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August 13 2012


How National Geographic Used Cowbird Storytelling Tool to Tell a Reservation's Whole Story

Sometimes, it takes more than one storyteller to get a story right -- especially when the subjects of the story are members of a community that often feels misrepresented by media.

Thanks to multimedia storytelling tool Cowbird, photographer Aaron Huey and National Geographic were able to collaborate with the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation to jointly tell their story to the world. The result: the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project, a companion to the August 2012 cover story in National Geographic magazine.

The Roots of a New Storytelling Approach

After working with the Oglala Lakota people for seven years, Huey felt their stories couldn't adequately be conveyed in the pages of a magazine.


"To make a really great narrative [in print] often means only telling the story of a couple of people, and trying to use those stories to tell the larger story of the community and where it's going," Huey said. "That's often confusing for the community itself. People always asked me why I couldn't fit in something about the all-star basketball team, or the scholars going on to college. Everyone wanted something specific and claimed that I was missing the entire story because I didn't have those things. They felt like they were misrepresented. They felt like for decades in the media, they'd been misrepresented."

While on a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, Huey reflected on this storytelling dilemma. He tried to build a multimedia platform himself that could be used by National Geographic, but he realized quickly that he didn't have "the money or the expertise" for the job. But when he discovered Cowbird, an online storytelling tool developed by Jonathan Harris, Huey knew it was just right for the stories he wanted to tell.

"It was obvious that it was the perfect collaboration. I didn't need to reinvent the wheel," he said.

Telling the Whole Story, Unfiltered

Cowbird allows people to tell stories with photos, audio, timelines, maps, and other media. Working together, Huey, Harris and the National Geographic team crafted a Cowbird story interface and embedded it into the magazine's website.

Each block on the page tells a different story, from bits of tribal history to an account of one boy's encounter with racism. One photo, titled "Rez joke #2," shows Lakota men in line at a convenience store with the caption, "Pine Ridge traffic jam."

Submissions continue to roll in. Huey screens each story to ensure that it connects to Pine Ridge or the Oglala Lakota in some way; stories are otherwise unedited.

"National Geographic was incredibly brave to run this unedited content and to trust me to do this right," Huey said.

Inspiring New Approaches

The magazine's editor-in-chief, Chris Johns, said Cowbird and the "unfiltered voice" of the Pine Ridge storytellers were a natural fit for National Geographic. "This is a future that we're terribly excited about and fully embracing. This just suits our DNA perfectly."

For a magazine whose goal is representing often new, distant and unfamiliar places and cultures, this partnership has inspired thinking about new storytelling possibilities.

"I believe in the importance of letting people have their voice," Johns said. "We want to hear the voices of others, the voices of those who were photographed, to hear what they feel about the work we are doing."

Huey said this style of storytelling will continue in his own work, and he hopes it's something more journalists will embrace.

"We can't just put stories out there that are filtered through one or two people's vision anymore," he said. He noted that tools like Cowbird that enable multifaceted storytelling are especially useful for telling stories about a community likely to feel misrepresented by media.

"It's the right tool whenever there is a possibility for people to feel misrepresented -- when we as journalists are talking in big brush strokes about whole peoples or ways of thinking," he said.

Huey hopes that the Pine Ridge project will contain more than 500 stories by the end of 2012.

"We found a way to make the story infinitely expanding," he said. "The only limitation is apathy."

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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February 03 2012


Audio danger: NPR’s Kelly McEvers on trauma and the calculus of risk

[The second installment in an ongoing series of posts by Julia Barton about audio narratives. –Ed.]

The title of this series, “Audio danger,” is mostly tongue-in-cheek. But not in the case of Kelly McEvers. McEvers now works as one of NPR’s correspondents in the Middle East, and she’s opened the network’s first bureau in Beirut. But I first ran across her name in 2006, when she was a freelance journalist in Russia on an International Reporting Project fellowship. McEvers had been detained in Dagestan, a rough part of the North Caucasus along the Caspian Sea. Local officials with the FSB, the federal security services, accused her of traveling in neighboring Chechnya.

“They interrogated me for like 14 hours a day, and then at night they’d say, ‘You’re free to go,’ but they had my passport. And then they would follow me home. The car would stay parked out front for a few hours, and then they would call the next morning and say, ‘It’s time to go.’ ”

McEvers didn’t suffer any violence during the four-day ordeal, but the threat of it was very real. (She also had to surrender all of her notes and equipment before she was allowed to leave Dagestan).

These days, McEvers interviews many people who’ve been through horrible experiences: child brides who’ve survived rape in Yemen; protesters tortured in Syria. McEvers lets their stories unfold with an understanding of the way real danger – unlike the kind we often see in the movies – has deep effects that can make it hard to talk about.

“I can see when someone has experienced trauma,” McEvers says. “I think I’m able to empathize a lot more with people because I have been through some of this stuff.  Nothing like what they’ve been through – I mean, people aren’t cutting my relatives into pieces. But I know what it’s like to just be numb, or to blame yourself.”

McEvers’ patience paid off last year with this feature she pursued for months in Iraq. It introduces us to Uhud, a 19-year-old woman from a tribal area of Diyala, northeast of Baghdad. Uhud fell prey to a sex-trafficking scam, the details of which we will never figure out. That confusion, in fact, is central to the story.

“Some of what we’re about to tell you might not actually be true,” McEvers says at the very top of the piece. “The reasons for this will become clear as the story unfolds.”

According to Uhud’s convoluted account, she was kidnapped at gunpoint while out shopping, then beaten and later taken to Irbil, in Kurdistan. There she says she worked in a Christian-owned café somehow affiliated with a brothel. A famous soccer player later rescued her, Uhud says, and a few months later she ended up back home in Diyala.

“When she first came, the whole family had one thing in mind: We assumed she had been raped. So we thought of killing her,” one male relative tells McEvers in a matter-of-fact way, via an interpreter. “She has a brother who would kill her as easily as drinking a glass of water. But then we calmed things down.”

Sort of. When we revisit Uhud a few months later, she’s basically living under family house arrest. She says an uncle spits on her whenever he sees her and threatens to slit her throat if her story doesn’t check out. As McEvers leaves Uhud, she’s up on the roof setting pet pigeons free. “They fly in the sky for a while, then they come back home,” McEvers translates for Uhud over the sound of flapping wings.

We’ll never know Uhud’s real story, but of course that’s not the point: By living with her for seven minutes, we viscerally feel the way shame and sex-trafficking thrive off one another.

Foreign correspondents for radio face special hurdles. The people they interview often don’t speak English, so we lose the direct narrative force that propels so many audio stories. And most of us have never been to places like war-torn Iraq, so even with great descriptive copy, our minds still tend to fill in the background with stereotypical images from TV news or “National Geographic”: deserts, burqas, bullet-pocked walls.

Of course, correspondents can’t only focus on personal narratives, and McEvers does her share of big-picture, geopolitical reporting. But stories like Uhud’s are one way to slice through the obstacle of listener confusion (and, let’s face it, indifference) when it comes to reports from abroad.

“I try to make those personal stories have a larger point, but just to reach that point through personal narratives. People in Dubuque are going to remember that more than a talking head,” McEvers says.

And radio has one major advantage when it comes to McEvers’ frequent focus on the plight of women in the Middle East.

“A microphone is so much easier than a camera,” she says. “You never get to take pictures of these women. Never. Especially those women with a shameful story.” McEvers sometimes spends a lot of time explaining to her sources how they will sound on the other end in America. “You know, ‘It’s just your voice – it’s going to be dubbed into English.’ I draw pictures of what it’s going to sound like, (their voices) fading under (the translation).”  Sometimes reluctant sources will agree to whisper, or speak broken English, to hide their identities further.

But especially as the Arab world changes so rapidly, McEvers says she can face a different problem – people so desperate for someone to hear their stories, they won’t let her leave. “In Iraq, there are so many widows, or mothers who’ve lost children. No one’s listening to them.”

These days McEvers’ own personal narrative is affecting the way she thinks about trauma and danger in her profession. She now has a 2-year-old daughter. Questions about her ordeal seven years ago in Dagestan elicit a snort.

“It should’ve been instructive, but it’s not. I didn’t learn my lesson,” she says. “But none of us do.” It’s something few foreign correspondents talk about openly, McEvers says: Simply put, editors – and by proxy, the rest of us – too often reward them for putting their lives at risk in pursuit of the story.

“When you have little children, you think a lot about positive and negative reinforcement,” she says. “And we foreign correspondents are positively reinforced for bad behavior.”

Julia Barton (@bartona104) is an editor, media trainer, producer and writer who spearheads the “Audio danger” series on Storyboard.

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July 07 2011


“Why’s this so good?” No. 2: McPhee takes on the Mississippi

When the Mississippi River recently surged down through the middle of the country, a lot of people I follow on Twitter took the opportunity to point to John McPhee’s marvelous 1987 article “Atchafalaya.”I took their advice and revisited the piece.

After 24 years, the story is still valuable simply as a guide to the risks faced by people who live along the Mississippi. But it would be ridiculous to think of McPhee’s articles as nothing more than service journalism. Over the past four decades, McPhee has plunged into a series of obsessions – with plate tectonics, athletes, shad fishing, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the entire state of Alaska. At its best, McPhee’s work feels like a journalistic version of an Iron Man competition. He pushes long-form journalism to the extremes, to encompass the world in staggering detail. And “Atchafalaya” is particularly staggering, because its subject is nothing less than the endless, spectacular, and sometimes absurd struggle of modern civilization to control the natural world.

As I reread “Atchafalaya,” I tried to reverse engineer it to figure out why it’s so good. At its core is a journey McPhee took down the Mississippi in a towboat, accompanying some of the members of the Army Corps of Engineers. For most journalists, that would be more than enough material enough for an excellent article. For McPhee, it is only the start. The river, after all, was not just what he could see in 1987. It was also the product of history – the geological history of the region, and then the human history overlaid on it – history that includes politics, warfare and centuries of engineering. McPhee mastered this vast backstory, but he was not yet done. He also became intimately acquainted with the colossal system of levees and weirs that line the Mississippi: a grand construction that is both longer and wider than the Great Wall of China.

I get the sense that McPhee spends every waking hour gathering observations, stories and plain facts that he stores away for articles he may not write for decades to come. In “Atchafalaya” he smoothly slips away from his journey down the Mississippi to recall earlier experiences – flying over the river, running lines with a Cajun crawfisherman.

Once McPhee assembled this mountain range of raw material, he mined it to build a 28,000-word article. McPhee builds articles like few other journalists can. He scrupulously avoids all stock tricks. His paragraphs encompass worlds. He writes from a dictionary full of strange words: revetments, whaleback, distributaries. They’re not obscure words McPhee chose to make the reader feel undereducated, but the precise language required to describe something most people know little about. It takes time to submerge into this language – this is not a story to shave away one iPhone screen at a time.

If there’s any weakness in “Atchafalaya,” it’s McPhee’s portraits of people. We meet engineers and pilots along the river. McPhee records plenty of exquisite details about their backgrounds. And yet I couldn’t recall any of them as individuals later on. They all talked about the great river, but interchangeably. McPhee knows how to write a great profile (I’m thinking of “Levels of the Game,” a book-length account of a U.S. Open tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner). So I can only assume that he has made a strategic choice in “Atchafalaya” to let the people in the story blur into a wall of humanity massed against the river.

Still, this remains a great piece of writing. By that I don’t mean that it’s an exemplar of what all journalism should be. It is McPhee excelling at being McPhee. It’s impossible to steal tricks from a piece like “Atchafalaya,” because you just end up sounding like a bad imitation of someone else. Instead, it sends me flying back to my own work, re-energized to dig as deeply as I can into the subject at hand, and to craft out of it something distinctively my own.

Carl Zimmer’s science writing has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Time and Scientific American, among other publications. He lectures at Yale University and has 10 books to his name, the latest of which is “A Planet of Viruses.” He is on Twitter at @carlzimmer.

[For more from this new collaboration with Longreads, check out the first post in the series, written by Alexis Madrigal. And stay tuned for more inspiration and insight from fabulous writers in the coming weeks.]

September 10 2010


Jon Sawyer on what the Pulitzer Center has learned about angel investing in international journalism

[Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its latest issue, which focuses on the current state of international reporting. There are lots of interesting articles — check out the whole issue — but we're highlighting a few that line up with our subject matter here at the Lab. Here's Jon Sawyer, director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, on the lessons his organization has learned about nonprofit journalism. —Josh]

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting began with a simple idea — that we could leverage small travel grants to journalists to assure multiple voices on big global issues and at the same time help talented individuals sustain careers as foreign correspondents. Five years and some 150 projects later those remain key goals but our mission has expanded — and with it our sense of what is required of nonprofit journalism initiatives like the Pulitzer Center.

Some lessons we’ve learned:

Collaboration: Our best projects have entailed partnerships with multiple organizations and outlets. We developed our expertise on video by producing several dozen short pieces for the now defunct public television program Foreign Exchange With Fareed Zakaria, for example, and we extended our audience by partnering with YouTube on its first video reporting contest. In our project on Sudan we are collaborating with The Washington Post to support the work of journalist/attorney Rebecca Hamilton and funding complementary coverage on PBS NewsHour. We have worked in tandem with NewsHour and National Geographic to promote our common work on the global water crisis. In these and other reporting initiatives we have recruited donors with an interest in raising the visibility of systemic issues — and an appreciation that the journalism cannot succeed unless there is an assurance of absolute independence in our work.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

March 11 2010


New York and The New Yorker lead National Magazine Awards finalists

The American Society of Editors (ASME) has published a list of finalists for the 2010 National Magazine Awards.

Among the 51 magazines nominated in 23 categories there are 20 with multiple nominations. New York and The New Yorker are out in front with 10 each and just behind them is National Geographic with seven. Circulation figures for the finalists range from 3,000 (the Antioch Review) to 5.6 million (National Geographic).

The awards gala will take place at Alice Tully Hall in New York City on 22 April.

See the full list of finalists at this link.

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December 02 2009


Job Opportunity: National Geographic hiring Video Producer/Editor

NGMGreat opportunity for the right person:

NGM is hiring a Video Producer/Editor

The primary role of the Video Producer/Editor is to create short-form video content for use on National Geographic’s website and other digital properties. He/She must demonstrate experience in all aspects of digital video production, including shooting video (on location and in the studio), writing original text, recording audio, creating graphics, and editing in Final Cut Pro.

The Video Producer/Editor will be responsible for working closely with NGM editors, photo editors, photographers, writers, researchers, and graphic artists. The Producer/Editor also works closely with online divisional resources at the National Geographic Society. The Video Producer/Editor must bring the same journalistic standard to multimedia storytelling as the magazine writers and editors bring to the print magazine. An ability to deliver with speed, clarity, and focus will be a measure of success.

Creativity, web experience, teamwork, and flexibility are all essential ingredients in the profile of this job. The Video Producer/Editor must be capable of multitasking-as he/she will be handling numerous projects.

-Works on the development and execution of editorial multimedia/video content for National Geographic online and other digital properties.

-Shooting and editing feature stories and short video series. Candidates must be comfortable working in the studio environment and out in the field. Experience with studio lighting is preferred. Experience telling stories with still photographs in video is preferred. Ability to create finished short-form segments that have high quality standards for music, sound, color, and story narrative.

-Candidate must have experience in and be able to follow proper procedures for contracts and right clearance.

Minimum Experience:
BA preferred with a minimum 1-3 years experience in multimedia/video storytelling.

Knowledge & Experience:
Successful candidates have worked well in teams and have demonstrated people skills and time management.

-Experience in Final Cut Pro, SoundTrack Pro, Adobe Photoshop, content management and digital asset management.

**This is a one-year contract position. Interested candidates should send their resume, cover letters, and samples of work to Melissa Wiley, mwiley@ngs.org.

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