When the Uncharted Journalism Fund was announced last Friday, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Would the idea resonate with people? Does the concept make sense? Would anyone express interest in being a trustee? The answer appears to be a resounding “yes.” And yet the question remains for many: What exactly is “uncharted journalism”? Read on to find out…
Finding an answer to this question is complicated by the fact that something “uncharted” implies that there is not yet a map. Nonetheless, that very notion is a good starting point to embark from, and a first litmus test that makes it easier to say “If we already have a map or recipe for this type of reporting, then it is probably not ‘uncharted.’”
Looking back, however, it is possible for us today to point to reporting that was embarked upon at the time without a clear sense of what the outcome would be, or if it was even possible to accomplish. The projects mentioned below speak to the ethos of uncharted journalism, and represent some of the most ambitious efforts that have been seen to date in each field.
By no means would it be feasible to expect that the small investments made by the Uncharted Journalism Fund would result in such monumental leaps forward, but each of these projects needed to start somewhere — possibly, just with the seed of an idea that needed to be tested — and that kind of germination is what I believe this fund can help to nurture.
Reporting that explores new territory
Here are just a handful examples of previously uncharted journalism undertakings, and it’s quite likely that there is still much uncovered ground in these emerging areas:
Sensors: WNYC’s “Cicada Tracker” project is exemplary of reporting that strives to break new ground, both in terms of using new technology and engaging listeners in the process. Not only did the station use inexpensive sensors to gather their own data for the story, they also showed listeners how to build their own sensors and how to contribute that data back. More recently, the Hindustan Times in New Delhi demonstrated how to inform its readers with a real-time air quality map. There’s a whole book on the field of sensor journalism, and the field is only just getting started.
Innovative mapping: Years ago, I met one of the creative minds behind the Grassroots Mapping Project and was immediately captivated by the potential for adventurous citizens to undertake high-resolution mapping work in areas where there are important stories to be told. One example of this is the work this group did to map the BP Oil Spill in 2010. Similarly, ProPublica’s recent investigation into Houston’s hurricane preparedness, “Hell and High Water,” demonstrates completely new methods of working with 3D maps, data and satellite imagery to bring a story to life.
Open data, access to information, and leaks: Thanks to the recent ICIJ “Panama Papers” work the idea of reporting based on data leaks is hitting the mainstream, but it was less common just a couple of years ago when local leaking upstarts like Bay Leaks got underway. One doesn’t always need leaked files to find a good story, however, sometimes an access to information request will do (or 1,900 of them). And sometimes the information just needs a bit of help to liberate itself.
Drones, 360°video & virtual reality Having caught-up with Buzzfeed’s Open Lab fellow Ben Kreimer recently, I believe that we’ve only just started to see the potential of aerial video for reporting (Ben’s work with the Drone Journalism Lab on Nebraska’s drought is just one of many examples). And the rapid increase of 360° videos since the launch of YouTube 360, the introduction of products like the Theta, and the quickly-improving tools for stitching video are making inversive reporting more accessible every day.
Virtual reality: Of course, one can’t talk about 360° video without referencing the current renaissance of virtual reality thanks to high-end products like Facebook’s Oculus Rift and ultra-affordable products like Google Cardboard. And while news organizations like the New York Times are taking to giving away headsets – not something every aspiring VR storyteller can do – authoring tools are now available that make it possible for just about anybody to use to help people experience the world around them (or possible alternate realities, as was the case with this recent Vancouver installation).
New forms of reporting that engage people: When I asked if citizens could pull together to fund bold experiments in journalism, one response on Twitter was “We’re doing it - it’s called Canadaland” — and I couldn’t agree more. I believe that Jesse Brown and his colleagues are indeed breaking new ground in funding levels, audio-centric production & distribution, and also with what they’re dong with sponsors. What I’d like to see more of, however, is experiments that seek to bring the readers/listeners/watchers into the process somehow — the New York Time’s accidental hit, “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk, is a good example. It’s clear that part of the future of journalism is to be found in new forms of collaboration, and I believe one of the most important collaborators will be the people that the journalism is meant to inform.
More Canadian examples wanted
There you have it: a sampling of what I believe to be some areas of reporting, or “acts of journalism,” that were previously untested and which demonstrate bold, experimental thinking — a leap of faith, a deep sense of curiosity, and a comfort with the possibility of failure. I believe these are the qualities that will be important to look for in proposals submitted to the Uncharted Journalism Fund in the coming months.
I’m quite certain that you have your own ideas and examples. And, specifically, I’d appreciate your help compiling more illustrative projects that highlight Canadian innovators. If you know of a reporting project that took a bold leap at the time, please take a moment to leave a comment below, or to drop me a note on Twitter.
P.S. It’s not too late to help spread the word about the Uncharted Journalism Fund! If you know someone who might make a great trustee, consider forwarding them a link to the announcement and adding a personal note about why you think it would be a great fit.
P.P.S. If you’ve already provided your information, or gotten in touch with me, I’ll be following up with you this weekend. Many thanks for your excitement, interest, and patience.