Pulitzer Center Update May 11, 2015

Visions of China


Media file: MineIsBorn_Untold_Stories_Price_Burkina_Faso02.jpg

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Editor's note: Larry Price presented "Document your World: Storytelling with New Media" to students in universities throughout China, including Sun Yat-sen University, Tsinghua University, Communication University of China in Beijing, Communication University of China at Nanjing, and Zhejiang Daily, during the week of April 20-24, 2015. His class lectures focused on his journalistic career, the major stories he has covered, and an overview of his latest projects from around the world supported by the Pulitzer Center. He also discussed how to use today's technology to tell stories that are important to the journalist, how to find and recognize and good stories, and how to leverage technology to best communicate ideas. He reflects on his experience, below.

The first question from the audience spoke volumes about the concerns of journalism students pursuing media careers in a country evolving to embrace Western sensibilities about open media and press freedoms.

I was standing at a podium in front of several hundred smart and eager journalism students crowded into the beautiful, state-of-the-art auditorium at the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China's third-largest city. I had come to China to talk about my work as a documentary photojournalist and present images and video from my Pulitzer Center-sponsored project on child labor to students at four universities across the country. Along the way, I met with the photography staff and editors at the Zhejiang Daily in the large city of Hangzhou.

I sensed deep concern as a bright young graduate student took the microphone and posed the first question. My interpreter, a doctoral candidate at the school, scribbled furiously in Chinese as he listened intently to the student. Then he nodded, turned to me, and in English, paraphrased for me.

"How do you prepare for a career in the media when positions at the largest newspaper and television stations demand expertise in not only writing, but in all aspects of multimedia, photography, video, audio?" she asked.

The questions seem at once ironic and familiar. I thought for a bit about all the changes that had rocked the American journalism industry in the past two decades. Shrinking newspaper readership, declining profits, wholesale layoffs—then the ensuing scramble by media companies to experiment with new methods of content delivery on their web-based outlets as they try to "monetize" their electronic editions.

The irony is that in China, newspaper readership is still a numbers game—and the numbers are huge. At the Zhejiang Daily, a thriving regional paper, circulation figures are well over half a million and holding steady.

Still, editors told me, their new obsession is to focus most of their attention on the future of storytelling on the Web. In journalism China style, demand for content is exploding and editors are looking for newer, brighter, and energetic ways to deliver it. This means vibrant images, splashy graphics and lots of video.

These new realities aren't lost on the Chinese journalism students trying to settle on course choices. Most told me they felt conflicted. They suggested they felt anxious about the need to master a craft that has evolved to encompass disciplines beyond the traditional journalism boundaries of writing and still photography. Chinese universities now demand competence in web page design, audio capture and video production and editing.

The notion of "backpack journalism," a term heard in Western journalism circles describing a single journalist carrying around a bag full of technical gear to capture aspects of a story for eventual publication in various forms for print, broadcast, Web, and social outlets, became a recurring theme as I spoke to other students at the Communication University in China at the Beijing and Nanjing campuses and at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

One student approached me after one session and confided she was considering moving away from a career in communications because she was feeling overwhelmed with all the emphasis on the technology of newsgathering. She enjoyed writing and taking interesting photos with her camera phone but felt overwhelmed by layering on video and incorporating social media in all her projects.

As I thought about these concerns, I recalled my own awakening to the new journalism realities just a few short years ago. I talked about my own passion—still photography—and how I use it as a cornerstone for the journalism projects I do these days. Every time I take on a new project, the emphasis will be on still photography. To reach broadcast markets, I know I must shoot video. I carry an array of audio equipment to capture sound for podcast or radio clips. My smart phone is tasked with social media chores. Of course, I take notes and conduct interviews with pen and paper. This is the essence of backpack journalism—one journalist, working with lots of different tools to tell interesting stories and most often working alone.

If there's one thing I've learned about covering simple stories or taking on more complex projects, I told the students, is that it's critical to embrace these new ways of working. And for an independent journalist, this is even more critical. More content across more media outlets translates to more income.

Talking to a group of multimedia students at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the same question came up. A couple of students said they felt uncomfortable with video production but very competent writing scripts. Another student loved photojournalism but was challenged by writing.

The trick, I suggested, is to master your chosen craft and then develop enough expertise in other media disciplines (video, social media and writing) to be comfortable.

My philosophy is that the technology of journalism is ever-changing and evolving. One thing that never changes is the never-ending stream of stories that need telling. When your passion is storytelling, technology quickly takes a back seat.

Learn the basics, master your chosen craft, then go out and tell stories, I emphasized.

I could almost see the light bulbs coming on.

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