Paul Salopek: Slow storytelling produces reports with more complexity

Paul Salopek was invited to NYUSH to talk about his career achievements and work progress on the Out of Eden project, which is estimated to take many years. He also gave a writing workshop for students. In both events, Salopek emphasized the importance of being slow in the generation of stories.

I couldn’t have done it quickly,” said Paul Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who is famous for his ongoing slow storytelling project called “Out of Eden.” “Without that time investment, I don’t think I would have been able to gather together the various strings of the narrative,” he explained.

Paul Salopek is an advocate of slow journalism as a viable alternative for the media to generate deeper stories with more complexity.

“I’ve been doing slow storytelling for a large part of my career,” Paul said. “The walk project is an extension of my earlier work,” he added.

He started the Out of Eden project in 2013. The idea of the human journey out of Africa was conceived by him as a story with universal human interest. “A story that belonged to everybody,” he said.

Innovative as it is, Out of Eden is also a highly professional work as Paul “combines all the skill sets that I’ve acquired over the decades of storytelling across the world.” Stories are featured with the unique angles Paul discovers in his actual walking progress upon the landscape.

The Out of Eden walk could not be considered as a typical journalism project. Paul focuses mostly on local stories with humanistic elements rather than the timeliness aspects. However, the project and style are derivatives of Paul’s ideas and experiences over a long career doing slow journalism.

“I couldn’t have done it quickly,” he admitted, referring to Out of Eden. “Part of the story gathering process involves just a lot of thinking and a lot of processing of what it was like to walk through a vast landscape,” he added.

In a traditional journalism context where speed is always rewarded and demanded, it’s hard to generate such stories with the same layers and complexities. Standard news features would take less time, with background information gathered through online research and talks with experts. But “it wouldn’t have the characters, and it wouldn’t have the mood, it wouldn’t have the emotion,” he said.

Ten years ago, it was typical for domestic media to require each journalist to submit two completed stories a day to the editor. The situation has since become more intense because of the pressures of the online demand for instant news. Now, information arrives at the speed of electrons.

The phenomenon triggered Paul Salopek to more deeply pursue his concept of slow journalism. “There needs to be a space in all of our lives where we can get away from that relentless, dizzying, and exhausting velocity of information that we’re usually consuming,” he said.

The prominent difference between slow journalism and traditional fast journalism is the time element. “I spend a lot more time with people than I would normally do in the past,” Paul said.

According to this approach, it is not just the reporter who would take more time to gather information. The audience would also spend more time consuming the stories elements. Paul regards this as “getting back to a norm.” “Our brains are meant to process information, so it basically is not radical. Slow is a norm,” he explained.

In today’s fast journalism environment, reporters usually would write 1750-3000 words per week. Paul’s slow storytelling style would typically involve 750-2000 words per week.

The slow style can produce in depth stories that focus on human experiences. However, it is indeed hard to do. The biggest concern for young reporters in today’s industry with respect to slow storytelling would be getting editorial support. 

The massive cost of slow storytelling in terms of both time and cost is the complexity and inevitable untimeliness of the stories. Most young journalists would consider it was only possible to do by someone who has established a senior position in the industry.

Paul provided some suggestions about this based on his own experiences.

He would pay lots of attention to attracting audiences into his deeper, more complicated stories. “I try to be subversive. I try to be counterintuitive. I also use technology to hook people into deeper, more meaningful reading experiences,” Paul said.

He also admitted the difficulties with getting support. “You need to build up experience and credibility, and relationships with editors in order to do this.”

But he provided a feasible alternative way of conducting such programs.

“I would turn in the fast stuff to make my editors happy, but I secretly worked on my own projects that were often long and stretched out over weeks. I would do it on my time off. and then surprise my editors with a much longer, much more thoughtful, much more compelling, interesting, powerful and impactful story.”

Despite the difficulties, slow storytelling provides a new alternative for readers to be exposed to information that is more complex and meaningful in the era of the Internet. It is both a traditional media alternative, and a good complement to it.

Paul Salopek is still working on his slow storytelling project. He will continue to produce layered stories with deeper meanings, at a slow but nuanced pace as he walks across China.

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