Early reflections on public ethnography


It's now been a year since the SSHRC-funded public ethnography agenda was launched, and it seems like a good time for a few reflections. I think we've had very good success in reaching out to multiple publics and learned a few lessons along the way. So, here is what I've learned so far, in no particular order.


1. Journal articles aren't enough. This is no surprise. Only academics and graduate students read journal articles, as we all know. So, for the last year I've tried to write for other outlets. Magazines are ideal media for an ethnographer because they offer a lot of "human interest" content. Profiles written about individuals are a recognized genre and they're fun and easy to write. From my position as a cultural geographer (of sorts) I'm also able to capitalize on magazines' interest in stories about place. And, because the off-grid research is essentially a journey across Canada, it's easy enough to write travelogue-type stories. Magazine writing is not so different from ethnographic description, so the learning curve has not been steep. Actually, I've even learned a few new tricks for ethnographic wrting! Now, certainly magazines are not the place to engage in deep interpretation or theorizing, but it's not difficult to explain a few key ideas in few, simple terms. So, over the last 12 months I've gotten in the habit of writing one magazine piece for every province we visit. And because The Tyee has expressed interest in a series about BC off-gridders, there will be a few more than 13 magazine pieces by the end, if all proceeds as envisioned. So far our work has appeared in The Tyee and Canadian Geographic, but forthcoming pieces are due to appear in Yukon: North of Ordinary and in Up Here


2. Journalists can be our friends. Journalists are interested in generating content. We, ethnographers, are interested in sharing content. This much we have in common. Now, academics and journalists don't always get along, but if we ethnographers understand the confines of journalistic writing (seriously, how much could we get across in 600 words?), then we can really work out some kind of mutual understanding. Lindsay Vogan, the ethnography.media.arts.culture director of public relations has been very consistent at pitching stories to newspaper journalists. She says that the story of our fieldwork sells itself, but admittedly it takes patience in finding the right newspapers, contacting journalists, and securing and organizing interviews. Now, things do get complicated when journalists want to do follow-up interviews with off-gridders. That's when they generally realize that they don't have as much time as we ethnographers do. And we've lost more than one potential newspaper story because of this, but otherwise our press coverage has been terrific. Syndicated newspapers are especially useful contacts, as one interview with one journalist can easily be printed in over a dozen publications as once. Op-eds have turned out to be not so valuable, as they tend to be so...well, opinionated, whereas the fieldwork so far has been more about documentation than argumentation. 


3. Keep it local. My earlier research on BC Ferries had taught me that stories that are of interest to academics because of their topical or conceptual or theoretical or methodological value are not necessarily of interests to media gatekeepers unless there is a clear local angle. So, my research on the ferries turned out to be vitually unknown outside of the BC coast. In order to reach out public ethnography needs to be of local value, but if the definition of local is too restrictive then an ethnographer has to be happy with reaching people within a limited bubble zone. Multi-site ethnography allows us to avoid that problem. By travelling across Canada we can essentially write stories of interest to 13 provinces/territories and a whole nation. Now, this too has its downsides: we have not gotten one inch of coverage outside our country. And sometimes the definition of a local media market (e.g. Ottawa) has worked against us (when we did research as little, but apparently as far as 200 kms away from Ottawa). But altogether, the idea of keeping local works great.


4. Radio is better than TV. I've lost hope in television. Reaching out to TV journalists is a nightmare. First, everything needs to take place face to face. The logistics of coordinating all that meeting of bodies of technologies are often a nightmare when you're on the field and travelling constantly. Second, TV producers want to use their own images. Never mind the fact that Jon and I have terabytes worth of HD footage: they want to use their own. Third, we've had difficulty surrendering control to them. We're not control freaks, but some of them TV producers are. Fourth, TV really is really that superficial in most cases. A short TV news segment has no depth whatsoever. A longer report risks sensationalization. It just doesn't seem it worth it. Hopefully in the future we'll be able to secure play for our entire documentary video on TV, but other than that our hope for TV is really low. On the other hand, radio is great. Talk radio is always thirsty for content. We've done interviews for as little as 7 minutes (which is not that bad) and as long as 30 minutes. Conversation--the format of radio talk--is a great way to share what we're learning along the way and it teaches you how to express your ideas in few, simple words. This has taught me a key lesson: if I can't explain it clearly enough then I really don't understand it well enough.


5. The web is great but... if you're expecting to put up a blog or a site and instantly get thousands of visitors, think again. This website, my blog, and similar web-based productions receive anywhere from 10 to 60 visitors a day. Even our "trailer" video--uploaded on Vimeo--on off-grid living on Lasqueti Island has only been viewed about 550 times to date. So, while it's great to be present on the web, the work it takes to direct traffic is significant and largely unpredictable. I suppose we could have done better if I wasn't so damn ornery about strictly controlling our use of Facebook (which, I think, is pure evil), but still we are a long way from being web hits. A somewhat more promising site--which is free and not at all evil--is academia.edu. My work there is accessed anywhere from 1400 to 1800 times a month. Because academia.edu pages rank high on google anyone searching for the right keywords is soon directed there. It's free to use and while it's not front page in the New York Times it does reach anyone who's out searching stuff on the web.


6. There is no such thing as big media and little media. A small community newspaper that reaches 5000 people is as useful as a big city paper that reaches a million. No ethnographer can afford to be a snob about audience size. As the dweller of a small community I'm the first to understand that if a story appears in my community newspaper I'm more likely to read it in its entirety than if it appears on any other medium. Besides, there is an immediate payoff too: often I receive emails from off-gridders who read newspapers (of all sizes) that contain invitation to their places for an interview.  


7. Invest in public relations. I've said this before but hiring a "research assistant" to do the work we academics already know how to do (like literature reviews, coding, etc.) is not as useful as hiring a research assistant who is dedicated to doing public relations. I do not know in precise detail how to do PR and I have neither the patience nor the time. 


8. Think carefully about the potential audience of each medium. A few weeks ago I received an unsolicited email from a very large and powerful book publishing company. Not an academic publisher: a mainstream one. They were interested (and still are, presumably) in the off-grid fieldwork and were hoping to receive a manuscript from me. It was very tempting. It's not about the money, of course--as I give my ethnographic books' royalties away to charity--but about the distribution. But after some thinking, I decided it's not for me. If I had a good selling book of that kind I'd probably sell 5000 copies. A good selling academic book might reach 2000. So, that's 3000 more, right? Yes, but a magazine article can easily reach 50,000 or even 250,000 readers. When you put it that way you realize that the 3000 book copy difference is not that big. And it's certainly not worthwhile to surrender all the perks (more prestige and influence, possibly more grants) that come with publishing with a good academic press. At least that's my thinking for now.


Soon enough we'll be learning crucial lessons about sharing audio documentary work and video documentary. I'll write up some more reflections then. 

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