine Sgt. Jeremy Kocher stands watch near the body of Lance Cpl. Evenor Herrera in Eagle, Colo., as children and adults from the area poured in to pay their respects. Like many of the Marines stationed at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Kocher says the funeral detail is the most difficult mission he's ever done. "I actually start thinking about it the moment I wake up. It's such an important job that I just don't want to mess it up," he said. "I just want it to be perfect."

Todd Heisler/Rocky Mountain News
Their story of the impact of the Iraq war at home and how the commitment to never leave a Marine behind extends to the families of the fallen is a testament to the value of collaboration. The story reflects the Rocky's belief in the benefit for readers of having a photographer and reporter work closely together. Our commitment to collaboration doesn't stop there. On a project, it extends to every person who works on the story.

When we first shared Todd's photographs and Jim's words with the team that would put them into the paper and onto our Web site, I explained the challenge before us by describing how the Marines fold the flag at the end of a funeral. "I want you to treat this story with the same care," I told them. We owed Todd and Jim and the people they chronicled nothing less.

I know readers benefit from this approach. But in my experience, starting at The Albuquerque Tribune in the 1980s working with Mike Davis and since the early '90s at the Rocky working with Janet Reeves, it's the photographer and reporter who get the most out of the partnership, at least when they're both committed to it. And that Todd and Jim were.

The third leg of this collaboration in many of the most powerful stories we've done at the Rocky is the subject himself. Just as trust between a photographer and reporter leads to deeper journalism, so does trust between a subject and journalists. We can credit the trust of Major Steve Beck, the figure at the center of Final Salute, and the many individuals who shared their deepest sorrow with Todd and Jim for the quality of work they were able to achieve.

The story, as all good stories do, evolved over time. Originally the idea was quite simple: Follow a Marine from the moment his casket arrived at the airport to his burial. That didn't work out right away. As is so often the case, failure can be for the good. This meant Todd and Jim would have more time, more time to get to know Major Beck and more time to understand what they were seeing.

Blanca Stibbs, center, rests her head on her husband David Stibbs' shoulder as a Marine honor guard folds the flag that draped their son Lance Corporal Evenor Herrera's casket during a burial service at Sunset View Cemetery in Eagle, Colo., on Friday, Aug. 19, 2005.

Todd Heisler/Rocky Mountain News
Collaboration is built on respect. Photojournalists love to work with Jim, because he looks for scenes and moments. He's a writer who lives in the present. Writers love to work with Todd because he cares, about the story and the people, not just his photographs. In this case, the emotional impact of what they witnessed was so powerful that Todd and Jim needed someone to talk with about what they were experiencing, someone who understood. It was good they weren't alone. Sometimes when I would see them after a particularly difficult few days, they both would look like wrecks. But at least they were in the same place, and had somebody there with them who could understand. They went on a journey together, an emotional journey. Together, they could take readers on the same journey. Alone, they couldn't.

The partnership extended right to the end. When Jim wrote, he surrounded himself with Todd's photographs. When it was time to write the captions, he pulled out quotes and ideas that hadn't fit in his narrative. Together, they wrote poignant captions that provided another strand through the story, one that wasn't repetitive of the narrative and that added understanding to the pictures.

For this editor, Final Salute was the most satisfying - if difficult - story I have ever worked on, largely because Todd and Jim were so great to work with. They were a team, totally committed to each other and to the story. This made it so much easier to be committed to them, to do anything necessary to do what was right for the story. I truly believe the pictures wouldn't have been as good if Jim hadn't been there with Todd all along the way and that the story wouldn't have been as strong if Todd hadn't been there with Jim.

Judge for yourself.

Here's a link where you can read the story.

Here's a link to the home page where you'll find all the elements of the package.

And here's a link to Todd's slide show.

I just wish our work could always be this way.

Thankfully, the journey goes on. If you're interested in seeing more, I would encourage you to look at the story, Wake for an Indian Warrior, another collaboration by Todd and Jim. You see when people see work of the caliber of Final Salute, they're more willing to let the journalists in. They want that type of journalist to tell their story. The Oglala Sioux of South Dakota welcomed Todd and Jim onto the reservation for a 42-hour wake, the beginning of nearly five days of traditional honors for the first tribal fatality in Iraq. Link.

You can also see the same type of collaboration in the work of Todd and columnist Bill Johnson, who in Back to Iraq recount the lives of the 3rd Armored Calvary Division on the ground, where Todd and Bill were in a Humvee that was totaled by an IED. Link.

All these stories have one thing in common: a constructive partnership between a photographer and a writer.

That's the ideal, at least in my eyes, if you want to tell stories that move people.

© John Temple

John Temple is Editor, President and Publisher of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colo.