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Jan. 8, 2018, 9:40 a.m.
Reporting & Production

From microplastics to mega-stories: Journalism nonprofit Orb works the global-local angle

“These commons — the air, the water, the soil, our food, our health — these are things we share, and they are deeply linked across countries. We need to start seeing them that way.”

Can a worldwide network of in-house journalists and publishing partners have a greater impact finding, reporting, and stirring change than they would have working alone?

That’s the bet Molly Bingham is making with Orb Media. Bingham is a photojournalist and documentary maker with a newspaper background who found herself detained in a Abu Ghraib prison cell some years ago. Frustrated that her on-the-ground work during the Iraq War as a freelancer wasn’t reaching or resonating with the American public, Bingham eventually founded Orb, which now operates with a $1.5 million budget. The nonprofit hires its own journalists to pursue stories under an eight-issue umbrella, including food, water, health, and the environment, and tries to capture global attention via publishing partnerships.

“I was like, ‘I’m a freelancer. I have no impact to change this. I’m the lowest rung on the totem pole, but I think this is really important,'” Bingham said. Her detention in the Iraqi prison prompted reflections on her mortality and her next move: “If we were to build something for the next 100 years in journalism…what would that be like?”

Enter Orb. The stories reported and disseminated by the nonprofit tend to have a local–global focus, approaching international issues like domestic violence or water pollution with data and analysis to make the story relatable for the audiences of a diverse set of news outlets. The largest production that Orb has published thus far, what Bingham described as a prototype of its model, zeroed in on the presence of plastic microfibers contaminating drinking water in countries around the world, an investigation sparked by Bingham’s read of a New York Times article about microbeads in the Great Lakes. Outlets from Slovakia to San Diego shared information from Orb’s reporting, published in full on Orb’s website.

“We took a topic that affects billions of people. We had original science, which means that our publishing partners have something new to talk about,” Bingham said. “There’s a revelation in the story, which is important, and we had global reporting on the issue that could then be localized.” The Orb team conducted its own analysis of 159 samples of water from various regions of the world and consulted with scientists from the original Times article that prompted the research. They determined that 83 percent of the tap water samples from 14 countries are contaminated with microscopic plastic fibers. (I may have, unwittingly, been drinking tap water when speaking with Bingham.)

Fourteen news organization partners, from The Guardian to the Dhaka Tribune in Bangladesh to Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo, published variations of the story starting at 12:01 a.m. GMT on September 6, sharing the findings in eight languages and 20 countries during a period of a few hours. Bingham hopes the Orb’s coordinated model can stoke worldwide debate and action to harness public attention and actually produce change. “When you publish simultaneously, you’re able to catalyze a global dialogue on that issue.” She said the reporting stirred conversations in government, industry, activist, and scientific circles.

Bingham hopes that Orb’s collaborative weight will drive in-depth narrative across news cycles and markets. “I describe Orb as a proactive reporting institution,” she said. “We’re not activists, but our distinguishing characteristic is that we decide something is [a global issue] and then talk about it, do the deep reporting, and find an interesting way to [cover it] so that people around the world will talk about it.”

Why not just have reporters from a variety of different news organizations collaborate instead? “When you’re trying to look holistically at our world and reveal the interdependence of our human society, you need one reporting team to actually experience and report how people are living,” Bingham said. The kinks of the reporting process, however, are still being worked out: “It’s kind of a dance that we’re still figuring out … Does the data team go and find something, or is it the editorial query that drives the data team,” she said.

Bingham conceived of the idea for Orb as a 2005 Nieman Fellow, and created the organization in 2011. She held off on launching reporting projects until she raised funding (from sources such including the Knight and Waterloo foundations, the Institute for Healthy Air, Water, and Soil, “high-net-worth individuals,” and a crowdfunding campaign that raised $70,000 for a project on global aging that is slotted to be published this spring) and assembled a team of data and investigative journalists to pursue a story. “It was about two and a half years before we started doing any journalism,” Bingham noted. “It was a slow project, not an expensive thing to do, but we wanted to figure out how to get our ducks in a row before we started spending any money on reporting.”

2017’s prototype of the microfiber plastics project itself took about a year from start to finish, and Bingham forecasts that Orb will push six stories in 2018 and 12 in 2019. The company will also launch a membership model, and wants to create an earned revenue model through the Orb Media Network to allow news partners to buy into productions. The team now includes 10 people (including contractors), with recent additions of Naja Nielsen from Danish broadcaster DR as chief journalism officer and Heather Krause as chief data scientist. Bingham has plans to grow the organization to 26.

How can Orb assess if its approach is actually working? Bingham said the company relies on its publishing partners to relay changes in local or regional policy, along with conversations and community concerns. Orb then compiles that information into an impact report that can help national broadcasters or other government-supported media provide proof of their service as media organizations, especially if the public funding stipulates that they have tangible evidence of their service in some way.

“If you’re a public service like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, you need to be able to demonstrate to the public that you’re serving them,” Bingham said. “We all know that what happens in the air in Asia ends up on the west coast of Canada or the United States. [We are] actually showing them [the national media organizations] that by participating and catalyzing this dialogue in Canada and also around the world, they’ve actually impacted their own air quality because other countries and other people have taken steps.

“These commons — the air, the water, the soil, our food, our health — these are things we share, and they are deeply linked across countries. We need to start seeing them that way.”

Image of plastic trash on a beach from the Wikimedia Commons used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 8, 2018, 9:40 a.m.
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