Peter Savodnik ’94 once vowed to be a print journalist to the end. He published a long piece about Azerbaijan in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. His work has appeared with some frequency in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, GQ, and Harper’s Magazine. And just this week Savodnik’s new book, The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, was released in hard cover and audiobook formats.
Yet despite his impressive résumé in print journalism, the freelance writer has launched a new website, statelessmedia.com, devoted to producing “entertaining, evocative mini-films that deliver news in a way that does not feel like news, in a way that feels like…movies.”
Operating out of studio apartments, cafés, basements, and bus stations around the world, Savodnik and his fellow Stateless Media journalists have produced “shortreals” about the aftereffects of violence in Sri Lanka and the failed mayoral campaign of Anthony Weiner. They have projects in the works in Berlin, Burma, and sub-Saharan Africa. They are stateless, and their tagline is “There is no where we will not go” in the quest for news.
On Oct. 24 Savodnik returned to his alma mater (in addition to his bachelor’s degree from Middlebury, he also has a master’s in political philosophy from University of Chicago) to speak about Stateless Media and the direction journalism is heading, as the guest for Middlebury’s Meet the Press lecture series.
More than 70 people, including aspiring student-journalists, townspeople, and a handful of Savodnik’s former professors, heard him say he is no longer certain that the problem with print journalism, and the reason why so many newspapers and magazines are folding, is the quality of the reporting. Rather, he said, the problem is the medium itself.
“There is a large audience of people out there who want to read articles, but sadly that audience is shrinking and we are moving toward a place where the very idea of print journalism is going to sound quaint and, I dare say, paradoxical. After all, if journalism is about speaking to everyone, if it’s about engaging with the public, then the medium within which you imagine and construct and disseminate that journalism must be accessible and palatable to that public.”
Words and pictures printed on paper are not as “accessible and palatable” today as short films viewed on computer screens, smart phones, and tablets. That is the reason why a highly sought-after journalist like Savodnik is now chasing page views, Likes, Tweets, and Re-tweets for his 11-minute films on statelessmedia.com.
Before taking questions from the audience, the 41-year-old Savodnik related a story about a fellow journalist who, after publishing a piece in the New Republic, noted with satisfaction that the article was getting considerable attention via Twitter and Facebook. Her satisfaction, however, faded when she realized that almost all of the reaction was coming from other journalists.
“Journalists today run the distinct risk of becoming more and more like academics,” Savodnik said. “That is [to say] instead of speaking to the whole world, they are speaking more and more to each other. A more meaningful and more powerful journalism is one that is going to engage more broadly. It’s one that’s not only going to reach a bigger audience, but also speak to that audience much more directly and completely and in a way that captures their attention.”
The two constants for the media of the future, Savodnik said, will be stories that are both immersive and visual — which is exactly what Stateless Media is trying to accomplish.
During the Q and A, Savodnik was asked about the place of Aljazeera America among news media today and his reply may have surprised some in the audience: “Aljazeera doesn’t feel like journalism to me… It scares the bejesus out of anyone who owns stock in an American media company,” he exclaimed. “The problem is they hew to old media patterns – nothing radical – but they have much more money than everyone else” in the media business.
The Meet the Press series at Middlebury, now in its eighth year, will resume in February 2014 (date tba) with former Newsweek columnist and senior editor Jonathan Alter. On April 8, New York Times reporter Rachel Donadio will speak in conjunction with the van de Velde Lecture Series at Middlebury. For information about Meet the Press, go to http://www.middlebury.edu/academics/enam/meetthepress.