Backgrounder: on journalism, curation, exhibitions, children’s books, a musical, the mix and the match
As a journalist, I have covered all sorts of stories, from climate change to emerging diseases, and from crises in food, water, shelter and energy to breakthroughs in humanitarian tech. I have also chased after wild horses, bears, wolves, coyotes and the occasional wildlife biologist. I have traveled to a sculpture-filled Polish salt mine for a mini-series on underground places, and to the streets of Old Havana, Cuba, to tag along after architects and artisans restoring the oldest neighborhood in the Western hemisphere. Closer to home, I have roamed the aisles of countless expos, learning about trends and innovations in industries as seemingly disparate food, publishing, garbage, microbiology, early childhood education and Halloween (the second most profitable holiday after Christmas).
It is not the individual stories that interest me most. Rather, it is the mix, which reveals patterns across disciplines, provides insights into root issues and suggests synergies and collaborations. It isn’t all that hard to “think outside the box” if you don’t happen to be in one.
I first began to develop a deeper understanding about journalism the summer I spent organizing a massive archive for a Chicago-based photographer named Mickey Pallas.
By the time I came on the scene, Mickey—and everyone called him Mickey—was known mostly for his work as a pioneer in the commercial lab business. Yet for nearly 20 years, from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, armed with a Graflex, Rollie and Leica and working almost every day, he photographed labor strikes, jazz festivals, car ads, burlesque beauties, political conventions, gospel singers, amateur hour stars, the Harlem Globetrotters on tour in Paris and the first Second City shows (starring, among others, Mike Nichols and Elaine May). He photographed neighborhood kids playing with a new toy called a Hula Hoop, and rocked with Bill Haley and His Comets.
Mickey documented television in its surprisingly inspired infancy, shooting stills for Studs Terkel’s “Stud’s Place,” and the classic children’s show,”Kukla, Fran and Ollie.”
He traveled all over the country for Standard Oil of Indiana’s “Torch” magazine, which was modeled closely on “Life.” The photo-filled mag’s mission was to get people interested in driving more through the loosely defined, and endlessly fun, beat: “as far you could get with a car.” Mickey was also also one of the first photographers for another “Life”-inspired magazine: “Ebony,” a magazine focused on the African American experience.
That summer, I made thousands of contact sheets, watching a portrait of an era emerge before my eyes in the magical red light of the darkroom. There were so many wonderful images, but it was the aggregate that inspired me to curate a retrospective a few years later with Chicago Cultural Center’s Ken Burkhart. The exhibition tour included a stop at New York’s International Center for Photography (ICP)—which was as thrilling for Mickey as it was for me.
Another exhibition, “The Art of the Message,” sent me on a more direct path to journalism. The show was based on a rare, private, rag-edition run of Chicago Tribunes dating from the turn of the last century through WWII and focused on the evolution of the newspaper as a graphic medium.
The Tribune proved a worthy case study. As a vertically-integrated news machine, complete with its own Canadian forests for paper production and a plant for mixing its own inks, the company had the wherewithal to test the capabilities of the world’s first mass medium. The Tribune also happened to be run by a flamboyant publisher who relished promoting the exciting story of newspaper production, publishing an Encyclopedia of the World’s Greatest Newspaper, a 1929 handbook chock full of golden insights about intentions and methods. (“WGN,” the call letters for the company’s radio station, is an acronym for “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” a bit a journalistic chest-thumping that graced the paper’s masthead for decades.)
Lay-outs for individual articles, illustrations, special sections, cartoons (the paper’s first Pulitzer winner was editorial cartoonist) and ads were stunning, but the real story was the aggregate. I sorted through literally tons of newsprint in a basement room at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism (where I had been snuck in as a squatter by legendary professor and “old news buff” Dick Schwarzlose). It was a reprise of the Pallas experience: Day by day, page by page, a bigger picture emerged, this time about a brilliant mash-up of creative news-telling and technical prowess.
The Tribune Tower itself was a newspaper machine, with journalists above ground, typesetters and giant presses below, a special rail system to transport massive newsprint rolls and fleets of trucks lined up to distribute a million or more papers each day. When a story “went to press,” the building shook.
Could there be a more exciting way to spend a life? I wanted in.
Most of the projects I have worked on have deep roots and long development arcs. TrackerNews is an experiment in web curation, with a focus on health issues (“one health”), humanitarian work and technology.
TrackerNews grew out of a series of conversations sparked by seminal civilian / military disaster preparedness exercise—“Strong Angel 3”—which was held in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. SA3 brought together hundreds of techs, medics, aid-workers, mappers and inventors. I was invited to be part of the team, contributing my talents as a reporter, assigned to write daily briefs for key organizers on what was really going on during this sprawling week-long event. Despite the considerable esprit-de-tech and the palpable thrill of cross-disciplinary collaboration, the magic of the moment dissipated within weeks as everyone returned to their specialist corners.
I had seen a similar pattern at a gathering organized by the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovins, focused on refugees issues. Three days of epiphany-studded inspiration all too quickly faded. (I met Lovins while working on some energy stories as a correspondent for BusinessWeek).
Eric Rasmussen, a Navy doctor, was at the helm of both events. When he took over as CEO of InSTEDD, a small independent spin-off of a then-fledgling Google.org, we began to talk about how journalism could help bridge the gap between disciplines and keep the collaborate spark sparked. Although InSTEDD’s primary focus is on software-driven communications solutions for humanitarian response, clearly there was also a need sector-transcending macro-communications. (The name “InSTEDD” is a legacy of Larry Brilliant’s TED wish: a double-pun on the TED conference and Early Disease Detection.)
Plans of “Humanitarian Technology Review” faded in the cold light of budgeting, prompting us to rethink and scale down to essentials. We took advantage of a low profile to test out some quietly radical ideas: Stories presented as suites of links, selected—curated—for contextual relevance and long term usefulness. Research papers, older stories and other resources included along with breaking news. Link suites from 8 to 40 links cycling through the site, each with a short teaser overview, archived in a searchable database designed to grow more valuable over time.
Most search engines are gamed to bring up links that are either popular, recent or whose ranking has been purchased. Since few people look beyond the first page of search results, the number of “hits” is irrelevant. Algorithms that personalize searches based on an individual’s past history also create “filter bubbles,” segregating access to information.
TrackerNews is an attempt to ferret out valuable content that can get lost in the shuffle. and present it in a format that provides deeper meaning through aggregation. The companion Editor’s Blog includes both link suite overviews and analysis, while the Dot to Dot blog features shorter, more focused post on “stray connections we can’t resist.”
Link suite stories on everything from hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and droughts, to vaccines, malaria and mental illness have been featured on the site, with thousands of links added to the archives.
Although the news is often quite grim (the site’s unofficial tagline: “One Damn Thing After Another”), hopeful themes have emerged, such as reforestation, urban agriculture, mirofiance, impact investing, mobile tech and cradle-to-cradle design. The TrackerNews: Index includes links to blog posts sorted by subject.
The big flower of the TrackerNews project, however, may very well be a personal aggregation tool, still in development, that would make it easy for anyone to curate and share digital content using a graphically intuitive, flexible interface.
My work with visual learning specialist and children’s author Stuart J. Murphy is another project with a long story arc. My interest in children’s issues and education, however, pre-dates Stuart. I developed and sold a syndicated children’s newspaper supplement—curiocity —to Thomson Media. The concept: mix quality content developed for a national audience with local articles and listings to deliver a targeted aggregated readership with opportunities for both national and niche advertisers.
Stuart, whose background is in visual learning and educational publishing, has written two trade series. The first, MathStart (HarperCollins), topped out at 63 books, breaking new ground with the combination of storytelling and visual learning strategies to help you children better understand mathematical skills. MathStart books have been translated into Spanish, Korean and, coming soon, Chinese.
Among the efforts to ensure the series continued success (website, etc.), I help spearhead efforts to develop a musical based on the books. The Main Street Kids Club, adapted and directed by Scott Ferguson and workshopped at Northwestern University, is an original tale of adventure, mystery, friendship and math, designed both for school tours and regional theaters. (Scott also adapted the perennially popular production of Schoolhouse Rock Live!)
I have also worked closely with Stuart on the development of I See I Learn (Charlesbridge), a new series of Pre-K books to help young children master social, emotional, health and safety and cognitive skills that are important both for school and life. The “cast”—Freda, Percy, Emma, Ajay, Camille, Carlos—all go to Ready Set Pre-K and adore their wonderful teacher, Miss Cathy. And, of course, there is Pickle, the green bulldog…
As part of the revamp of Stuart’s growing digital domain, we created a new blog, vizlearning, for which I serve as “editor-in-chief.” The beat is eclectic: education, early childhood development, communication, media and all manner of things related that catch our fancy. From a review of Madison, Wisconsin’s fabulous new children’s museum, to a post on game design and learning, we are just warming up. We have also revamped the newsletter.
The worlds of serious big topic journalism and children’s books may appear unrelated, but not only is there overlap, the mix itself is energizing.
I thrive on the mix and the match, which is, no doubt, how I ended up with a degree in history from Indiana University (Phi Beta Kappa), a certificate from IU’s Russian East European Institute and a minor in fine art photography. And why I have a soft-spot for stray projects, from Par Excellence!, an indoor artist-built miniature golf course exhibit, to a course on lichens at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
The best way to understand something—at least for me—is to dive in: research, test ideas, ask questions, make mistakes, figure out better ideas. Insights spark new lines of thought. More often than not, stray paths not only lead somewhere, they connect.
email: jaginsburg (@) gmail (dot) com