Pulitzer Center Update

Bringing Stories Home: New Approaches to Covering the World

Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer delivered the James C. Millstone Memorial Lecture, titled "Bringing Stories Home: New Approaches to Covering the World," at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, MO on October 6, 2011.

I want to tell the story of a highly unlikely enterprise, something that began as the germ of an idea in discussions with Emily Rauh Pulitzer and David Moore six years ago and that has grown in a very short time into one of our most important venues for international journalism and educational engagement with systemic global issues. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is a reflection in part of the crisis in American journalism, a crisis that has upended our craft and caused enormous disruption, for storied news institutions and individual journalists alike. But the Pulitzer Center is a reflection as well of journalism resilience—a story about seizing on new technologies, new platforms, and new models of collaborative reporting so as to engage more people more deeply than has ever been possible before.

In the past few weeks you will have seen our work in the pages of The New York Times, Esquire and National Geographic. You will have watched our reporting on PBS NewsHour and heard it on NPR and PRI/The World—or engaged with it online, on Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, TIME.com, and The Washington Post. What you may not realize is that none of this reporting would have been possible without the Pulitzer Center’s help, from travel grants to journalists and editorial support to the crafting of pitches to news-media outlets.

Some of you here tonight may attend—or may have children—at one of the dozen St. Louis schools that have been active members of our Global Gateway educational outreach program. This week they’ve been hearing from photographer Andre Lambertson about his work in Haiti since the earthquake, or in Liberia with groups working to help former child soldiers rebuild their lives. Journalist Anna Badkhen has been making the rounds of St. Louis schools this week as well, talking about her extraordinary ground-level reporting she has done this year for Foreign Policy, The New Republic and the Pulitzer Center in the villages of northern Afghanistan—villages where the Taliban is rebuilding even as U.S. and allied forces plan for pulling out.

Anna couldn’t be with us tonight because she is speaking at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which thanks to Bill Freivogel and the journalism department is one of the 15 members of our Campus Consortium, university partners around the country who fund presentations by our journalists. Another Campus Consortium partner is Washington University, where Anna and Andre met with students Monday night.

Visits like those by Andre and Anna are part of an outreach program at the Pulitzer Center that has grown like kudzu. At this point our total of in-person visits by journalists and staff to high schools and middle schools for 2011, completed or scheduled, is 85. We have in addition staged 69 public events thus far for 2011, most of them university presentations but also collaborative partnerships like our multimedia presentation on child brides this past Monday at National Geographic in Washington, a joint photo exhibit with Human Rights Watch on the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the premiere of our multimedia poetry project, Voices of Haiti, last month at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina.

On some days we feel that we are more booking and travel agents than journalists – and on many days we feel that we have bitten off more than we can chew. For the Pulitzer Center’s first two years our enterprise consisted of me, Nathalie Applewhite and Ann Peters; it often seemed that the most solid thing about us was that “Pulitzer” in our name. Many times, at a conference or pitching stories to a news outlet, someone would glance at our business card, nod sagely, and say, “Oh yes, the Pulitzer Center. A very important organization.” We have tried hard to match the journalistic gravitas of our name and we have grown bigger since—with eight full-time employees, five interns, and a roster of journalist partners some 200 strong. But I know that even today there are many journalists, and donors, who are taken aback when they first visit us—in our four cramped offices, in the back corner of shared space in a building off Dupont Circle. “This is it?” they’ll say. “This is the Pulitzer Center?”

As I say, an unlikely enterprise … and one with roots very much here in St. Louis and with the man whose name we honor in this lecture series.

It was Jim Millstone who gave me my first foreign assignment, a trip to the failed Windscale reactor in England as part of a series we did on nuclear waste, and it was Jim who taught me a lesson about seizing the moment, and decisive judgment, that I’ve thought of often as we make decisions each week on whether to back the journalism proposals we receive. It was 1986 and the regime of “Baby Doc” Duvalier had just fallen in Haiti. Photographer Jim Forbes and I were dispatched to go but by the time we got to Miami the airport in Port au Prince had been closed to commercial aviation and was about to be closed entirely. Jim Forbes made some calls and determined that we could get in, via a chartered Lear jet, but we had to leave within the hour—and it would cost us $1,500 each. It was my task to call Jim Millstone, close to midnight at home, and ask permission. I can’t remember whether Pat had to wake him up or not but I do recall there was a long pause after I asked the question. “Get the story,” he said. And then a slightly longer pause. “And it had better be good.” I never heard from Jim how the conversation went the next morning, when he had to explain to Dave Lipman what he had approved.

It wasn’t long after I arrived in St. Louis, straight from college, that I started to dream of going to Washington. A big part of the reason was that byline “Richard Dudman.” He had been everywhere, known everyone, and lived a life I desperately wanted to emulate. I got to Washington as a summer replacement in 1977 and then eventually, after some miscues (mine), I got a permanent slot on the Washington bureau staff. That was late 1980, just a few months before Richard’s absurdly premature “retirement”—witness the fact that he is still going strong, batting out editorials for the Bangor Daily News 31 years later!—but I did have the privilege and pleasure of watching him in action. What a bureau that was! Jim Deakin was covering the White House, Tom Ottenad politics, and Bill Wyant the environment. Bob Adams was all over Iran and the Middle East, Bill and Margie Freivogel had just arrived, and Gerald Boyd was well along that remarkable trajectory that would take him from north St. Louis to being the first African-American managing editor of the New York Times. As for Richard himself, this audience knows a lot of the highlights already – from chasing after guerrillas in Guatemala in the early 1950s to his capture in Cambodia, from Dallas in 1963 to being on board for Nixon’s breakthrough trip and on his infamous list of enemies too. I’ll share just one quick story more, from a routine day my first summer. “Walkin’ Joe Teasdale” was then the somewhat erratic governor of Missouri, and when I got to work that morning there was a press release from his office warning that routine discharges from the Callaway nuclear power plant would pose high health risks to people downstream in St. Louis. It didn’t ring true to me but I couldn’t reach anyone in the governor’s office for further comment—and back then, when we were still an afternoon paper, we were up against the deadline for our main press run. I thought we should wait but Richard said no, that this was a statement from the office of the state’s top official and it was news. “Bird who sits on story gets tail burned,” Dick told me, “and if it turns out that Teasdale has his facts mixed up we’ll have an even better story for the next edition!”

For most of my career at the Post-Dispatch people commiserated with me that I had missed its Golden Era, the age of Dudman and Pete Brandt, Charlie Ross and Robert Lasch, Jim Millstone and Marquis Childs. Those of us in my generation, who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, spent our careers bemoaning the fact that we had missed out, that we were spending our careers in the age of the paper’s decline. We sort of took for granted that we were getting some remarkable opportunities ourselves. Fanning the country for enterprise coverage of every presidential campaign, with equally ambitious coverage of House and Senate campaigns too. Giving Margie Freivogel the chance to become one of journalism’s top voices on the emerging role of women in politics, or letting Bill Freivogel and me spend 18 months investigating defense fraud at General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas and Bill nearly that long deconstructing what had happened in the government attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Sending Bill Lambrecht on multiple investigatve forays that made him one of the leading journalist experts on genetically modified organisms. Or, in my case, approving long projects that made me a witness to the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China, and so much more. We were expected to fill a news analysis section each Sunday with three or four 40-inch pieces of analysis and stories of that length and complexity were also the stuff of our daily work. When we look back at that experience now and compare it to journalism today—not just the Post-Dispatch but virtually any paper in the country, from the Chicago Tribune to the Los Angeles Times to The Washington Post – we realize that it wasn’t just Dick Dudman who worked in the Golden Era. We all did.

This is not a speech of lament, however, and it’s worth noting that there were some things that weren’t so glittery, journalistically speaking, about that Golden Era. There were some things to which we didn’t pay as much attention as we should have—like audience engagement, collaboration and outreach. These failings are more apparent in retrospect, now that the bottom has dropped out from under the old news-media model, but it’s also true that technology has given us far better tools today than we ever had then.

One figure that sticks in my mind was from a survey of our readers that as I recall was done back in the 1980s. Subscribers were asked what features in the paper made them buy it, and what coverage they were most likely to read. Coupons and classified ads were hands-down the most important features (and thank you, Craig’s List, for destroying the latter!) As to what people read, obituaries, comics and sports all ranked high, as did weather and community news. Something like 13 percent of our readers said that international news was of interest to them—and who knows how many of that 13 percent actually read the stories and how many were just saying they did because they knew they should. I don’t know how our Washington bureau would have fared, back then, had our editors back home known each day precisely what our real readership was.

Second, looking back, I think that all of us were remarkably disengaged from our audience. I know that in my case I was far more conscious most days of writing for Jim Millstone, or Bill Woo or Margie Freivogel—or for the subjects of my stories—than I was on writing for the ultimate readers of the work. I didn’t hear from them much, in part because I was often writing about subjects distant from home, and I didn’t think nearly as much as I should have about how and why—or whether—my stories were relevant to their lives.

Third, very much related, we too often failed to think enough about how to sustain engagement in the issues we covered. We did a good job with this on the editorial page—one reason I only lasted three years on the editorial page at the start of my career was that I had a hard time coming up with clever ways to restate our position on gun control a fifth or fifteenth time. We did well also on sustained investigative campaigns like our work on defense fraud. I’m thinking more of our big enterprise projects, where we would assign a journalist to dig deep on an issue, making herself expert on an issue and traveling the world to gather the story. We would give great play to the project, six and seven days of multi-page stories, but all too often that was it. The reporter would move on to the next assignment; there was very little in the way of cross-promotion with radio or television, school or campus and community talks. It was a little bit crazy, looking back. We had invested large sums in making our journalists expert, on subjects of public interest, and then too often we let that expertise wither on the vine.

And lastly, very little thought to collaboration across media platforms. When I look back now it’s striking to me how self-contained our world at the Post-Dispatch was. We wanted to beat the competition – whether it was the Globe Democrat or local television or national papers covering the same story. There’s clearly a lot of good in competition, of course, and I was never a fan of the top-down “public journalism” sort of collaboration popular 10 or 15 years ago that too often was a cover for getting in bed with local or national establishments. What I am talking about is cross-platform collaborations that could extend the reach and impact of our reporting, taking the time to find a television partner or maybe a print outlet from some other city with an interest in the same topic, and then producing reports that complemented and built on each other.

I mentioned earlier the defense fraud investigation that consumed Bill Freivogel and me for a year and a half. Our principal competitor was Patrick Tyler, then of The Washington Post. He had been cultivating for months Takis Veliotis, the former head of the General Dynamics nuclear submarine division who had fled the country in advance of a criminal indictment. He absconded to Greece, along with boxes of documents that incriminated higher ups in the company. He had given some of the documents to Patrick Tyler, who spent weeks corroborating them but was slow to publish. Veliotis, seeking to spur him on, invited me to Athens. For a week I called him each day and for seven days he put me off. He finally agreed to meet me, and to share the documents, among them tape recordings that included compromising comments by David Lewis, the company’s chair. It was a classic Veliotis move. He knew by then that The Washington Post was running its story the next day, spurred in part by his threats of giving it to us instead. What he hadn’t figured on was that it was seven hours earlier in St. Louis – and that by working with Bill, Jim and our lawyers we were able to get our version of the story in that night as well. It was probably the worst written story of my career and maybe the most unintelligible too -- every quotation from David Lewis was preceded by the phrase “a voice purported to be that of David Lewis” – but we had matched The Washington Post. Would we have been better off talking a bit more with Patrick Tyler along the way, and comparing notes? Bill Freivogel and Richard Dudman would probably say No but I’m thinking, maybe Yes.

One bright side of the collapse of the old journalism ecosystem is that today journalists, editors and news-media outlets are open to multi-platform cross-media collaboration in ways they would never have dreamed of before. This change in perspective has happened with astounding speed. We think the Pulitzer Center has been at the forefront, pushing such projects through our journalism grants and brokering partnerships wherever we can.

I would like to talk a bit about how this model works, with reference to some of our recent reporting projects.

For starters, we know precisely how many people read us. The cities where they live, the number of seconds or minutes they stay with a story, where on the Internet they came from and whether, after landing on our site, they stick around to explore or bounce off to someplace else.

For the month of August I can tell you that our website had 90,634 visitors. A quarter of them were Americans but we also had nearly that many from India. They looked at a total of 166,181 of our web pages and they spent on average one minute and 34 seconds per visit. About a third of our visitors came as a result of Google Ad Words, those featured links on the right side of search-engine results. We get a certain amount of Ad Words free each month, through a Google grant program for non-profits, and in our case we’ve used them to draw audience and attention to Downstream, our strand of reporting on water and sanitation issues, and to the lesson plans that we write to encourage teachers to make use of our journalism in class.

Thanks to Google Analytics we can drill deeper, and get a sense of what the level of engagement is. We know that in August our web pages presenting Andre Lambertson’s work on teenager prostitution were viewed 1,730 times, on average for 3 minutes 48 seconds each—in Internet time, a virtual eternity. We know that the haunting multimedia piece that Stephanie Sinclair produced for us on child brides was viewed 1,561 times, for an average time of 6 minutes 24 seconds each.

We also know that in a collaborative, high-technology world we don’t have to depend on our site alone to reach the audiences we seek. The child brides video is featured on the Pulitzer Center’s YouTube channel, for example, where it has reached 13,878 viewers so far. It reached thousands more via the PBS NewsHour website and NPR, which ran an interview with Stephanie about her work.

We did an important project with Tyler Cabot, writing for Esquire about his father’s legal representation of a poorly educated Sudanese bit player on the fringes of al Qaida who has been held at Guantanamo for nearly a decade. On our site the web pages with Tyler’s story drew just a handful of views. But the print version of the story reached a paid circulation of 719,000—and another 10,267 people found the story via Esquire’s own website.

On Anna Badkhen’s highly original reporting from Afghanistan, focusing on the timeless rhythms of remote northern villages that have been buffeted by serial military occupations, we partnered with Foreign Policy and New Republic. On our site during August Anna’s stories were viewed 9,363 times. But during that same period, via the websites of Foreign Policy and The New Republic, the same stories reached another 28,268.

Of course when we collaborate with print and broadcast partners the numbers are vastly larger. The work that we commissioned on the Egyptian revolution by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a young Egyptian-American graduate of Duke University, has been featured repeatedly on Democracy Now!, a program that airs on 963 public television stations.

One of our slowest-evolving projects ended up as one of the most timely. More than three years ago we commissioned a project by National Geographic writer Peter Gwin on the restive Tuareg rebels of northern Niger and Mali. He made multiple trips but the story didn’t appear until the September issue of this year—precisely as the Libyan revolution was driving thousands of Taureg mercenaries who had served in Qaddafi’s army back home to Niger. Peter wrote a short article on the Libyan connection for Untold Stories, the platform on our website for field reports by our journalists. That led in turn to an assignment from the Atlantic.com, which this summer began featuring selected stories from our Untold Stories strand on the international section of its website. Atlantic made Peter’s Qaddafi mercenaries story the lead story for its entire site, drawing 39,449 readers to the story. That led in turn to interviews with Peter Gwin on PRI/The World, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and CNN, taking the story to tens of thousands more.

Another long-running collaboration has been our work with PBS NewsHour and National Geographic on water and sanitation, probably our best example of sustained issues engagement over time. On the Downstream Gateway of our website you’ll find links to over 20 projects on the topic that we have commissioned over the past four years, with dozens of news-media outlets, school and university events, “meet the journalist” videos, lesson plans and much, much more. NewsHour and National Geographic have been hugely valued partners, giving us access to their huge platforms for work we have commissioned, cross-promoting the work each has done, and working with us on events, outreach and the use of social-media tools.

The work on Downstream led us to develop similar Gateway strands on a wide variety of topics, from fragile states and women and children in crisis to HIV/AIDS, food insecurity and climate change. The platforms are made to order for our brand of systemic reporting, growing richer over time as we commission new work, bring in new outlets, and fill in gaps by geography and topic. The newest Gateway features our work on population, with work ranging from the demographic bulge behind the Arab spring to women power in Saudi Arabia and abuse of adoption in Ethiopia. NewsHour and National Geographic have been key partners again, with a series of NewsHour reports that we commissioned paired with National Geographic’s own yearlong examination of the topic. The September issue of National Geographic, released mid August, featured a story by Cynthia Gorney on the fall in reproductive rates in Brazil. NewsHour ran a report we commissioned by special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro, focusing on the importance of girls’ access to education and careers. The issue thus came before NewsHour’s 2.7 million viewers and National Geographic’s audience of 4.5 million—and gave us extraordinary print and visual assets that we can repurpose in our work with schools, universities and the general public.

Water and population are also two of the topics where we are pioneering a new form of collaboration, one that matches seasoned international journalists and leading news outlets with journalists from the developing countries on which so much of our reporting has focused. The goal is to identify strong journalists in these countries and give them a voice in the reporting that reaches audiences in the United States and the rest of the industrialized North. In the water initiative we recruited four West African journalists; they are working with my colleagues at Pulitzer and with Steve Sapienza, a video journalist who has done multiple projects with the Pulitzer Center including work for NewsHour, on a project that will address issues of sustainability and accountability in the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on water and sanitation projects, with too much of it wasted along the way. On population we have just announced a similar initiative on reproductive health, with applications open to journalists from all of Africa. Each of these initiatives builds in part on the work we’ve begun via our Persephone Miel Fellowships, a program created in the memory of a journalist colleague who thought there would be great value for non-U.S. journalists in having access to Pulitzer Center fellowships. We awarded the first of the Miel Fellowships earlier this year, two to Indian journalists and one to a Pakistani.

I mentioned earlier the talks this week by Anna Badkhen and Andre Lambertson at Washington University and Southern Illinois University Carbondale. This is part of another collaborative venture, one that seeks out financial support from universities to bring journalists on campus to engage with students about their reporting, and in the process earn additional income for themselves. Our role is that of broker and agent—recruiting the consortium members, working with them to create events, and then handling the logistics and promotion for the events themselves. It’s been immensely rewarding for us and the journalists both, giving them access to new audiences as well as contacts with expert academics who become sources for future projects. For the Pulitzer Center it’s a means of bringing attention to our work as a whole, and giving us the opportunity to work with gifted people on what it takes to engage university audiences in journalism that matters. Like so much at the Pulitzer Center the Campus Consortium has evolved in unpredicted ways. It began with a focus on journalist events and the provision of Pulitzer fellowships to students at Consortium member schools. That is still the model at a number of schools but at others, like Davidson College and the College of William and Mary, the focus is much more on our journalists serving as mentors for students who will be doing their own international research. The list of Consortium members is one of our most exciting areas of growth; among other universities now participating we count George Washington University, Boston University, Elmhurst College, Ohio University, Saint Mary’s University/Minnesota, University of Miami, Wake Forest University, Guilford College, High Point University, and Kent State University. We also have a separate partnership with the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, in which we sponsor field reporting by two global health fellows each year. If you want your alma mater to participate in the Campus Consortium, and help support journalism that matters, I hope you’ll let your college know!

That brings me to one last form of collaboration, the partnership with donors that makes all of this work possible. Non-profit journalism is not a new phenomenon. It is the basis of NPR, of public television, and of respected journalism brands like the St. Petersburg Times and the Christian Science Monitor. What is new is an explosion of journalism initiatives that depend in part on individual and foundation donations, from national enterprises such as Pro Publica and the Pulitzer Center to local news organizations like the St. Louis Beacon that have done great work in fostering information and debate on topics that commercial metropolitan dailies are increasingly less able to tackle.

I know that many of these new news organizations are working toward market sustainability: creating enough web traffic to attract advertising, building corporate sponsorships and individuals memberships, or crafting a viable pay-for-view model. At the Pulitzer Center we’re certainly interested in earned revenue; the Campus Consortium is essentially a fee-for-service business and we believe that as our education program for middle and high schools scales up there will be a market for paid service in that sector, too.

But we have no illusions as to doing this work without the support of individuals and foundations who understand that what we are talking about are classic public goods—reporting of value to our democracy as a whole but that isn’t going to be accomplished on any standard commercial scheme. If you look at our site you will see that it is almost entirely “serious” work, work that we are endeavoring to make as vivid and compelling as possible but that doesn’t rely on celebrities or sex or sports or the story of the hour or whatever it is that most commercial sites have to tout to bring the eyeballs in. We joke that we’re selling spinach, tough news on difficult stories from often obscure spots of the globe. We sauté it, we lace it with spices when we can, but spinach it remains. Good for you, and important, but not as enticing as the latest congressional scandal or what Dominique Straus-Kahn did at the Sofitel Hotel.

One of the most inspiring aspects of our experience at the Pulitzer Center these past six years has been the growing number of individuals and foundations who care about these issues—from HIV/AIDS to climate change to women and children in crisis—and who see the value of objective journalism and the role that such journalism can play in making informed citizens of the generation that follows. For us it began with the example and support of Emmy Pulitzer and David and Katherine Moore. They set a standard of funding independent reporting on systemic global issues without constraining how the reporting was done that has served us extraordinarily well as we have brought in new supporters to expand our work.

Emmy Pulitzer likes to say that if the first Joseph Pulitzer were with us today, the man who helped invent the penny press and made the exposé of tenement abuses and other investigative crusades a staple of daily journalism would most definitely be part of the online revolution. He would be every bit as excited by the possibilities of multimedia presentation on iPads and interactive engagement as he and his successors were about sending Nelly Bly around the world or introducing color comics and photographs to daily newspapers. We are very much driven by that same entrepreneurial excitement, determined to seize every opportunity before us and to leverage our resources as far as we possibly can.

But we’re also inspired by the third Joseph Pulitzer, Richard Dudman’s boss and mine, a man of exquisite taste and deep commitment to the highest ideals of independent, fearless journalism. When he became editor of the Post-Dispatch, in the 1950s, he said something that we have made a watchword of our work at the Pulitzer Center: that “we will illuminate dark places and, with deep understanding, interpret these troubled times.” You’ll find it at the bottom of every page on the Pulitzer Center website. It’s the mission that drives our work.

Read the St. Louis Beacon for a wrap-up of the lecture.