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Story Publication logo May 13, 2009

Jon Sawyer Q and A with Online Journalism Review


David Westphal, Online Journalism Review

What are the two new qualities that journalists of the future must embody? They must be entrepreneurial and they must be multimedia. These are precisely the qualities that animate the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Almost five years ago now, my wife (Geneva Overholser) and I sat in Jon Sawyer's living room in Washington, D.C., and listened to him spin out what sounded like an improbable tale. He wanted to set up a nonprofit center on foreign reporting, and he wanted a philanthropist to bankroll it.

I will confess right here. I was supremely skeptical that this could work. And I was wrong as could be. Jon, the longtime Washington bureau chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, indeed did persuade Emily Pulitzer to establish the nonprofit center. And today, three-and-a-half years old, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is producing dozens of exclusive, multimedia reports on issues and regions of the world that otherwise wouldn't be covered.

Jon is a longtime friend so I won't feign impartiality here, and will basically let him tell his own story. But it's worth making a few points up top:

First, the Pulitzer Center is demonstrating that high-quality international reporting can happen on a modest budget. Jon's entire expense budget is less than $1 million a year, and that pays for the center's staff in Washington as well as dozens of reporting grants.

Second, the center is one of the leading proponents for the journalist-as-entrepreneur model. Free-lancers commissioned by the center receive only a travel stipend; but the center then works with the journalists to find multiple platforms and venues for their work. (Note: In a later post we'll focus on a couple of journalists who exemplify this model.)

Third, the Pulitzer center's projects aren't just one-off stories, or even a multimedia menu of stories. They are full-blown campaigns, designed to create maximum exposure for the reporting. Notably, Jon is developing the idea that the college lecture hall and the school classroom are critical pieces of a journalist's ability to get his or her story across.

I asked Jon a few questions about his center. His answers run a little long, but they're worth your time:

I've been surprised at how quickly you've made the Pulitzer Center into a major engine of foreign news coverage. How have you pulled this off in such a short time?
Three and a half years isn't so short (especially since it feels like three and half years with no weekends off!). But I agree, the Center's scope has grown much faster than I imagined when we began. We've gone from fewer than 10 projects the first year to a projected 35 for 2009, and from just a handful of placements in the first year to more than 250 in 2008.

We benefited a great deal from my experience doing this sort of enterprise reporting over many years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a newspaper with a strong commitment to independent reporting on global issues but no foreign bureaus and a relatively modest travel budget; in my dozen years as DC bureau chief we never had a budget greater than $150,000 for domestic/foreign travel. On the 40-plus foreign projects I did for the PD the travel budget was never more than $20,000, even for trips where I spent six or eight weeks traveling. So I was used to squeezing as much as possible out of limited dollars. I also had field experience in most regions of the world, was familiar with most of the issues presented, and enjoyed relationships I had developed over the years with editors at many print and broadcast outlets.

We've also grown faster than anticipated because we've been offering unique and high-quality content at a time when the traditional sources for such content have been in free fall. You know the drill – bureaus shuttered, budgets slashed. News organizations that told me three years ago they had no interest in partnering with outside collaborators on international reporting have a very different view today. (This also reflects, I think, the fact that three years in we now have an established reputation for providing quality work – and so we're able at least to get a hearing most places when we pitch our journalists' work.)

Lastly, and most important, I was very lucky in the people I hired, and in the quality of journalists who came to us for travel support.

My associate director, Nathalie Applewhite, brought a wealth of experience in video documentaries and international education; Ann Peters, our director of development and outreach, had been a UPI reporter in the U.S., Jerusalem and South Africa and later worked on the program side at Human Rights Watch and the Open Societies Institute; Janeen Heath came straight from college but with terrific organizational skills and experience in campus leadership positions that made her well suited to take the lead in our high school and university outreach programs.

How is the Pulitzer Center different from other news organizations (profit and non-profit) in focusing on foreign news?
The biggest distinction is probably our "full-cycle" approach, from the identification of underreported systemic crises and the recruitment of journalists to help in placement of their work across multiple media platforms and a very aggressive program of after-marketing and educational outreach. In essence we view our projects as campaigns – not as one-off stories where the work ceases at the point of publication or broadcast.

The heart of our work is travel support to journalists, getting them out in the field, but we differ from other funding sources in that we seek out journalists who embrace our model and are willing to work closely with Pulitzer to maximize the impact of their work. The commissions we make come with a host of requirements – all the information you see on our "project pages," multiple print and photo/video blogs from the field, the creation of audio slide shows to complement the work, entries on Wikipedia, at least one article for our partners at Global Post. For many of our journalists, the blogs and audio slideshows they create for us are their first experience with either – and almost without exception they've found it rewarding and highly useful in terms of promoting the work.

The relationship with Global Post is typical of our many collaborations, from traditional platforms like the Post, the Times and NewsHour to new outlets like WorldFocus. We've built strong relationships with regional or niche papers that had interest/resources in foreign news (Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Times), putting us in position to help less established writers/producers get outlets and income. We've also worked hard on the magazine front, from big outlets like Time and Newsweek (online and print) to specialty mags like Mother Jones, Rolling Stone and The Nation. Because of the many contacts we've made, and the track record we've established, we're able to serve our journalists as agent, getting their pitches a hearing. We also do a lot of work on the pitches themselves, getting them in shape to make the strongest case possible.

Among the several dozen projects we fund each year there is implicit competition to be singled out for the after-marketing and educational placements we do for the best of the projects. We plug the chosen journalists into our growing network of schools and universities, giving them this additional opportunity for exposure, contacts and income. We handle all the logistics, the marketing and payments.

The after-marketing and education outreach distinguishes us in another way, in that we are singularly focused on reaching out to audiences not now engaged in traditional news media outlets. In our view we are creating the news audience of the future, exposing young people to quality journalism and encouraging them to join a conversation on critically important global issues – but within the context of vetted, professional journalism.

This is one of the reasons our partnership with YouTube on Project:Report was so important. YouTube came to us as the journalist partner on their first video reporting contest because they wanted to convey their commitment to serious journalism. If you look at the way the contest was structured you'll see that commitment vividly displayed. Each of the three rounds of the contest was presented with aspirational "model" videos from the work of Pulitzer – on Iraq, Jamaica and Liberia – and each round included a "how-to" video produced by us with our journalists and videographers (e.g., how to do an effective profile, how to find the universal elements in a local story, how to create a collaborative video project). YouTube showed its own commitment to the project via heavy promotion on its site and throughout Google, and by showcasing the ten finalists on YouTube's homepage (a rare exception to YouTube's general rule of having popularity dictate placement). The result was nearly 3 million views for videos associated with the contest, and priceless exposure for some exceptional video work. The grand-prize winner, Arturo Perez, is now at work with Pulitzer on a reporting project from Cuba that will be showcased on YouTube, too. We are working with YouTube on doing Project:Report again next year, hopefully with even greater participation by journalism school students and by the broader YouTube community.

What are the one or two projects you're most proud of?
Of course I'm proud of all our projects (well, almost all!) I tell more about WaterWars and our growing strand of multiple-reporter projects in the section below. Our work in Sudan is very special to me, partly because of our sustained commitment (half a dozen projects and counting) but also because our work on the African Union in Darfur was the Center's first project, one I did myself and on which we discovered the extraordinary value of using multiple platforms. (The decision to hire a videographer to work with me led to the short documentary for Foreign Exchange, a longer 25-minute doc that aired on LinkTV and that we used to frame a special presentation at the Holocaust Memorial Museum that we simulcast to 35 college locations via Internet2 – and that then became the basis for some two dozen talks I gave at universities, schools and churches across the country … in short a pretty good wake-up call to the idea that the Pulitzer Center was going to be more than a funder of print journalists!)

Our multiple projects in Iraq are worth special note, I think, because they demonstrate (a) the role we can play highlighting under-covered angles even on stories that traditional media IS covering; and (b) the fact that small operations such as the Pulitzer Center can play a significant role even in active conflict zones characterized by security concerns and high cost. We supported Beth Murphy's documentary on Kirk Johnson, the young AID worker who left the government to mount a campaign to win U.S. visas for Iraqis who were targeted for their work with U.S. army/government. We also made it possible for the Baltimore Sun's Matt Brown to do a three-part series on the plight of Iraqi refugees stuck in Jordan and Syria.

And lastly, most significantly, we have funded four different projects over the past two-plus year by free-lance journalists David Enders and his wife Alaa Majeed (formerly of McClatchy) and videographers Rick and Jacqui Rowley. They've done things most American news organizations didn't even try – embedding with Mahdi units and Sunni militias and getting cameras in to vast Shiite displaced-persons camps that were off limits to UN, NGOs or other press. We've aired multiple pieces on Foreign Exchange, put David on air with Fareed Zakaria to challenge conventional wisdom on the Surge, and made possible dozens of articles and broadcasts across a range of outlets, from the Washington Times to al Jazeera English, Democracy Now, Pacifica, The Nation and Mother Jones. David and Rick would tell you that they couldn't have done this work without the Pulitzer Center – not so much because of the money (although that of course helped) but because we were willing to serve as sponsoring news organization at times when no one else would, given the security risks entailed and possible liability. They went in with their eyes open as to their own exposure, and having signed liability waiver forms with us. But we went in with our eyes open too, cognizant of the potential risks we bore but viewing it as crucial to produce stories that weren't otherwise being told.

The other project I want to cite is HOPE, our multimedia examination of the human face of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. This is the definitive example of our approach to news projects as campaigns, and our willingness to work outside the box in drawing attention to the big systemic issues we address.

HOPE began with a commission from the MAC AIDS Foundation, which gave us a grant to "do journalism" on HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, the region with the second-highest incidence of HIV in the world but one that had gotten far less media attention than sub-Saharan Africa. There were no restrictions on the work we did, beyond a geographic focus on the Caribbean. The first project we completed was an examination of U.S. policies on HIV/AIDS in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in collaboration with Foreign Exchange, the Palm Beach Post, and Cox Newspapers. This led to a newspaper series, three television pieces, and an interactive web portal "Heroes of HIV: HIV in the Caribbean." It also produced results, among them a $200,000 emergency appropriation from U.S. AID to clean up sanitary conditions in a Port-au-Prince prison we exposed in the reporting.

For the second project we opted on a very different approach, commissioning a report on the human face of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica by Kwame Dawes, a Ghanian-Jamaican poet who teaches at the University of South Carolina. Kwame has written some 20 books of poetry and a highly regarded book on Bob Marley and reggae but before this assignment had never done anything on HIV/AIDS. He was recommended to me by Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. I made the first trip to Jamaica with Kwame and over the course of several months in late 2007 and early 2008 he made four more trips, twice with Nathalie Applewhite and twice with other videographers we hired and also a photographer and web designer we commissioned to work with us. He interviewed some 50 individuals in all, from those infected with HIV to educators, doctors, social workers and gay-rights activists; along the way he wrote some 20 poems about the individuals he had met.

In the spring of 2008 we aired two short docs on Foreign Exchange. Kwame wrote an 8,000-word essay for VQR and I then pitched a shorter version of it The Washington Post, which published it in Outlook that spring. Meanwhile Kwame recommended that we commission original music to accompany the poetry. We agreed to do so, at a cost of $15,000, even though this was beyond the scope of the initial MAC AIDS commission and thus something we had to fund through internal Pulitzer dollars. The music, photography, video and poetry all became the basis for, the multimedia website we launched in early 2008. The website is an extraordinarily beautiful piece of work, one that has been honored by the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovation in Journalism and with multiple design awards – most recently as special honoree in one category of the WEBBY awards, finalist honors in two other categories, and winner of the "people's choice" award for best use of art in a website.

We arranged for Kwame to present the project in an appearance at Busboys and Poets in DC, at the same time pitching coverage of it. NewsHour featured the project last fall, in a lengthy segment that included excerpts from the site as well as interviews with Kwame and me. We were then approached by PRX (Public Radio Exchange), which co-funded production of a one-hour radio documentary drawing on all of the material we had collected in Jamaica as well as the music we had commissioned. That documentary has aired across the country this spring, on some of the biggest NPR stations. In the meantime we were seeking a venue to produce HOPE live, as a music/spoken word ensemble. We learned last month that we had been selected as a feature presentation for the National Black Theater Festival in North Carolina, widely regarded as the most important venue in the country for black theater. The production takes place this August; we hope to make it the occasion for raising the visibility of the HIV/AIDS issue as well as for our innovative approach to journalism. We hope that it will help us raise funds for the Pulitzer Center in general, and for further productions of HOPE, on university campuses and in Jamaica.

In the meantime we are pursuing a follow-on reporting project on HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, this time focusing on stigma and homophobia and how that has contributed to the spread of the disease. We are working in partnership with WorldFocus, on a series of broadcast pieces that we hope to air early summer – in time to help with marketing of the Black Theater Festival event.

My students at USC were excited about the Pulitzer Center, but were perplexed about how a travel stipend fits with the journalist's need to pay the rent. How would you say the center's business model is working for the journalists who receive your grants?
The Center is not "the answer" to journalism's crisis. It is one answer, not just through the help we give to specific journalists but also as a model for other actors in this sphere – a demonstration that relatively small amounts of money, strategically deployed, can jumpstart careers and lead to sustained relationships.

The next generation of journalists is going to be much more entrepreneurial than ours. It'll have to be. The old model of "company men (and women)," rising through the ranks of stable news organizations and drawing on ample resources to do stellar work, is simply gone – and not likely to return. But for imaginative reporters willing to hustle there are many opportunities, and few so rich as in foreign coverage. Our success in placing stories by quite young journalists in high-end publications/broadcasts is evidence of what can be done.

On the modeling front I also want to stress again the importance of new players stepping up to take responsibility for sustaining this kind of journalism. Start with universities, and journalism schools. To me it's an outrage that J Schools expect journalists to come on campus and talk for free, at the same time as they bewail the dwindling opportunities for their students. They should be working to fund this work themselves, through initiatives like Campus Consortium -- and I hope many more will be signing up in the months ahead.

I believe I've heard you say that the Pulitzer Center has quickly become one of the top creators of international news content in the United States. Is that a true statement? Is the work receiving the kind of attention you want?
I've said that we are one of the dozen or so top U.S. providers of original enterprise reporting abroad. I believe that is a true statement. If you were to make up a list of organizations sponsoring at least three dozen enterprise reporting projects per year, you'd be hard-pressed to get beyond a handful. But in making this point my larger purpose was to indict those in our business who say international news is too expensive and can no longer be afforded. The Pulitzer Center is doing 35 in-depth projects a year, nearly half of them encompassing television elements too, on a budget of less than $1 million. We are stretched way too thin and we need more money, for adequate staff to manage/promote this work and to funnel more dollars to the journalists themselves. But still: What does our record say about the performance – and the hand-wringing -- of traditional news organizations with vastly more resources?

It's interesting how much focus you put on the educational portion of your mission. It's almost as if the news presentation and the education part – campus visits, etc. – are two sides of the same coin. Talk about how the educational piece works for you.
Our Global Gateway and Campus Consortium educational outreach programs are absolutely central to our mission, to engage the broadest possible public in global affairs. The original journalism we sponsor is a means to that end but won't do much good if we don't use it creatively to engage younger audiences.

We started with a pilot program in St. Louis high schools and middle schools two-plus years ago, bringing our journalists on selected projects into the classroom and creating interactive web portals where they could engage with students online. If you look at Global Gateway on our site you'll see the series of projects we've presented, from the first one we did in spring 2007 on environmental issues in Mozambique (you'll also see there five short videos on the Global Gateway concept produced by St. Louis public television station KETC). Gateway projects since have included Iraq, child soldiers in Liberia, HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, WaterWars from east Africa, India's internal conflicts, and Women/Children/Crisis.

Crucial from the beginning was our partnership with Arthur Lieber and Civitas Associates, a St. Louis educational consulting firm with deep roots in that region's schools. Arthur helped us make contact with interested teachers and to get through the often-daunting challenge of demonstrating that exposure to our projects met state requirements as to educational "purpose." We subsequently have worked on teacher lesson plans on several of our Gateways with the Choices program at Brown University's Watson Institute, a national leader on international-issue curriculum packages with an established network of 5,000 schools.

The in-person visits by journalists have been invaluable in testing out our approach – and a wonderful experience for journalists and students alike – but long term our goal is very much to create an interactive online experience accessible to any school anywhere. Beginning with WaterWars last fall we have significantly enhanced the online experience, using everything from YouTube and Google map platforms (for "your stories" videos responding to each of the reporting topics) to video interviews with journalists and the subjects of their reporting to bring the stories home to students.

We took WaterWars to a dozen-plus schools in Seattle as well as St. Louis, and then to additional schools in Philadelphia, New York, Miami and Nairobi. These schools are now all part of the Gateway "community," with simple logon/passwords that allow their students to post comments/questions on any of our Gateway portals. The portals themselves remain open to anyone.

Our Campus Consortium is the university counterpart to Global Gateway. We had achieved considerable success at finding university venues for many of our journalists, producing some 100 events over the past three-plus years and often persuading universities to cover all or part of the cost of bringing journalists on campus and giving them an honorarium ($500 to $1,000 per event). Last December we decided to systematize this relationship, seeking commitments by universities/colleges to fund this relationship on an ongoing basis via the Consortium. We set the price at $10,000 per year. In return the university would work with us to bring at least one journalist event on campus each year (in practice this is looking more like one per semeseter). We would designate a Pulitzer liaison on each campus, to work with us on making campus use of all Pulitzer journalism and Gateway portals. And lastly, students at Consortium schools would be eligible to compete for $2,000 travel reporting fellowships with the Pulitzer Center, one per participating campus. In a miserable economic climate we got a wonderful response: full commitments from Ohio University, SIU-Carbondale, UNC-Chapel Hill, Kent State University and the University of Oregon, plus partial commitments from St. John's/Minnesota and Washington University. We are actively recruiting for additional Consortium members – hopeful that journalism schools in particular will see this as a low-cost means of bringing innovative journalism approaches on campus and supporting the work of stellar journalists.

Where is the Pulitzer Center going next?
As the Pulitzer Center has scaled up, producing several dozen projects a year, we've gotten to the point where we can draw on multiple reporting projects to create quite extraordinary web portals that tackle big issues in a variety of ways.
WaterWars is one example, where we've followed up the initial reporting from east Africa with our current work on desertification in China, water issues in South Asia, and drought in Kenya. WaterWars is also the model of stronger relationships we're building with NGOs and other journalists. We teamed with the nonprofit journalism organization Media21 (out of Geneva) to send three Pulitzer journalists (including me) to the World Water Forum this March in Istanbul, and then on follow-on reporting trips to India and Ethiopia. We produced nearly 40 short videos, interviews with experts, other journalists and people on the ground, summarized in blog entries and encapsulated in posts to the WaterWars site. We also created banner ads on this work, serving as hyperlinks back to the reporting and videos, and worked with NGOs like Water Advocates to get them displayed on NGO websites.

This spring we launched a similar cross-cutting web portal on Food Insecurity, drawing on reporting we've commissioned in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, India, Tajikistan, Guatemala and Vietnam (and counting! with Australia and other reports yet to come). Lead partner is NewsHour but we've also placed stories in The Washington Post, Slate, Global Post and elsewhere. All displayed together on the FOOD portal, which we plan to make focus of major schools/university outreach this fall. We're also partnering with Mercy Corps to make this content (and accesss to the "Your Stories" video feature) part of the Mercy Corps "Action Centers" that have been established in New York City and Portland, Oregon.

Later this summer we'll launch our similar web portal "Heat of the Moment: Human Face of Climate Change," with at least half a dozen separate Pulitzer reporting projects around the globe. By fall we'll have portals that showcase the four projects we're currently funding in Afghanistan, a portal based on work now in the field on education in Pakistan/Afghanistan, and FRAGILE STATES, the comprehensive work we're doing on failed/failing states with support from Carnegie and the Stanley Foundation.

By then (we hope!) we'll have redone our website to make the interactive portals a more integral part of the site overall – and to set them up in ways that can be integrated routinely in school curriculum and as a social-networking site for audiences more broadly.

Our biggest challenge is raising the resources (dollars) we need to take advantage of the amazing opportunities we now have. From our point of view we've established a model that works – from identifying gaps in coverage to recruiting journalists to do the work and then a means of getting it out to the broadest possible audience. On the reporting side I think our current scale is optimal; 35 projects a year is about the max we can do and maintain a personal connection with each of the projects. The key is staff resources to build our network of schools and universities, through the Gateways and Campus Consortium. Much of this work will eventually be self-sustaining, through Consortium membership fees and the possibility of modest charges to schools for engagement with our journalists on line. Getting to that point is a matter of persuading foundations and individuals to invest in success – to invest in the Pulitzer Center.

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