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Just Another Point of View: Who doesnt appreciate a really, really big story?

Former managing editor of the Times newspapers as well as the Lake Oswego Review, Kelly is now chief of the central design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune, and he contributes a regular column.Everybody in journalism dreams about writing the really big story.

When I was a brand new reporter, back in the summer of ‘74, that meant bringing down a crooked president with a story like the Watergate burglary scandal — or ending an undeclared and pointless war, like the Vietnam “conflict.”

Some writers have made their names by posing as somebody else to get the juicy, inside-type information for their really big story. Gloria Steinem, for example, posed as a bunny at a Playboy Club and then wrote “A Bunny’s Tale,” while Michael Herr actually did tours in Southeast Asia before writing his book “Dispatches” and eventually the film “Full Metal Jacket.”

George Plimpton convinced some bigwigs at the Detroit Lions to let him pretend to be an Ivy League quarterback trying out for the NFL team, and he turned that into the book, “Paper Lion,” which was then turned into a movie by the same name. He later went on to infiltrate (and write about) hockey, boxing, golf, bridge, tennis, comedy, movie-making and the circus.

Everyone, they say, has at least one big story inside of them, but George Plimpton apparently had quite a few of them in there.

Last week I received a notice about a really, really big story that’s now in the works. Two-time Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek has embarked on a 21,000-mile walk that will trace the path of human migration from Africa, through the Middle East and Asia, across the Bering Sea to North America and down the western coast of the Americas to the tip of South America.

The former Chicago Tribune reporter expects the journey to take seven years. That’s right, seven years. How does one manage to spend seven years on one gig like this?

Well, you could do it if you were a bazillionaire and money was no object, but I don’t know of any journalists with that kind of cash on hand. Mr. Salopek found some heavy supporters for this project, which is being called Out of Eden.

It is being funded by the National Geographic Society. Meanwhile, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will support Salopek’s use of new storytelling and technology approaches. “For example,” a recent article in Editor & Publisher explained, “a cartographic-based laboratory portion of the website will experiment with new digital mapping tools that enhance long-form online journalism.

“Salopek said he will carry as little as possible in his backpack, including notebooks, writing utensils, a camera and a laptop to file online written, video and audio dispatches to his editors back home. Though he won’t be using Twitter or Facebook for any real-time updates, he said there are social media feeds on both outlets that will keep followers plugged into his journey.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a sucker for these really big stories — especially ones involving exploration of exotic places. “River of Doubt” by Candice Millard, for instance, is a great yarn about Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition into an uncharted stretch of the Amazon, and David Grann’s “The Lost City of Z” covers similar ground in another jungle odyssey.

And who wasn’t captivated by Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 attempt to recreate the trek from South America to Polynesia aboard the balsa log raft called the Kon-Tiki?

“After working many years as a foreign correspondent, where he traveled back and forth from country to country, Salopek said Out of Eden gives him the opportunity to explore what he calls ‘slow journalism,’” the E&P article continues. “In an industry that is focused on digital and instant news, Salopek said he wants to create meaningful stories. He said the common news story’s structure is centered on how much time a reader stays on a website, where a reader is engaged ‘only for eight seconds, then they click away.’ Although he will be using new technology on his assignment, he said the project will ‘slow people and my own journalism down. It will give people an intellectual oasis, where they can step out of the river of information and give them an island of contemplation,’ Salopek said.”

Right on. Let’s hear it for some slow journalism.

Not so long ago we had a newspaper design expert visit our company, and he explained that stories have to be shorter, jumps (from one page to another) need to be minimized, and stories would be even better (he insisted) if they were “chunked,” or broken into many small pieces.

Then, as he was packing up his stuff to leave, he admitted that his favorite magazine is The New Yorker — famous for its minimal use of photographs, almost no graphics whatsoever, and really, really long stories.

I’m a big fan of The New Yorker myself — thanks to a generous cousin who gives us a subscription every year — and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a story in its pages about Paul Salopek and his “slow journalism” project. It certainly won’t show up anywhere else — except, of course, in National Geographic, one of the other truly great American magazines still in print.



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