Peter Klein discusses the global reporting project CUT and how it helped prepare students for the new media landscape
UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism received a historic number of awards in 2013. Students won six regional, national and international awards and 13 nominations for works spanning classic radio drama, to social media campaigns and international reporting.
The multimedia feature CUT, a global reporting project on the illegal lumber trade, has been the biggest winner of all. Earlier this week, it won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, the highest honour from the Radio, Television and Digital News Association.
CUT was also named a Webby Honoree in the “green” category, which recognizes the best in environmental journalism. This is the second time the School’s International Reporting Program (IRP) has been recognized by the Webby Awards, which has been hailed as the “Internet’s highest honor” by The New York Times.
Peter Klein, director of the Graduate School of Journalism, discusses CUT, why the J-School punches above its weight when it comes to awards and how its curriculum keeps up with the emerging digital media landscape.
Who and what inspired CUT?
CUT is truly a collaborative UBC effort. In the summer of 2012 my co-teacher Dave Rummel, longtime senior editor at The New York Times web video unit, suggested the general idea of looking at illegal logging around the world. INTERPOL had released a report that said up to 30 per cent of wood is illegally sourced, and that seemed to be an interesting issue that warranted investigation. We were fortunate to have Prof. Peter Dauvergne, the director of the Liu Institute, and Jane Lister, a post-doctoral fellow at Liu, just across the street from us. They had recently written the book Timber, about this very issue, and they were incredible resources. We also have a world-class forestry department, and we tapped some of the experts there.
We travelled to the Russian Far East, Indonesia and Cameroon to track down the sources of wood and paper, and what we found were facts, figures and stories that showed that some of the wood products around us in North America have a direct connection to grey- or black-market timber on the other side of the globe. So we built a website that started in an average home, and used the wood products in that home as a portal to get to stories of how and where those trees were cut down. We recruited students and faculty from the Centre for Digital Media to help us build this interactive website.
CUT is highly interactive in that you can click on images on the screen for more information or watch any of the parts in any order. Can CUT still be viewed on the traditional medium of TV or are you eschewing traditional media in your teaching?
The UBC Graduate School of Journalism was one of the first programs in North America to do away with craft streams, so students no longer get trained exclusively to become newspaper writers or TV correspondents or radio reporters or photographers or multimedia producers. We teach all these skills, and encourage students to find the medium that best fits each story. In past years we have produced traditional TV documentaries, as well as newspaper projects. For CUT, an interactive website seemed to best fit the content. We also partnered with The New York Times’ website to feature excerpts of the video content from CUT.
Has social media influenced how you teach journalism?
One of the fundamental changes in the media landscape is the shift in power dynamic between the journalist and the audience. For centuries, the media was responsible for telling the public what was going on in the world – a one-way relationship. Today, journalists rely far more heavily on the public to be its eyes and ears. Take, for instance, the Arab Spring, which was “reported” by thousands of citizens throughout the Middle East, tweeting and posting on Facebook the events unfolding far from the view of most journalists. Another example – in the past, a flawed work of journalism might elicit some letters to the editor, which may or may not be printed, but today the feedback is instantaneous on social media.
Therefore, the role of social media is central to modern journalism, and it is one of the central components of our curriculum. We have a new course in collaboration with the Sauder School of Business, entitled “Decoding Social Media,” which help media clients devise social media plans. The International Reporting Program’s CUT project was a client of the pilot year of the course, and students in “Decoding Social Media” helped build a social media strategy to engage with stakeholders around the world who might be interested in a multimedia documentary about illegal logging.
The Duncan McCue-led Reporting in Indigenous Communities course, or RIIC, launched its latest project this week. What will the students be reporting on this year?
UBC is on unceded Musqueam territory, so having a course at the school that deals respectfully with complex Aboriginal issues is particularly fitting. Ours is the only such course in all of Canada, and one of only two in North America, in which students are trained to report in Indigenous communities, and the students have produced some excellent works of journalism. This year the theme is Aboriginal youth, and it’s rolling out as a series on CBC this week. The multimedia stories are also available on the class’s website, indigenousreporting.com.
How do you remain positive as a journalism professor given the grim times in the industry?
While the economic models are changing, and many traditional journalism jobs are disappearing, many new opportunities are emerging. The most recent report by the Pew Research Center shows that digital news organizations are filling the gaps in traditional corporate media, and many are growing and hiring. The bottom line is that there will always be a role for journalists in democratic societies.