“A unique archive of our shared humanity”

Why would Paul Salopek — anyone, actually — bother to walk some 21000 miles, across a seven-year period, telling stories as you go? There is no real “answer” to that, unless it is Salopek’s own words from his December 2013 piece To Walk The World:

Walking is falling forward.

Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go. For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.

I am on a journey. I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts. Starting in humanity’s birthplace in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the ancestors who first discovered the Earth at least 60,000 years ago. This remains by far our greatest voyage. Not because it delivered us the planet. No. But because the early Homo sapiens who first roamed beyond the mother continent—these pioneer nomads numbered, in total, as few as a couple of hundred people—also bequeathed us the subtlest qualities we now associate with being fully human: complex language, abstract thinking, a compulsion to make art, a genius for technological innovation, and the continuum of today’s many races. We know so little about them. They straddled the strait called Bab el Mandeb—the “gate of grief” that cleaves Africa from Arabia—and then exploded, in just 2,500 generations, a geological heartbeat, to the remotest habitable fringe of the globe.

Millennia behind, I follow.

Paul Salopek and his mule in southeastern Anatolia, Turkey

Paul Salopek and his mule in southeastern Anatolia, Turkey (Courtesy: Out of Eden Walk)

Newseum organised a Digital Campfire last week around the concept of “slow journalism” in general and, specifically, National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s seven-year walk that seeks to retrace the migratory path of early Man.

A stellar four-member panel — New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos (whose Age of Ambition is, for me, the book of 2014 — a perfect coming together of immersive craft and brilliant narrative technique) , Nat Geo editor in chief Susan Goldberg, and Ann Marie Lipinksi of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, with Frank Sesno of the School of Media & Public Affairs at George Washington University moderating — was articulate, on point, engaging and, occasionally, inspiring.

Salopek Skype-d in from Tbilisi, Georgia, where he is waiting out the winter snow, and using the pause to write and to research the path ahead of him.

And yet, the moment that stayed with me came after the panel discussion was done, and the floor was opened to the audience for questions. A lady whose name I couldn’t catch took the mike and, with a circumlocution, a hesitancy, that spoke to her distress at having to pose the question in the first place, asked:

“Do you think there is a future to journalism at all?”

That she had to ask is itself the sadness of the timeA time — probably the first time in its history — that the media has begun to doubt its own raison d’être, which is to tell stories. A time when the newsroom tip-sheet has been replaced by the data analyst’s spreadsheet. A time when ‘What stories must we tell today?’ has been jettisoned in favour of ‘What is buzzing that we can leverage and make the audience click on today?’.

The lady’s question, her distress, is finding echoes across the media space. And in a sense, the Digital Campfire was an anecdote.

In addressing the how and why of what he does, Salopek spoke of “missing the linkages between the big stories of our time.”

Out of Eden Walk is, he said, a quest story. By definition, you don’t start out knowing what the story is, you begin with a blank canvas on which you paint whatever the story turns out to be. Walking, said Salopek, is “amazingly good” for such in-depth storytelling because “you are moving through stories at three miles an hour.”

“If I had to cast a really broad eye over the last two years of walking, I think there really are two phases,” Salopek reflected. “The first year was really about early history, about human origin, about identity, and why you should care about that. Questions about race, questions about what are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are – which is actually one definition of the news…”

The second year, he said, has been a story about human dislocation — forced migrations caused by conflict, by institutional violence. “So I think the story that most interested me and the one most in sync with the flow of this project is the extraordinary refugee flow of people in the Middle East.”

Salopek was careful to emphasise that he is not advocating his model as the right one — merely that it is one tool among many that journalists can use to inform and educate. There is no point, he said, in “indulging in a boutique pursuit for a diminishing audience” — but given how the world is changing, “we need nuanced information, not just binary information.”

Slow journalism, Osnos said in his turn, is about pausing that extra minute before we write. “What we do when we are rushed is we resort to cliche, we resort to type, instead of rendering people as people.”

None of it is easy to pull off — and the hurdles begin with investment. Or rather, the pressure on news organisations to focus all available resources on churn, on rapid stories rushed through the assembly line. Lipinski spoke of the obvious, overt pressures on news organisations to stay rooted in the here and the now, to tell it fast. But that requirement is not in conflict with the slower, more thoughtful storytelling advocated by the likes of Salopek and Osnos, she pointed out — the trick is to not reduce it to an either/or binary, but to find the balance between quick, accurate capture of a zeitgeist with the slow-burn narratives that are told, that need to be told, because story-telling is what, finally, all this is about.

Hanging over this phase of the discussion was a question I’ve been hearing for sometime now: Is this worth investing in?

I don’t know — how do you define “worth”? Is it a simple calculus — maximum stories at the expenditure of minimum resources? Is “worth” defined in clicks, or does the quality of the story, and the fact of there being a story to be told, have a column entry in this spreadsheet? If the former, why not convert the site into one giant, constantly updated slide-show?

People do want more, the panel argued — and they signal this need by consuming the good content the media choses to provide. Osnos spoke of how, last year, the New Yorker staff was surprised that the most “successful” story was a 20,000-word piece on Scientology — success being measured in terms of how many read, and how it was shared, and further transmitted, on social media. Which, after all, seems to be the holy grail for media organisations today.

Lipinski underlined this tendency of the audience to engage with quality, when she pointed out that the message boards below each of Salopek’s posts were arguably the best on the internet today. She spoke of how the quality, the thoughtfulness of the messages posted by readers was indicative of how Salopek had managed to create this huge community, this “gathering force” of people following his work: an audience isolated by time and space but united by the love of a good story well told. And not just listening to the stories Salopek tells, but also reacting to them, having conversations around them.

We are as a tribe habituated to tell stories around campfires — including the new, digital campfires that are Facebook and Twitter and What’sApp and all the other apps and tools we now use to communicate. And for me, Salopek’s project has been just that — a digital campfire that is now drawing listeners from around the world; an audience that comes to bathe in what he has seen and heard and smelt and felt in course of his walk.

The 1:12 hour discussion is totally worth your while (scroll down to the end of the report. And here’s a Storify of the live chat.)

Post-Script: Adding a gratuitous layer of unintended irony is the fact that I followed this discussion over the weekend — which is precisely when Yahoo India terminated its investment in two slow narratives we had begun during my tenure there: Arati Kumar-Rao’s River Diaries and Rahul Bhatia’s The Noble Mansion.

That’s an end of something. And the beginning of something else.

Arati, Rahul, Kalyan Varma and I have decided to do this on our own. To this end, we are building a site that permits all three — Arati, Kalyan and Rahul — to tell the stories they want to, with all the immersive experiences and digital tools they need to tell those stories with.

In parallel, we are raising our own funding from among those who are interested in such narratives, and willing to put their money where we mouth platitudes about how journalism is becoming increasingly click-bait. And between end-February/early-March, we will have one platform into which three story-streams flow:

Kalyan Varma: Man knew how to live with Nature and to share its spaces with its wilder citizens. In time, that inbred ability to live with the wild faded; laws and regulations sought to confine Nature in boxes of our creation while Man, once a part, was now apart. The delicate, value-based balance cracked, fault-lines developed, coexistence gave way to conflict. Kalyan will report from the emerging front-lines of this conflict.

Arati Kumar-Rao: Water — and equally, common lands — sustain millions around the world but increasingly, these are ground zero for competing interests. As traditional lifestyles and the industrialised world lock horns, it is turning into a battle where everyone loses. Arati will report from that space, and document how this battle between the old and the new, fought over common land and water resources, unfolds.

Rahul BhatiaA country decides what to give its people and what to take from them; what to make and sell, what to buy and distribute. In making these decisions, it arrives at a definition of development. The path has weight, for it forges the character of its citizens, leaving them with hope, or fear, or an upheaval felt for generations. Rahul will chronicle this process through the lived experiences of businessmen and bureaucrats, villagers and city dwellers across India as it renews itself.

Once the site is up, and Arati, Kalyan and Rahul get their narratives flowing, we will look to expand into other topics, other unreported/under-reported areas — the state of our children and the fate of our women, to name just two.

ADDITIONAL LINKS:

Paul Salopek:

Out of Eden Walk — Salopek’s ongoing despatches from the field

To Walk The World — A brilliantly articulated take on the walk — the how, the why

The Glorious Boneyard — A report from the start of the journey, which opens with a thought I remember verbatim over one and a half years later.

A Long Walk Through — And Around — The Headlines — Salopek on slowing down and seeing more

The Bride Was 7 — A Chicago Tribune story referred to in the discussion, whose style and structure foreshadows what Paul is doing now

Ways of Dying in New Mexico — On being kidnapped while reporting from the Sudan

Evan Osnos: If you read one book this week/month, make it Age of Ambition — for its intensely human portraits that fuse into the larger story of a China on the cusp of change; for the patient reporting that allows his subjects the space to speak for themselves; for the superb craft that shows how to see a world through a grain of sand.

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