Tech Tools Day 1: The Common Language Project

Our first day ended with a presentation by Jessica Partnow and Sarah Stuteville of the The Common Language Project. Based in Seattle, the pair have produced several international investigative stories. The work is good and evolving rapidly.

It’s worth checking out the site to see their work and see how various multi-media pieces can be used to tell a compelling story. But more interesting to me is the story behind their work, and how they created the Common Language Project from scratch.

Partnow and Stuteville graduated from Hunter College in 2006 and had dreams of being international reporters. At the same time, news organizations were pulling the plug on the foreign bureaus. They approached an adviser at the school and asked them what they should do.

The advice was direct: “If you’re going to do the work you were trained to do here, you’re going to have to go out and make the work for yourself.”

So they did. They pooled their money and spent a year traveling to different countries to get some experience of being journalists abroad. They then received some seed grant money from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

Beyond that, they essentially work on a kind of freelance model. They find partners that will buy pieces of their work, either print, audio or video. They’ve sold stuff to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, NPR, and a host of other mainstream outlets. They are not quite self-sustaining, but they expect to be in the next couple of years.

The pair said finding these partnerships require just the kind of hustling you expect. On the other hand, the process has given them the freedom to cover international news the way they want. While a lot of international coverage focuses on conflict, the mission of Common Language is to focus on the underlying social conditions that fuel that conflict.

The Common Language site itself has not been a destination. The bulk of traffic for their work tends to go to the partner sites that support the pieces and post them. But they hope to build up the traffic to their own site while also adding in more social features to create more of a community feel. They noted that when it comes to their own site, one of the most popular features is their blog which gives a behind the scenes account of their reporting and discusses the various challenges and ethical choices they make. It’s a great example of how transparency can really build trust and a relationship with the audience.

One of the best pieces of advice they gave regarding multi-media packages: Don’t get carried away. They pointed to a couple projects they did where they stuffed a ton of different multi-media elements and interactive elements. In retrospect, they felt the amount of stuff was overwhelming and intimidating. Their message was to be selective, and not do every trick just because you know how.

“You can see how you can get carried away with a good idea,” Stuteville said. “We’re still trying to tell stories in the cleanest, most potent ways. People often like the simplest stuff.”

Common Language is clearly not the model for everyone, but it’s a small example of the new ways that investigative reporting might continue in this new era.

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