Spilling the Story

After disaster, a group of Portlanders tries out a brave new media model.

By Stiv Wilson October 11, 2010 Published in the November 2010 issue of Portland Monthly

After the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, the gush of alarming reports and horrifying images rivaled the almost 5 million barrels of crude that flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. The ecosystems and communities that supply 40 percent of America’s seafood faced ruin. So did the nation’s attention span, as the media mounted a 24-hour onslaught of dead birds, oil-soaked turtles, and traumatized fishermen.

But as many people tuned out in psychic self-defense, two dozen Portlanders headed for New Orleans. Their mission: invent a new way to cover this vast story, one suited to an age of rapid media mutation. In just under two weeks on the ground, the nonprofit PDX2GulfCoast project created online content that blended journalism—reporting, interviews, investigation, photography—with blogging, videos, social media, and activist passion.

The project began with Mike Rosen, the city water bureau’s watersheds manager. Disturbed by the disaster but alienated by the media coverage, Rosen began making calls. “This started with discussions among people I know about what we could do to help,” Rosen says. “We were all frustrated that there was no obvious, direct way to respond.”

A disclosure: in June, Rosen asked me to meet for coffee. At Sellwood’s Ugly Mug, he explained the PDX2GulfCoast idea, and asked me to join in as a writer and photographer. I was reluctant. Despite my personal switch from straight-up journalist to hybrid writer/oceans activist, Rosen’s idea of a Portland delegation “bearing witness” in the gulf sounded a bit nebulous even to me.

Then he explained that the team would include well-known environmental advocates like the Audubon Society’s Bob Sallinger, local journalists like Oregonian columnist Steve Duin and Portland Tribune reporter Jennifer Anderson, and innovative storytellers like graphic novelist Shannon Wheeler of Too Much Coffee Man fame. These media folk would work with both social and biological scientists, in hope of gaining an entirely new angle on the story. I signed on.

Everyone from the New York Times to the partisan group blog BlueOregon is trying to remix old media and new—sometimes offering more enthusiasm than information. By contrast, PDX2GulfCoast tried to tear down the traditional walls between reporter and source by matching different forms of storytelling with expert perspective.

During our 10-day August mission, we primarily based ourselves in New Orleans, but explored the whole Gulf Coast region. A typical day started with a breakfast planning session. Then an activist like Sallinger might fly in a helicopter over the Deepwater Horizon site, accompanied by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, while a reporter interviewed local academics. Content ranged from a written dispatch on shrinking wetlands to a sweeping aerial video to drawings ripped straight out of Wheeler’s sketchbook. Future plans call for curriculum development and a graphic novel.

Traditional reporting, it’s not. But it feels like it’s working. “I left for New Orleans concerned about how the group dynamic would affect my ongoing stabs at objectivity,” says Duin. “I returned convinced that my fellow travelers refined my perceptions of the crisis.”

None of this was free, even though almost all team members worked as volunteers. The Portland footwear company Keen kicked in $20,000. While the website features Keen’s logo, the company argues this isn’t advertising, but rather a new expression of corporate responsibility. “We had to do something,” says Linda Tom, Keen’s marketing manager. “This helps show people how to do new things, and that’s very true to who we are.”

As for what we added to the massive gulf saga, Rosen points to stories like one that questioned whether cleaning up oil-covered birds really helps wildlife, or just provides good photo-ops. “Did we see things and hear things that weren’t being reported? Absolutely,” he says.

Personally, the 10 days I spent in the Gulf Coast proved gut-wrenching. Sitting in a town hall meeting with 200 shrimpers, many of them crying, was hard on the soul. But I also came home convinced that I had just glimpsed a hopeful slice of journalism’s future.

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