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21 students. 30 days. 1 story.

“How does Mr Paul Salopek do it?”

The question was among the first to be asked, in the very first hour of a 12-hour workshop on slow journalism spread over September 28-29.

Who knows? The scope and scale of Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk, and its over-arching ambition, is way beyond our ability to explain. We did tell the students, though, that the workshop — the first in a series of fortnightly interactions with students of the digital media stream at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai — was Paul’s idea, and the outcome of his advice to us.

The workshop was divided into two distinct segments. In the first, spanning the whole of Monday afternoon and evening, the students were prompted to arrive at their own understanding of narrative journalism and its younger sibling, slow/deep journalism. 

The session was an eye-opener, in many ways. Once the students understood that they were allowed, even mandated, to think for themselves, there was very little for Peepli to do other than listen, and occasionally nudge the debate back on track.

The last hour of the session was devoted to thinking through practical questions. Now that they had their own definitions of the various forms, they needed to grasp the mechanics: how to think of ideas for slow, deep journalism projects; how to develop the initial idea into a coherent story pitch and finally, how to pitch a story to an editor, a newsroom, with clarity and precision.

The day ended with a homework assignment: the 21 students were expected to brainstorm, come up with their own ideas, and prepare pitches, all of this overnight. An ACJ faculty member who sat through the session said that he thought the assignment and the tight turnaround time was setting the bar way too high. “These kids are just three months into journalism class,” he warned.

You will end up learning as much as you teach, Paul had told us. We did.

For three hours on the morning of September 29, the students pitched ideas they had researched overnight — pitches made with precision and passion, with the sort of conviction that would have done a seasoned newsroom proud.

Without going into granular detail (at least in part because the class is working on some of these ideas), the stories pitched included (1) The issue of a large tract of marshland that had been taken over by builders, thus depleting one of the few remaining coastal defences against storms and tsunamis and the rising seas; (2) The cultural and economic implications of a ban on kite-flying mooted by the Tamil Nadu government; (3) The problem of waste (including e-waste) management in the city, that has by now escalated into a dangerous health hazard that the imminent onset of the monsoons will aggravate; (4) The planning, or lack thereof, of the metro’s mass transit system including its buses, trains and the upcoming metro; (5) An escalating human rights issue relating to transgendered teens and pre-teens; and (6) An examination of why, this academic year, as many as 100,000 seats in engineering colleges in the state went unclaimed while, simultaneously, students paid the highest premiums ever for seats in the better colleges.

Mainstream media stories, every single one of them — and it was revelatory that the ideas came from kids just turned 20 while elsewhere, there is considerable heartburn over the media’s tendency to go shallow in its coverage.

In the post-lunch session, guided discussions helped the students figure out how to break up a big theme into its component parts, took them through the mechanics of initial research, and the techniques of field-reporting with a multi-media focus.

Over the next 30 days, the class of 21 will split themselves up into smaller operational teams with specific responsibilities. They will pick one story to work on  (since the work they do in the digital narrative module will have to be synchronous with their other course work); they will spend the month reporting, documenting, shooting stills and video as appropriate, recording sound, doing interviews, accumulating data, and bringing it all together into a comprehensive story, which they will submit at the end of the allotted time.

Meanwhile, next fortnight, we will take the next batch of 20 students, and repeat this exercise. And then the final batch, a fortnight after that.

One of the student representatives told us, at the end of the intense 12 hours, that they had “learnt a whole lot”. We responded, with perfect truth, that we had learnt even more.