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Off the Page

by Miriam Axel-Lute on February 27, 2014


There are a lot of complaints out there about the state of  journalism these days. And indeed, there’s plenty to bemoan. But there are some bright spots too, from the turn back to long-form that some online venues are managing to some experiments with hyper-local beat reporting. But the thing that made me happiest this week was learning about Off/Page, a collaboration between Youth Speaks and the Center for Investigative Reporting, generating what they are calling “sourced storytelling.”

For example, three young men who grew up in Richmond, Calif.,’s housing projects, wrote a three-voice poem about conditions there that recently accompanied some of CIR’s investigations into mismanagement and maintenance problems at the housing authority.

It’s an amazing match; the poets and the reporter are working with the same material, and if you watch the two videos, they each elevate and drive home somewhat different pieces of the story.

In another video from Off/Page, a trailer for a longer film in the works about their workshops with youth in Stockton, Calif., you see a group of teens meeting with a journalist, absorbing data from an investigation about the cost of stadiums in their city. They are shaking their heads as they try to absorb the numbers, but they are not reacting to the information passively and despondently—it’s something that they are taking as raw material, content for their own analysis, something to be used, placed alongside their own lived experience and connected to it.

Certainly there’s nothing wildly new here: Poets have always taken on politics, injustice, the news of the day. Poets in prison, in the projects, suffering oppression of every stripe have used the form to give voice to their experiences, recently often (though not only) through slam poetry and hip-hop. And they have often turned to reported news accounts for their inspiration, their facts. But I think it’s still fairly radical to explicitly bring this approach—a connection with a specific news organization, specific investigative reports—into the teaching of poetry to youth.

Too often poetry is introduced as a means of self-expression only. In the worst cases it is viewed as therapy, a purely self-interested exercise in which the audience doesn’t matter and there can be no goal acknowledged beyond “expression.” Now, often a good poem can be made out of one person’s experience. But bringing in other context can dramatically broaden the possibilities.

In the same trailer, the Off/Page coordinator recounts how what’s happening on the stage in Stockton is the beginning of a conversation. And then there’s the partnership from the other side. Perhaps some other places do encourage young writers to research the bejesus out of a current event and bring facts into their creative writing.

But what does it mean for an investigative reporting entity to embark on “sourced storytelling”? To directly partner in the creation of art based on its journalistic content? It’s a step beyond posting supplemental profiles and video interviews with sources. It’s explicitly inviting those who are affected by the subjects at hand to contribute not only their experiences, but some of their analysis, to participate in the meaning-making process from another angle. It’s bringing people in past the top Yahoo headlines to some of the raw data, some of the thinking behind a given investigation. In the case of the public housing project, the three poets actually accompanied the reporter on her interviews, taking on a role of documentarian.

I imagine it could be a little scary for a news outlet—what will the poets make of delicate matters of disupted fact? Will the art align with the conclusions the reporters drew? Will it accurately communicate the facts or take artistic license? I’ll be curious to see if any of those questions come up as this project grows.

Clearly we can’t replace the traditional journalistic form. We still need straight-up reporting. But what a powerful adjunct, and what a bold thing for a news venue to be able to do, to invite this kind of storytelling under their umbrella and consider it part of their work to support it. CIR’s director says he envisions even more concrete outcomes. He hopes some day to see members of Off/Page standing with the governor at the signing of a bill that was prompted by one of their poems.

Will the right “sourced” poem change legislation on its own without organizing for power? I can only wish. But not likely. However, it could be (1) a powerful part of the messaging of a campaign and (2) a bridge to engage youth who may not have been ready to jump straight into activism to be able to see themselves as people who can grapple with and make meaning of the news.

It’s a new day in journalism. And that’s not all bad.