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March 10, 2017, 10:39 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Reporting from “the last frontier”: The Arctic Times Project is bringing journalists to a once-closed region

“This is an opportunity to write about something new.”

In the weeks between January 26 and February 10, three separate stories about uranium mining in Greenland ran in three different outlets: The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Italy’s Corriere della Sera. The stories were written by different people and focused on different topics, but all of them were were reported through the Arctic Times Project, a small nonprofit exploring transformation in the Arctic.

“It’s the last frontier,” said Michael Oneal, the journalist who wrote the Post story. “Global warming has opened up a part of the world that’s been closed off for all of our lives. A lot of people are looking up there to try to develop natural resources and infrastructure and sea routes, and all of that’s happening in the shadow of the global warming story. This is an opportunity to write about something new.”

The dream of the Arctic Times Project is to “produce journalistic expeditions,” said director Marzio Mian, an Italian journalist and the author of the Corriere della Serra story. He, Oneal, and Maurice Walsh — who wrote the Guardian story — met as Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellows at Michigan in 2002 and began to discuss the project several years later. Their initial vision was ambitious: An international team of journalists traveling on a series of month-long expeditions to the Arctic, producing on-the-ground multimedia coverage. It became clear, though, that it was easier to start smaller, with one big initial trip.

“To get momentum and let people know who we are, we needed to go and do a story so they could see what we were talking about,” said Oneal. “It changes the conversation when you have actual stories and media to talk about.”

They found financial support from Patrick Egan, the former publisher of the Cheboygan Daily Tribune and Sault Ste. Marie Evening News in Michigan. “I live on the Canadian border, on Lake Superior, and I have always been tuned toward the North,” Egan said. “There are not large journalistic institutions in the Arctic. We felt that it needed more attention.” Egan funded the trip to Greenland, in September, for Mian, Oneal, Walsh, and photographer-videographer Sirio Magnabosco; while there, they worked with Vilborg Einarsdottir and Hlin Johannesdottir, Icelandic producers who specialize in the Arctic region. The trip to Greenland, the follow-up video, and translation production cost about $20,000.

Oneal, Mian, and Walsh did their reporting together, but pitched and wrote stories separately upon their return. “I think the stories came out pretty differently, partly based on what editors wanted and partly based just on how we interpreted what we saw,” Oneal said. “I don’t know if it’s because we’ve worked collaboratively before, but it wasn’t awkward. The only thing that was awkward was trying to figure out whether The Guardian and the Post were going to care that they might get scooped by the other. But there’s not so much crossover between the two, and it just didn’t turn out to be a problem.”

The group is sure that the Arctic Times Project’s focus will be on placing stories in existing publications rather than launching their own. “We all came out of print in one way or another,” Egan said. “We see it as a platform for not only strong readership, but credibility for the whole effort.”

Oneal agreed: “It’s much more effective and efficient to go with partners. It would be very difficult to get anyone, given the clutter of the Internet, to come to our own site.” By publishing through newspapers, “we’ve gotten eyeballs on our stories that we never would have been able to generate on our own.”

The men haven’t yet decided on what their next expedition will be, though they’re meeting soon in Berlin to talk about it and Egan will provide more funding.

“My dream is to bring journalists from Africa or from the desert to realize what is happening in the Arctic,” Mian said. “The ideal expedition would have journalists from different expertise, different media, and different countries. The dream is to be a big team, just like what happens with scientific expeditions.”

Photos copyright Sirio Magnabosco, used with permission.

POSTED     March 10, 2017, 10:39 a.m.
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