Seven-Year Walk Highlights Power of 'Slow Journalism'

Paul Salopek's "Out of Eden" walk may provide a new model for in-depth storytelling.
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Paul Salopek leads a pair of camels across the Afar desert in Ethiopia during his seven-year walk.


WASHINGTON—As he advances on a seven-year walk around the planet, journalist Paul Salopek is merging the oldest form of transportation with the newest digital technology, from Twitter to video chatting to blogging, to share the stories he's finding with the world.

Fed up with "parachuting in" to global hot spots as a reporter on quick-turn assignments, "I concocted an idea to link [stories] in the oldest genre there is, which is a quest story," Salopek told an audience at Washington, D.C.'s Newseum—the museum dedicated to the news industry—on Tuesday night. (Read Salopek's blog, Out of Eden Walk.)

The crowd was gathered for a discussion on "slow journalism," and Salopek's medium for joining the event spoke to the evening's theme of using new digital platforms to tell in-depth stories: He was Skyping from Tbilisi, Georgia, where he's waiting for snow to thaw before continuing his journey. (See a Storify from the event.)

"Slow journalism allows me to make hidden connections that you miss when you travel too fast," he said. "The world is complicated, and we require more than just short bits of information." (Read Salopek's recent National Geographic magazine  story on walking the Holy Land.)

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Salopek reads inside a tent to protect himself from mosquitoes while staying at a damaged hotel in Kigali, Rwanda.


Long Walk, New Journalism

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is two years into his quest to walk around the world, retracing the 60,000-year-old path of human migration—a distance of over 21,000 miles (34,000 kilometers).

"When his seven-year journey ends, he will have created a global mosaic of stories," National Geographic Society CEO Gary Knell said Tuesday, introducing a panel that included Salopek. (Read Salopek's story on Saudi Arabia.)

The reporter has walked across a swath of Africa and the Middle East, from Ethiopia to Turkey, with support from the National Geographic Society, the Knight Foundation, and Harvard University.

He is writing about his experiences for National Geographic magazine, blogging for NationalGeographic.com, tweeting, and video chatting with more than 200 classrooms around the world.

Salopek's walk has raised a broader discussion about the role slow journalism might play in a world of 24-7, up-to-the-minute news.

"Fast journalism is mostly about information," Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic magazine and another Newseum panelist, said Tuesday. "Slow journalism is mostly about meaning."

Goldberg said that Salopek takes the time to understand the deeper meanings of what he sees on the ground, synthesizing his observations into compelling journalism. "Slow journalism doesn't mean you need to tell it slowly," Goldberg added. "He is using the quickest platforms to tell those stories," including a recent blog post on the lowly mule as a poetic symbol.

Salopek added that slow journalism should not connote "musty or old." The key, he said, is to "think before you speak and think before you write."

Finding Balance?

Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, said at the Newseum that many news organizations feel like they don't have the time or resources to do slow journalism. But she says managers don't give their teams enough credit.

The secret, she said, is "finding that balance between what you need to know now and the stories that you can weave over time."

Slow journalism can even break news, Salopek said, "by slowing down and making connections between unrelated fields that no one else sees." As an example, Salopek talked about learning that Somali piracy was scaring away research vessels from the Gulf of Aden. That has made it more difficult for scientists to predict the weather in India, a story Salopek told online.

Also Tuesday, the Knight Foundation announced a $950,000 grant to support Salopek's Out of Eden Walk. "At a time when it's so important to capture the public's attention in more than 140 characters," foundation vice president Jennifer Preston said, "we have to build an audience around a story and sustain an audience around an issue or story."

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

 

Read more from Paul's journey:
— December 2013 NGM: To Walk the World
— July 2014 NGM: The Wells of Memory
— December 2014 NGM: Blessed. Cursed. Claimed.

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