University v. Industry: Who Leads?

Published on 07.08.14
Filed in Industry

Josh Davis Josh Davis is an award-winning journalist and documentary videomaker. Currently a video journalist at The New York Times, he previously worked on NPR's "Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt," MediaStorm's "International Center of Photography: Infinity Awards" and Powering A Nation's "100 Gallons," as a Roy H. Park Master’s Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Josh serves as adjunct faculty at New York University and coaches at the Carolina Photojournalism Workshop.

A Note from the Editor

At Ochre’s first editorial meeting, we decided to feature a story about universities—could they keep up with the changing industry? Our conversation led us to the award-winning Powering A Nation project, “100 Gallons,” produced by students at the University of North Carolina. We began to think maybe it was the industry that wasn’t keeping up with the schools.

The question of who leads whom piqued our interest, and we thought of someone who might illuminate it—Josh Davis. Josh, part of the award-winning team that created “100 Gallons,” was hired about a year after earning his master’s degree to lead the multimedia team for NPR’s “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt.”

By coincidence, we hired one of his students, JoAnna Klein, as Ochre’s first fellow. She views Josh as a mentor, so we asked her to tell this story from her perspective.

University v. Industry: Who Leads?

Last summer, I spent two weeks with Josh Davis in a digital journalism class. Three months later, I was applying to journalism school. Josh was the push behind my leap.

Young, energetic and passionate about storytelling, he has a way of getting people all worked up about awesome work. That may be how he scored roles in two award-winning multimedia projects in the span of two years. With Powering A Nation’s “100 Gallons” and NPR’s “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt,” Josh harnessed opportunities in both academic and real-world settings. In the mashup of today’s journalism, he emerged an industry leader.

Nowadays, cheaper equipment, crowd funding and new digital platforms give any of us a shot. It’s not about whom you can emulate, but how well you can balance convention and creative license. It’s about how well you can tell a story. These are all lessons I’ve learned from Josh.

He didn’t know it, but he became my mentor the day he put a camera in my hands and urged me to go out and “make myself uncomfortable.” So it was natural to seek him out when I made myself very uncomfortable in considering my next career step.

At the age of 29, I was leaving six years in learning and memory research for journalism. Earlier I had nixed grad school in an attempt to make it on my own—balancing the lab with a magazine internship, summer classes, blogging. Then I came across something so compelling, I knew I had to do more: Jack Butler, an artist who overcame his fear of an MRI through meditative drawing and classical conditioning. His story had the potential to help a lot of people, and I wasn’t going to do it justice alone or in my spare time.

Josh Davis was among the first people I told. His eyes lit up: “Oh, you’ve got a thesis!”

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Powering A Nation's "100 Gallons" is an interactive documentary that explores the significance of water consumption.

So it was back to school after all. But my enthusiasm was mixed with a hefty dose of doubt. I knew a lot of failure stories, and I was too old to fail. I wasn’t sure journalism salaries justified taking on debt to pay some $60,000 in tuition. Traditional newsrooms were shedding jobs in alarming numbers. And while opportunities were being reborn on the web, I was worried. Even after I was accepted into five competitive programs, the question kept popping up: Is it worth it?

Enter Josh. He wasn’t fresh out of undergrad when he started in 2010 at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. For a decade he had been working freelance as a video shooter, editor and instructor. He was getting what many would consider great gigs—at Rolling Stone, PBS Frontline, ARTE and The Travel Channel.

He went back to school for two reasons: to get to a career point where he could achieve “greater control and stability,” and to teach at the university level. He’d already done a stint at New York University, and wanted more. “My favorite part of teaching is facilitating discussions, showing people a video that I’ve seen a hundred, million times and still loving the idea that I get to talk about it,” he said. “And that I get to hear other people talk about it. Because every time I do, I see the ‘ah-hah’ moment in people’s eyes.”

Josh took everything he had learned from Powering A Nation and made something he was proud of. He reinvented journalism.

Josh’s plan was to build a documentary portfolio of his own, as opposed to the work he had been doing for clients and networks. Client work, he said, means “you’re coming into a project, rather than being a part of a project.” He was tired of “feeding a formula.”

He was impressed with the interactive documentaries coming out of UNC through News 21, a Carnegie-Knight funded program designed to push students to innovate. He applied to UNC, and later to Powering A Nation, and was accepted. Through the latter, he became managing editor (among a number of other roles) of “100 Gallons.”

The project was a totally different experience than Josh had ever had professionally. Faculty told the students it would be one of the most challenging things they’d ever work on. “Because there are really no rules,” Josh explained. “There’s no executive producer who has to be in charge of commercial or political interests. There is no organization exerting control on you. It’s really just a small group of people putting something out.”

With video, text and data visualization, “100 Gallons” revealed the significance of water consumption with a fresh approach to documentary. It competed with four industry professionals for a National Emmy Award in 2013. It was a finalist for Documentary Project of the Year at Pictures of the Year International and nominated for a Webby.

When Josh went out into the real world he did exactly what the Carnegie-Knight Foundation had intended when they launched News 21 back in 2005. And he did exactly what Planet Money’s co-host, Alex Blumberg, hoped for when he hired Josh to manage the multimedia aspect of the t-shirt story. Josh took everything he had learned from Powering A Nation and made something he was proud of. He reinvented journalism.

“Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” raised $590,000 on Kickstarter (the goal was $50,000) to document the life of a t-shirt across three continents, from “seed to shirt.”

Josh could see the project was big. It was universal—everyone wears t-shirts. They had the money to do things right. What’s more, he could import the value of teamwork and organic process from “100 Gallons.” “You know, one person doesn’t make an interactive documentary,” he told me. “That’s never the case. It’s cheesy, but it takes a village.”

As producer, he assembled a team, bringing in talent to New York to brainstorm. “We literally got to the table and started sketching out ideas,” Josh said. It wasn’t until Wes Lindamood, NPR senior interaction designer, came in that they settled on the project's digital structure: five simple chapters.

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NPR's "Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt" documents the life of a t-shirt across three continents, from “seed to shirt.”

“You’ve got to get people around you with complementary skillsets to make projects like these,” Josh said. “I remember we had these humongous Post-it notes on the wall, and we were just scribbling out: What do we want this story to tell?” When he realized it was going to work, he got a tell-tale “goose-bumps feeling.” Everything finally clicked when the production team brought back compelling visuals.

Looking back, Josh compared the two projects.

“Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” was “the result of many, many conversations, and that's what's similar to Powering A Nation,” he said. “We spent a semester trying to figure out what the hell this thing is going to look like and even once we would decide, it still develops. It still evolves.”

He has learned to be patient and flexible while a story reveals itself. “A project like this starts as an idea. It’s a seed. And you just have to nurture it. You’ve got to do all the right things until it actually grows into something.”

The right schools, the right programs, the right teachers, teach you convention, but then they challenge you to push your boundaries.

This year, “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” won first-place Documentary Project of the Year at Pictures of the Year International, among other awards. Josh has been winning, too—not just awards, but opportunities to nurture bleeding-edge projects from conception to birth. He calls these a “real gift,” one that doesn’t come without sacrifice. He has passed up chances for stability in favor of the work he prefers. His biggest fear is that this isn’t sustainable, that opportunities are few and far between.

As for me, I wanted to change the face of science—to humanize it with character-driven stories, reveal it for what it really was. I wanted to bring research into homes, share stories, make an impact. I wanted dream projects like Josh’s. School would certainly help, but at what cost?

“Grad school is right for some people,” Josh advised me. “It’s really not right for others. I'd have a hard time making an overarching statement about whether it's good or bad, but if you're inspired by work that a university's putting out, and you think that they're getting people jobs afterwards and their alumni are getting jobs, and you want to be a part of that network … if you really see the path there, then it very well could be worth it for you. But if you're just trying to get into this line of work, if you're just trying to get into doing video and documentary, it might help to just start getting some gigs first.”

Does university experience foster an idealistic or romantic view of building sustainable life around visual journalism? “I hope so,” Josh said. “Cause why not? … I don't think the industry should rest on convention. I think schools teach you to challenge convention. The right schools, the right programs, the right teachers, teach you convention, but then they challenge you to push your boundaries.”

If, as he believes, some in the industry are stuck in convention, blindly adhering to formats, who are its leaders? “Anyone who is willing to think outside the box. Anyone who understands the simplicity of story-first, who understands that here's a story we want to tell, what's the best way to tell it? And then they go from there, and they understand the tools that are available to them, and have the motivation to experiment with them.” That, Josh concluded, “is someone who is in a position to lead the industry.”

Josh has done it. He has leveraged graduate school to become a stronger journalist, one who has changed and will change storytelling. That said, he knew what he wanted at the start, and worked hard to attain it. Had he gone into school questioning what he could get from it, I’m not sure I’d be writing about him now.

I felt better about my own decision after interviewing Josh. I even felt proud. After months of deliberation, I had finally said yes—to NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, where I will start in the fall. I know I’ve got a story. Now all I need to do is tell it in the best way possible.

Credits

Author: JoAnna Klein Cover image: Gabriela Arp

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