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Feb. 9, 2011, 2 p.m.

Kuwayama on Basetrack’s future: “There isn’t anything that prevents the project from moving forward”

Even though they’ve apparently been shut down by the Marines, don’t expect Basetrack to shrink away in the near future. For one thing, they’ve still got photographers sitting on their hands in Kabul.

“There isn’t anything that prevents the project from moving forward and no request on the military’s end to stop what we are doing,” Teru Kuwayama, Basetrack’s founder, told me.

The Knight News Challenge funded project, which combines social media, mapping, and photography to tell the stories of a Marine unit in Afghanistan, was abruptly given its walking papers (literally) by the military this week.

Officially, Basetrack was asked to leave the areas where they were working with Marines in the 1st Battlion 8th Marine Regiment — but they weren’t “disembedded,” which is a formal process to remove media reporting from a military unit. Confusing things further, the military said Basetrack is free to publish any content they obtained before being asked to leave. Essentially they’ve been told to leave, but not kicked out, if that makes any sense.

“To be honest, I don’t know what’s going on exactly or who is behind this,” Kuwayama said.

In an email Kuwayama shared with me, the public affairs director for Regional Command Southwest said Basetrack did not break any media ground rules and has not been disembedded. While praising their work and the relationship established with the battalion’s officers, the email notes that the unit is not inviting Basetrack back “since many of the Marines and Sailors were beginning turnover preparation for redeployment.” 

When I spoke with Kuwayama, he was only a few days removed from his own stint in Afghanistan, just returned to the states and preparing to head back overseas next month. That may still be the case. He told me the next stage for Basetrack might be switching its focus from Marines in Afghanistan to the lives of civilians living through the ongoing fighting in the country. Kuwayama said that shift would present a whole new set of logistical issues — including finding the resources to redeploy the photographers working on the project. “We’ll see where this goes,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s still trying to find out what may have caused the Marines to change their minds. Though they’ve had disagreements over aspects of Basetrack’s coverage, there was no indication their days were numbered, Kuwayama said. “The officers who run the battalion, even though we’ve had some significant differences, they’ve worked hard to keep us with them,” he said.

Kuwayama said there was something odd, or at least discordant with the reasons the Marines public affairs officer gave for asking Basetrack to leave. Specifically the memo mentions the website’s use of Google Maps as a potential violation of operational security. But Kuwayama said the coordinates used for mapping stories are purposefully scrambled to not give the exact location of troops. “That data is not actionable for military purposes,” he said. On top of that, he said Basetrack largely operated in areas that were known locations of U.S. forces, like bases and other previously disclosed locations.

Another point the memo makes regards resources: “1/8’s command and subordinate units cannot feasibly support the logistical, manpower, and time requirements to host Basetrack reporters anymore.” Kuwayama noted that there are countless other embedded reporters from various news organizations in Afghanistan. “If there’s an issue of a threat to troops safety, that would be paramount,” he said. “My immediate response is, if there is a genuine operational security issue, let’s fix it.”

At the moment, he says he’s received no response on what to fix. That’s unfortunate, since communication with the battalion was integral to Basetrack, particularly in how journalists dealt with sensitive information. Battalion commanders were given free reign to redact information so long as they gave an explanation for the redaction that Basetrack could publish. What they found, Kuwayama said, is that less information was being censored with that requirement in place.

Still, as he considers the work they’ve done so far, getting remarkable access, developing new methods of storytelling, and creating a conduit for Marines and their families to stay connected, Kuwayama said Basetrack has been a success. What’s been most encouraging, he said, has been the response from the families of Marines who connect with Basetrack primarily through Facebook. Kuwayama said it’s not uncommon for the photographers to get dozens of emails or chat requests from families on Facebook. “The last time I landed in Afhanistan and made it to a 1-8 base, there was a box of cookies waiting for me,” he said. At least one lesson he takes from the project is that it you may not always have to reach a broad audience to make a difference.

“All of us coming out of the conventional media come with the idea to have impact you must reach millions and millions of people,” he said. “This is the opposite. We’re connecting with a small group of people.”

POSTED     Feb. 9, 2011, 2 p.m.
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