Ups and Downs:The Art of Making, Hacking, and Hunting to create a documentary in South Sudan

I don't like waiting; for anything. 

My wife can attest to this. I can't leave sweets in the house to be enjoyed slowly over the coming weeks. Instead I rush on them, like a boat load of Viking raiders inches from the shoreline of a new village, as soon as the opportunity presents itself.  It pains me when new technology that I can clearly use in my work, arrives in the marketplace and I have to wait before I can buy it.  I pined for an iphone, I longed for a 5Dm2, I couldn't resist the draw of FCPX even though it was getting mostly frustrated reviews by other professionals.  I couldn't help it, I had to get it.

This was the case in June.  I was thinking about the largest stumbling block for backpack/So.Jo/Visual Journalists: managing all that equipment by yourself.  The tool I needed for my work wasn't really available in the market and I realized that I could figure it out on my own if I learned a little bit of computer and electrical engineering. 

I became a man possessed overnight,.  Again, you will have to ask Erica to really get a full picture of my obsession with solving the problem set before me.  I poured hours and days into building the device I have affectionately called "The Brick".  I'm guessing it represents about a full month of work (about 160 hours or so) between coding, design, and building.  Maybe more.

The Brick is the keystone component of a multimedia management system that I figured out on a sleepless night, worrying about the film by myself.   I built The Brick because I was tired of trying to respond to a situation quickly but being saddled down by the extra steps of recording sound separately from my video because of quality issues in H264 and the preamps in the 5D.  Normally, the process of shooting video with good audio on a 5d rig looks like this:  Hit record on the Audio Recorder to put it in stand by, hit it again to actually start recording, hit record on the 5D.

It's not only inelegant, it's time consuming, and most importantly: it's distracting when you are trying to focus on telling the story.  I wanted one button for everything.  So I built The Brick, sent off a couple of patent applications and now I'm here in South Sudan, where I expected to never use my newly found skills. 

But when I unpacked my bags after landing in Juba on Saturday, I realized I had left my charger for my Sony VG10 back in the states.  I did some research, figured out which charger I had was close enough to the needs of the V-Series battery the camera uses and went to work with the few things I happened to have around: a stray jumper wire left in my bag from my building frenzy days, a female plug that happened to fit the charger for my Brick–which happens to be the voltage and charge controller type for the Battery, and a Leather Man.

A coffee induced moment of clarity:

It looks like it's working, though the charger is a little hot.... I may have to keep an eye on the rig when I do go to charge the battery in the future. :)  But it's working, and right now that's a good step.

Waiting is the hardest part of working here in Juba for me.  I don't mind the power outages, I know how to prepare and work with them.  I don't mind having spotty internet or unreliable connectivity.  I wish I had less gear to haul around, but that's more about choices I've made than the environment.  What's been hard is waiting to start.

It took half a day to get all my journalism paperwork squared away so I could shoot in public legally.  It wasn't until yesterday that I was able to get my first interview with Kuol.  I have exchanged a total of two text messages with KongKong, both short, both mildly hopeful.  He's working out of town but might be back for a few days before I leave.  That's all I know right now

The weather is hot, the light is difficult, and contacts take time to establish.  communication is slow.

But if you are patient, if you have planned and shored up your loose ends.  You can pounce when the opportunity strikes.

Oh God, that I can be a patient man.

I hate waiting.

Journalism 3.0 Thesis Parts 2&3

You can find my introducation to this article here

New Media & Journalism 3.0.5

I’m going to take it as read that we all understand that the environment Journalist currently exist in has changed a lot in the last 20 years. It's the reason everyone is constantly bearish about journalism. It's also Newspaper's favorite excuse for lessening readership and the death/consolidation of "print journalism". I wonder if town cryer or bards where as "woe is me" when the first movable type printing presses became main stream.

Paul Bradshaw, founder of, came up with this design to help describe the environment Journalism exist in at the moment (Original Article here); I think we can extend it to Non-Fiction storytellers generally. Paul expresses the Y axis as Speed/User Control, so the way I read the diagram the tip top of the diamond is the moment of an event occurs.

Take a look at that diamond. Figure out where there isn't someone doing that work for free.

Jon Gosier, director for SwftRiver (a crisis information software org.) once said to me that the idea of “First Responders” in Aid and Journalism is an oxymoron: there is always someone responding to what is happening in a crisis and reporting it to someone, somewhere.

We used to call them eyewitnesses, but now they aren’t “passive consumers” as Clay Shirky would say. Now they are able to broadcast what is happening to millions of people within seconds of an event. Now, they own part of the narrative in an unprecedented way. They aren't witnesses, let’s be honest, they're amateur reporters. They are faster than us, they are cheaper than us, they know where things will happen with greater accuracy because it’s their home court.

We knew what was happening during the Iranian election because of video capable cellphones. SMS messages to the Ushahidi's Haiti website via a shortcode was what allowed first responders to best organize relief efforts after the earthquake, not CNN’s Sanjay Gupta running around with a 8 man crew trying to patch up kids.

I mean that with no disrespect to Dr Gupta or his producers. CNN has 24 hours of programing to fill in a day and if a neurosurgeon/reporter performing emergency surgery on earthquake victims makes it more real to viewer, then it certainly has it's place; but it's not actually news, it's an illustration. They chose to fill those hours with illustration because they couldn't find a news story that was more compelling, and that's the irony. Even with the army of reporters, crew, and producers that CNN put on the ground, they couldn't pull together enough stories to fill all 24 hours because it takes too long for outsiders to get their bearings, find a story, an angle, find subjects, shoot, drive, shoot some more, edit and file.

As Journalists, we are learning how absurd it is to think that we can walk into an environment twenty four hours after an event and believe that we as reporters can do anything better in the first day on the ground than organize information that may already have been broadcast by someone else from their phone or in an internet cafe. At best, we make it more concise, easily, digestible, and hopefully, more accurate and penetrating. Which brings me back to the diamond.

I would like to submit that given the change of environment, and the introduction of a new species into Journalism’s traditional turf, that we do what we are best at and let “amateurs” do what they are best at. Let the crowd have the middle of the diamond. Just let it go, our time there is ending. There’s too many of them, they are too fast, they will out man and out maneuver you every time that it matters to them–and if it doesn’t matter to them, I bet there’s not much of a market for it. Just walk away... and watch. [/column]

[column]As the crowd starts to figure out this space, it will evolve, social rules will start to take shape, formats will evolve and, while it will not be the same animal, it will start to look more and more like the type of animals that used to sit in that part of the societal food chain.

Those of us who decid not to make a career change will find that more in-depth reporting is going to be of higher value in the coming decades for two reasons

1) An amateur will have a harder time engaging in a story that requires more time and resources without the funding of an organization (though here again, things like Kickstart mean that "nobodies" can still show up and do amazing work.) Its going to be more about longer projects, better in-depth reporting, more customized reporting. If it’s not really intentional work, it can probably be done by the crowd for less money and-in some cases–better.

2) Because the crowd will be pushing out a lot of content, there will become a growing savvy about what people are willing to spend their time and money on.

We are already seeing this. Consumers trying to figure out how to sift through the mountains of information in the internet are gravitating to a small handful of sources for information on a given subject and then venturing out only when those favored sources don't have exactly what they where looking for. Notice that NYT and the WSJ are not loosing readership, just physical circulation. People know that it takes a lot of time to wade through a news aggregator site, so they stick with who they trust to help them understand the world around them.

That trust is valuable and it's time to start behaving like it's valuable.

The Underpants Gnomes can no longer run Professional Reportage.

Phase One, put stories on the web. Phase Two.... Phase Three, profit.

This is going to makes some people upset, specifically consumers. The era of professional online reporting wholly subsidized by internet ads is at an end. There’s no real money in it. “I post an article in deep space among thousands of other articles, millions of people will read it, and then I’ll make enough money to justify the cost of having a guy living in a foreign country to write the articles, or produce the videos, or shoot the photo essays.” It doesn't compute in an ecosystem where people are putting together a lot of the same information for free.

National Geographic does not show up at my door every month for free. The Economist can not produce their content on add reveniew alone (AND ALL THEY DO IS WRITE!!!!)

If people want to be well informed and intake compelling reportage, they will pay 5 bucks a month, or 20 bucks a year for it. The problem is that most models price their product either too high (the Kindle version of the Economist is almost the same as the subscription price) or too low, or even worse only charge for yesterdays news. As if I couldn't go to my library.

The future of Journalism is not to become public service with the hopes of gratuity, but a professional service with professional expectations and results. If people are going to blogs and the crowd instead of your publications, it's because your publication is not meeting the expectations of your audience. As a publication you have the choice to evolve to meet those expectations, find a new audience, or leave.

This is real life, it's rough out there.

Journalism 3.0 Thesis Part 1 (an introduction)

[col-sect][column]There is nothing new under the Sun
I thought I would start by letting you all know that you don't need to worry about Journalism any more. Truthful, accurate, timely stories about the world around you are not going anywhere. I promise. Journalism is not dead, it's not even endangered. If there is one thing I've learned from evolution–and reading lot's of books on Megafauna as a kid– it's this:

Holes in the food chain do not remain empty for long (evolutionarily speaking.)

Someone else always shows up to fill in the newly vacated position of "pack shrub grazer."

What I find interesting is that those animals that come in to fill said vacuum, over time, end up looking remarkably similar the animal that left that same role just a few hundred-thousand years earlier. Sure, as the world changes, certain species–specific concepts like scales, very large bodies, and two chamber hearts stop making sense as the earth cools and oxygen becomes less abundant. But if you look at the body shape of a Velociraptor, it has a lot more in common with a wolf, a cheetah, and the thylacine, than say, the lizards that hide under my porch.

The Thylacine is probably one of my favorite animals. It’s a marsupial pack predator living in Tazmainia and is now believed extinct from over hunting. [/column] [column]It’s about the size of most feral dogs and built almost exactly like one too: a long thin torso, big ribcage, long muzzle, perked ears, short hair, long tail.... It’s proof that given similar environmental pressures, the animal that fills a specific role in the environment will end up looking really similar to animals filling similar roles in other parts of the world. Yes, it's not exactly a Wolf or a Hyena, but it looks and behaves more like those animals than say a Koala, which it's actually more closely related to.

That’s because while an environment changes, the roles within a ecosystem are rather static (relatively speaking) and if a species can adapt to a different role where there is less competition, it will. If a species has to adjust to keep it’s role as the environment changes, it will; or it will disappear like the North American Lion.

Dude, where are you going with this?
It's easy to be "objective" about something that fills the "wolf" role in a given ecosystem. It's a lot harder to get perspective on something like our job and our role in a changing society.

So here's the deal. "Journalism" is just a big Northern/Western-World umbrella word under which certain important roles in our social ecosystem have sat for millennia. Historians, Bards, Storytellers, Myth-makers*, Town Criers, have all been pulled slowly, over thousands of years, under this tent we call the Journalist. There isn't much of a difference between Xenophon's account of the March of the 10,000 and Hemingway's Reportage and Robert Capa's work. True, they are not the same animal, but they behave, feel, and function very similarly. They come at you the same way and with similar intentions. So let's forget medium, local, or modus as we discuss the survival of the Journalism species in parts 2 and 3. When survival is the question, everything is on the table.

Part 2 to come soon.

Precursor to giant Journalism 3.0 Thesis.


[column]This is Semi NSFW and a little ADD, but it's worth it. John Roderick of the Long Winters and Merlin Mann have a conversation about work, pay, and "doing it for the love of the game."

Journalism is not on some island that's changing in a vacuum. Journalism is being forced to evolve as the environment that Journalism came to age in is changing rapidly. Musicians, designers, filmmakers are all having to figure out what to do now that it only costs about $2000 (usually less) to get into any of these fields and start producing. Cost of entry used to be the gate that kept the fakers and fanboys at bay from real work, but now any kid with a DSLR can show up and get A1 coverage. The risks seem small, the repercussions for improper coverage seem even smaller.

So how do you as a journalist (a real journalist) rise above the thousands of people who just like the idea of being a journalist on the weekends? Don't compete with them. Don't fight over the same carcass that a thousand hyenas are scrambling over, you're a leopard, go find an actual gazelle yourself and when you find that story, insist on getting paid properly. Always. Enjoy the video[/column]