Last month, Ellen Laipson, president emeritus of the Stimson Center and an expert in global policymaking, wrote an essay about a special issue of the New York Times Magazine called “Fractured Lands,” a manifestation of 18 months of reporting into why and how the Arab world collapsed.
In her essay, Laipson described the important role of journalists to help make sense of our world’s problems. “Great journalism has the power to create conversations, painful as they may be, that will help shape public policy where there are no easy answers,” she wrote.
Laipson’s words also capture the reason the Pulitzer Center exists—to spark conversations and advance a more nuanced understanding of the most challenging global issues of our time.
Which is why the Center supported the ad-free Aug. 14 issue of the New York Times Magazine featuring “Fractured Lands.” The 40,000-word story by Scott Anderson is accompanied by Paolo Pelligrin’s stunning photography and a companion virtual reality piece by Ben Solomon.
It’s been called “majestic,” “epic,” and “monumental,” and it continues to generate coverage—for the substance of the reporting, for its ambitious approach, and for its groundbreaking funding structure.
The collaboration represents our largest single grant for a reporting project. It is a direct result of our efforts under the Catalyst Fund, which we launched just over a year ago with the aim of fostering strategic partnerships between the Center and major news outlets to support work by freelance multimedia journalists on systemic global issues. The Fund began as a result of conversations with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s journalism and media director Kathy Im, who challenged us to think about how we could go deeper on the projects we support. The Catalyst Fund launched with a two-year commitment of $1 million from the MacArthur Foundation, the Kendeda Fund, and individual donors to the Pulitzer Center.
The approach represents an evolution of our model, where typically journalists pitch individual projects to us with plans for distribution in place. Over the past 10 years, this has worked exceptionally well, providing support for more than 600 projects from more than 150 countries, and resulting in close to 3,000 stories placed across more than 600 outlets. But we’ve also recognized a need to take a more systematic approach that would involve more direct collaboration and coordination with partner outlets, to think more strategically about bigger projects. Our goal is to maximize the impact of the work while helping support the freelance journalists who are so committed to telling these stories.
Editorial control remains firmly with the outlets and journalists. We aim to be a catalyst for them to think bigger and go deeper on slow moving crises—such as climate change, gender rights, water and sanitation, and fragile states—and to do so through compelling, rich multimedia that engages audiences in powerful ways.
In the case of “Fractured Lands,” our collaboration with The Times began with a conversation about Pulitzer Center support for Ben Solomon’s virtual reality video. As we learned more about the project, and the outstanding journalists involved, we saw an opportunity to do something bigger—to support the project overall while also committing to an ambitious round of educational outreach.
We know the story has already had tremendous reach. The print issue alone reached over a million readers, with another 2 million online. Just on Facebook, the virtual reality video has had over 750,000 views. The responses to the project so far have been unlike any we’ve ever seen. It’s been covered by over a dozen broadcast outlets and dozens more online, including regional, national and international outlets, amplifying the story’s initial reach and sparking conversations that are informing current political conversations.
And it’s just the beginning.
The Pulitzer Center has organized more than a dozen events this fall with the authors and editors of “Fractured Lands,” beginning with a packed forum earlier this month at the Columbia University School of Journalism and continuing with engagements at the University of Chicago, Elon University, Yale and more. At Wake Forest University, Scott Anderson will be meeting not just with journalism and Middle East classes but also with theater students, to explore the possibilities of a “devised play” based on the six characters at the center of “Fractured Lands.”
We also have arranged for a special presentation of the project at the National Democratic Institute with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, with the aim of bringing this work to high-level policy makers from the U.S. and beyond. At the same time, we have written extensive educational lesson plans at the college and secondary-school levels, using our online Lesson Builder, which is freely available to teachers and students throughout the world.
Educational outreach has long been central to our model, allowing us to engage youth on the key issues of our time while providing a critical lens on the information landscape that surrounds them. It’s a natural extension of the journalism we support, which of course is—at its core—a form of education.
In terms of impact, our goal has always been to advance a deeper understanding of global issues through the reporting we support, and then to extend it through the educational outreach we do. But meaningfully measuring learning and understanding is no simple task. We’ll have opportunities in classrooms to measure some elements of learning, and of course we’ll continue to track the reach of and responses to the original reporting.
However, the deepest impact of this work may take form years from now—in a high-school student deciding to study conflict resolution, a teacher deciding to teach more global issues in their classroom, or a better-informed conversation by politicians and the public about the crucial foreign-policy decisions we face.
In the meantime, we hope that “Fractured Lands” will inspire collaborations that are equally big and just as ambitious, making the case for a public-good journalism that serves us all.
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is a nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to supporting in-depth engagement with underreported global affairs through our sponsorship of quality international journalism across all media platforms and a unique program of outreach and education to schools and universities.
Kathy Im is on the board of directors for Media Impact Funders.